BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Drive just 50 miles east of Rapid City, and you’re truly in another world. Badlands National Park is a 244,000-acre experience you won’t find anywhere else, with unmatched scenery that just might make you wonder if you’ve stepped onto another planet. Vast and endlessly fascinating, a visit to the dramatically striated rock formations of the Badlands is a must for your Do Big Things vacation and the perfect complement to a visit to Mount Rushmore. Featuring a 60-mile stretch of rugged terrain that is as colorful as it is desolate, as well as mixed grass prairie, geologic formations like the Badlands Wall, fossils and mind-blowing night skies, the experience is a standout among Rapid City parks and monuments, and an ideal place to celebrate the wonders of nature during the 2016 National Park Service Centennial.
Finding real evidence of wonder is reason enough to visit, yet the experience is known to inspire on other levels as well. When architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited here in 1935, he wrote, “I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands. What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere – a distant architecture, ethereal, an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”
History and Geology
When the Lakota first discovered this intimidating landscape, they called the area “mako sica” or “land bad.” Important hunting grounds for 11,000 years, the Badlands continue to be a region of great spiritual significance to American Indians, making a visit an essential addition to your Native American Discovery journey.
It’s tough to determine just how long it took for the soft rock formations of Badlands National Park to become the cones, ridges, buttes and precipices you see today. Whether it took 26 million or 75 million years for time, wind and rain to create this surreal landscape, the South Dakota Badlands are spectacular to behold. As far as the eye can see, layers of delicately colored rock are like pages of time still revealing their secrets. In fact, a single thunderstorm can cause enough erosion to unearth the fossils of a prehistoric mammal – and you might be the first to discover it.
The early Lakota found large fossilized bones, seashells and turtle shells. As westward migration brought settlers, trappers and hunters to the area, paleontological interest grew, making the White River Badlands popular fossil hunting grounds in the mid-1800s. The area contains the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known, giving us a glimpse of the area’s residents 33 million years ago.
Things To Do In Badlands National Park
It’s an easy trip from Rapid City, with two routes taking you to Badlands National Park.
- Head east on Interstate 90 to Wall, where you’ll take Exit 110 to Highway 240, the Badlands Loop Road. Follow signs directing you to the Pinnacles Entrance.
- Head southeast on Highway 44 to Highway 377 in the town of Interior, then to the Interior Entrance of the park.
Start your day at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center – you’ll find exhibits and an informational video at the Visitor Center, along with a bookstore offering resources, gifts and educational materials. Located on the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) at its southeastern tip, next to Cedar Pass Lodge.
Learn More from Ranger Programs – seasonal daily ranger-led programs offer walks, talks and presentations about geology, paleontology, fossils, night sky viewing and more. Ask for updated info at the Visitor Center, including the Junior Ranger Program.
Drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway – the grandeur and diverse landscape of the Badlands is ideal for cruising, and Highway 240 gives you the perfect vantage point at every turn of a 30-mile loop. Nearly 30 scenic overlooks provide impressive photo opportunities.
View wildlife along the Sage Creek Rim Road – turn off the western end of the Badlands Loop Road onto the Sage Creek Rim Road, where outdoor photography enthusiasts find diverse wildlife, including buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds.
Explore Fossil Sites – Badlands National Park is among the area’s most popular archaeology and paleontology attractions. Fossil hunting is allowed in the park, as long as you leave all discoveries right where you find them, along with all rocks and minerals. Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab to watch paleontologists at work. A fully accessible boardwalk trail features fossil replicas and exhibits of extinct creatures.
Enjoy Some Stargazing – see the summer sky as never before, with a ranger-guided Night Sky Program helping you identify what’s out there in the heavens. Telescopes are provided, along with a spectacular viewing experience, thanks to the Badlands’ isolation and absence of artificial lighting.
Visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town – Prairie Dog Town is on the Sage Creek Rim Road, where a homestead has been converted to a massive network of tunnels where you can see black-tailed prairie dogs up close. They join 39 mammal species of the prairie animals that thrive in Badlands National Park, along with various reptiles, amphibians, birds and 69 butterfly species.
Follow The Trails – a variety of designated hiking trails let you explore Badlands National Park at a deeper level. It’s a good idea to check in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for recommendations that suit your experience level. Bicycling is also popular in the park, with resources available to help you plan the right course.
Plan your Visit
Things to Know Before Visiting
- Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center Seasonal Hours:
8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (Winter Hours)
8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (mid-April to mid-May)
8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (Summer Hours)
8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (early September to late October)
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.
Park entrance fees are collected year-round.
7-day, private vehicle pass $15
7-day motorcycle pass $10
7-day per person pass $7 (bicycle, non-commercial bus passenger)
1 year park pass $30
- Terrain is rough and unstable. Sturdy, closed-toed shoes recommended.
- Rock collecting is not allowed in the park.
For more information, please call 605-718-8484 or visit the Badlands National Park page on the National Park Service website.