Midwest Road Trips

Top Things to do in Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota,
Badlands National Park, in the southwest corner of South Dakota, offers family fun. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

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
See Wildlife
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.

Ranger Programs

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.

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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.

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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
  • Bison
  • Big-Horn Sheep
  • Prairie Dogs
  • Pronghorn
  • 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.

Badlands National Park, Black Hills for kids, South Dakota,
Earn the Badlands Junior Ranger badge as well as Night Explorer patch, Junior Paleontologist badge and Historic Preservation badge. Credit: Catherine Parker

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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.

Badlands History

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.

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Cedar Pass Lodge, cabins in Badlands
The Cedar Pass Lodge offers 26 single and duplex units for Badlands National Park visitors. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

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 
 Cedar Pass Restaurant,
Breakfast Taco-Badlands style, start with Indian Fry bread top with eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and lots of cheese and served with sour cream and salsa. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

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).

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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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Your Free Planning Guide to Exploring Badlands National Park near South Dakota's Black Hills. Spend a few hours or spend all day. Get details on where to stay, where to eat and what to do when exploring Badlands National Park. What to do in Badlands National Park | Where to stay in Badlands National Park | Where to eat in Badlands National Park | National Parks of South Dakota #NationalParks #SouthDakota
credit: Catherine Parker


Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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