Midwest Road Trips

From Sunrise to Starry Skies: 9 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

Badlands National Park is one of several national park sites to visit while in the Black Hills. Along Interstate 80, It offers geological formations, wildlife viewing, history and dark skies programming. Start with a scenic drive, then follow up with a short hike. There’s even a campground with equipped cabins, perfect for stargazing. Here are the top things to do in Badlands National Park with kids.

9 Top Things to Do at Badlands National Park 

Learn About the Badlands
Explore the Visitor Center 
Take a Scenic Drive
Hike in the Badlands
See the Sun Rise or Sun Set 
See Wildlife
Stare at the Night Sky
Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab
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 eroded buttes and pinnacles, Protected grassland prairie

Why Visit the Badlands

Depending on how you arrive at the Black Hills, add this national park to your itinerary, especially if you are driving in from the east. It offers a different look than the tree-covered rolling hills of the Black Hills area. During my visits to Badlands National Park, I’ve seen Big-Horn Sheep and Pronghorn.

This is one of those parks that you can visit in a few hours or a few days, depending on how much you want to do. There is ample hiking and, during the summer, Ranger Programs.

I have stayed in a Cedar Pass Lodge cabin and recommend them. At night, the stars shone bright. In the morning, I saw a rabbit outside my door, munching on grass.

Not too far is the town of Wall and Wall Drug Store. It is a good road trip stop for something to eat. Another NPS site to visit is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and its bunker tour.

Why You Have to Stop at Wall Drug 

Visitors Center in Badlands National Park 

I always recommend stopping by the visitor center if it is open. If it is not, Park Rangers usually have maps near the main entrance door. This area usually offers restrooms and water bottle refill stations.

Ben Reifel Visitor Center

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is at the North Unit of the park and gives out maps, Junior Ranger Booklets, NPS passport stamps and more. It also shows an interpretive movie and features a gift shop, restrooms, and the Fossil Preparation Lab.

Located at 25216 Ben Reifel Road in Interior. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 to September 30. From October 1 to April 30, it is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

White River Visitor Center

A smaller seasonal facility is in the South Unit of Badlands National Park.

Located at 2734 BIA 2 in Porcupine. Open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. from the end of May until mid-October.

Ranger Programs

During the summer season, Badlands offers a host of ranger programs for all ages. Choose from programming on 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.

What to do at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Take a Scenic Drive in Badlands 

Find several scenic drives in the Badlands.

Badlands Loop Road (SD Highway 240)– Enter the park at the 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 through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.

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 the 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.

See the Sun Rise or Sun Set 

With its open landscape and few trees blocking the view, Badlands National Park offers spectacular sunrises and sunsets. For the best sunrise spots, head to Big Badlands Overlook, Panorama Point, or the passes at Norbeck Pass or Dillion Pass.

Sunsets don’t require early morning wakeups. Visitors should head to Conata Basin Overlook, Panorama Point or Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area.

Biking in the Badlands

Explore the Badlands on two wheels. Bicycles are allowed on roads only, both paved and unpaved. Hiking trails, off-road and wilderness biking aren’t permitted.

  • Badlands Loop Road
  • Sage Creek Loop
  • Northeast Big Loop
Mount Rushmore Planning Guide 

Animals in the Badlands Area

This area is rich in wildlife and you never know when you might spot some wildlife. Dawn and dusk are the most reliable times of the day. Pronghorn and prairie dogs are the easiest animals to spot.

  • Black Footed Ferrets–Thought to be extinct 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 horseback riding or visit the Horseback riding page for Badlands National Park.

A portion of Sage Creek Campground (primitive) is designated for horse use.

Planning Guide for Custer State Park 

Night Sky Viewing in Badlands 

Explore the night sky from the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater. During the summer, it offers a nightly night sky program from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Visitors can expect to see the Milky Way and star clusters. In total, some 7,500 stars are visible overhead. Programming includes telescope viewing.

Each year, it hosts the Badlands Astronomy Festival. The Badlands AstroFest will be July 5 to 7, 2024. NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium is a co-sponsor. Stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for more information.

Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab

Located in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Paleontologists preserve fossils from the area. You can observe their work as they clean and categorize fossils. They are even available for questions.

It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from mid-June to mid-September. This is free to enjoy.

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

Badlands National Park with Kids and Pets 

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 the Rangers present them with after they complete 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 dinosaur-loving kids, check out the Junior Paleontologist badge. The Historic Preservation Junior Ranger badge is also offered.

Pets in Badlands

Badlands National Park welcomes pets as long as they practice the principles of the BARK program. Visitors traveling with their pets are welcome in campgrounds, picnic areas, and other areas open to motor vehicles. However, for the safety of their pets and wildlife, they are not allowed on the hiking trails in Badlands National Park.

B–Bag waste and dispose of it in the trash

A–Always leash your dog for their safety and others

R–Respect wildlife

K–Know where you can go

Guide to Junior Ranger Badges

Where to Picnic in the Badlands 

Find picnic tables in the following areas.

  • Ben Reifel Visitor Center
  • Big Foot Pass Overlook
  • Conata Picnic Area
  • White River Visitor Center 

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 bighorn 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 ecosystems 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 fossil beds, including a tyrannosaurus 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
  • Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes
  • Blackfeet Tribes
  • Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
  • Crow Tribe
  • Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
  • Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe
  • Lower Brule 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 Arapaho 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 near the main visitor center. The lodge has a restaurant and gift shop, and the campground is 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.

Cabin Review for Cedar Pass Lodge 
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 toilets with potable water and bathhouses
  • No ground fires year-round.
  • Close to the 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 hookups. 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 6 p.m. Local favorites, like fry bread, Indian tacos and buffalo burgers, are on the menu.


 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 an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).

Guide to National Park Passes

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.
  • Limited cell service in the park.
  • 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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