Located about 45 minutes east of the Black Hills of South Dakota, Badlands National Park is one of the national park sites to visit. Along Interstate 80, Badlands National Park offers geological formations, wildlife along with history and dark skies programming. With a scenic drive along with short hikes, its a favorite with families. There’s even a campground with outfitted cabins. Here are the top things to do in Badlands National Park with kids.
Top Things to do at Badlands National Park
Explore the Visitor Center
Take a Scenic Drive
Hike in the Badlands
Spend the Night in a Cabin
Badlands National Park at a Glance
|Year Established: 1939|
|Located: South Dakota|
|Size: over 242,000 acres|
|Top Features: Geologic features like erodes buttes and pinnacles, Protected grassland prairie|
Visitors Center in Badlands National Park
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
The first thing to do at a National Park is stop by its visitor center. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the North Unit of the park hands out maps, Junior Ranger Booklets, NPS passport stamps and more. The visitor center shows an interpretive movie, features a gift shop and restrooms along with the Fossil Preparation Lab.
Located at 25216 Ben Reifel Road in Interior. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the season. It’s winter hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
White River Visitor Center
A smaller seasonal facilty in the South Unit of Badlands National Park.
Located at 2734 BIA 2 in Porcupine. Open during the summer only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
During the summer season, Badlands offers a host of ranger programs for all ages. Find programming from geology, paleontology, fossils, night sky viewing and a couple of special programs for Junior Rangers. Check in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for days and times.
Best Hiking in Badlands
Several family-friendly hikes originate near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Badlands National Park is an open hike park, you can hike off trail when possible.
Fossil Exhibit Trail–A .25-mile ( .4km) accessible trail
Door Trail–A .75-mile (1.2 km) trail with a boardwalk.
Window Trail–A .25-mile (.4 km) trail to a natural window
Notch Trail–A 1.5-mile (2.4 km) moderate trail with climbing and drop-offs.
Best Scenic Drives in Badlands
Find several scenic drives in the Badlands.
Badlands Loop Road (SD Highway 240)– Enter the park at Northeast Entrance or the Pinnacles Entrance and take the scenic drive. Stop at the Pinnacles Overlook for animal spotting at dusk. Find picnic tables at Bigfoot Pass Overlook.
Sage Creek Rim Road (SD 590)–It is a dirt road though the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
Biking in the Badlands
Explore on two wheels in the Badlands. Bicycles are allowed on roads only, both paved and unpaved. Hiking trails, off-road and wilderness biking isn’t permitted.
Badlands Loop Road
Sage Creek Loop
Northeast Big Loop
Animals in the Badlands Area
- Black Footed Ferrets–Thought to be exitinct and now thrive in Badlands National Park
- Big-Horn Sheep
- Prairie Dogs
- Prairie Rattlesnake
Horses in Badlands National Park
Horses are permitted in the Badlands Wilderness Area. Horse owners should check in at the visitor center for the best areas for horse back riding or check out the Horseback riding page for Badlands National Park.
A portion of Sage Creek Campground (primitive) is designated for horse use.
Night Sky Viewing in Badlands
Explore the night sky from the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater with a nightly night sky program from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Programming includes telescope viewing.
Fossil Preparation Lab
Located in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Paleontologists preserve fossil from the area. During the summer season, observe their work.
Badlands National Park with Kids
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about a National Park Service site. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.
Badlands National Park hosts special Junior Ranger Programming daily during the summer. Topics vary by day though my kids participated in the Fun in the Sun program to earn the Badlands Junior Ranger badge.
Badlands National Park offers several other Junior Ranger programs. The night sky program gets kids exploring the night sky. For the dinosaur-loving kids, check out the Junior Paleontologist badge. The Historic Preservation Junior Ranger badge is offered as well.
What to do in Half a Day
If you just have a few hours, concentrate on the north unit of the park. Stop off at the visitor center and take a quick hike.
Then load up and take the scenic drive. Look out for animals, during my visit I spotted big horn sheep, wild turkeys, a coyote, prairie dogs and a cottontail rabbit.
Established as a national monument in 1939, Badlands National Park became a national park in 1978. It encompasses 244,000 acres and includes the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the National Park Service.
Badlands National Park borders the Buffalo Gap National Grassland so it offers habitats for several animal species, like buffalo, fox, bighorn sheep and the black-footed ferret. It also offers some of the richest mammal fossils beds, including a tyranosausus Rex.
The People of the Badlands area
As part of the traditional lands of several groups, the National Park Service works with several Nations to preserve and honor the land.
- Associated Nations and Tribes of the Badlands Area
- Assinibione and Sioux Tribes
- Blackfeet Tribes
- Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
- Crow Tribe
- Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
- Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe
- Lower Broule Sioux Tribe
- Northern Arapaho Tribe
- Northern Cheyenne Tribe
- Oglala Sioux Tribe
- Omaha Tribe
- Ponca Tribe
- Redbud Sioux Tribe
- Santee Sioux Tribe
- Sisseton-Wapeton Oyate
- Southern Cheyenne and Eastern Arapacho Tribes
- Spirit Lake Dakota Tribe
- Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
- Three Affiliated Tribes: Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara
- Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
- The Winnebago Band of Nebraska
- Yankton Sioux Tribe
Where to Stay in Badlands National Park
To fully experience Badlands National Park, I stayed in a Cedar Pass Lodge cabin, located close to the main visitor center. It offers a lodge with a restaurant and gift shop and the campground is located nearby.
The Cedar Pass Lodge cabins resemble the original 1928 cabins. Open seasonally from mid-April until mid-October, Cedar Pass Lodge features 26 free-standing and duplex cabin units.
The quiet rock formations sparkled as the sun broke and a symphony of birds celebrated the arrival of another day. From my cabin’s back porch, I watched cottontail rabbits nibble on prairie grass as I enjoyed my morning ritual of coffee in my favorite flannel shirt.
Camping in Badlands National Park
Cedar Pass Campground
- Reservations recommended during the summer. Open year-round with limited service and availability in winter.
- 96 sites. Electricity only. No water, no sewer
- Pay showers and flush toilet with potable water and bath houses
- No ground fires year-round.
- Close to Visitor Center and Restaurant
Sage Creek Campground
A primitive campground on the west side of Badlands National Park.
- First come, first serve
- 22 sites without hook-ups. RV limit of 18-feet.
- Vault toilets. No potable water
- Equestrian sites
Where to Eat in Badlands National Park
The Cedar Pass Restaurant, located in front of the Cedar Pass Lodge cabins, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from April 15 until October 15 from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Serving local favorites, like fry bread, Indian tacos and buffalo burgers, along side locally-sourced fish and beef, South Dakota beer and wine is also available.
Picnic Areas in Badlands
Find picnic tables at the following areas.
- Ben Reifel Visitor Center
- Big Foot Pass Overlook
- Conata Picnic Area
- White River Visitor Center
Getting to the Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota, offers the nearest regional airport. The Northeast Entrance is located 8 miles south of Interstate 90.
Badlands National Park features two units, the North Unit and the Stronghold Unit. It’s partially located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and borders the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
Badlands National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Admission is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use and America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
Know Before You Go
- Watch out for South Dakota’s poisonous snake, the Prairie Rattlesnake.
- Give large animals, like buffalo and bighorn sheep, 25 yards for your safety.
- Bring water bottles, visitor centers feature bottle fillers.
- I found limited cell service.
- Ground fires are prohibited in Badlands National Park. Camp stoves are permitted in campgrounds and picnic sites.
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