One of the parts I love most about traveling around the United States is how diverse the states are. South Dakota is one of these, and I was thrilled to spend one day at Badlands National Park during my trip there. There were so many beautiful things to do in Badlands National Park that I didn’t want to leave.
The unique rock formations found at this national park were formed millions of years ago when the sea that used to vacate it slowly emptied. This left behind a variety of sediment, which resulted in the beautiful stripes the landscape is known for.
If you’re on a road trip and only have one day in Badlands National Park, you can still see plenty of this park. Here are the best things to do in Badlands National Park and a sample one day itinerary for Badlands.
Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park in One Day
Badlands National Park is an area of strikingly beautiful wilderness, prairie, rock formations, and wildlife. It is known for its incredible landscape, trails, and drives along the famous SD-240 route.
Ideally, it would be best if you enjoyed any US national park over two or three days – you can even take advantage of one of the camping sites. But if time is tight, you can always enjoy the park just one day, provided you have a plan of what to see in Badlands National Park and have prepared smartly.
- Get there early – South Dakota can get in the triple digits in the summer, and there is little shade at the park. I recommend starting as early as possible to get the most out of your visit.
- Buy the America the Beautiful Pass – For only $80, this pass will get you into every national park in the country for the next year. That means you can visit nearby Wind Caves National Park under this pass too.
- Pack a lunch (and snacks) – You can save time and money by bringing your own food. Just make sure to take everything with you or throw them away in the appropriate containers so you don’t litter at the park.
- Check the website for updates – I advise checking the official park website before you go to see of any closures or important alerts you need to know.
- Don’t rely on your cell phone – I got no service during the entire time I’m in the mark, so make sure to take the map they give you at the entrance booth.
Badlands National Park Entrance Fees
If you choose not to get the America the Beautiful pass, these are the prices to get in. Your admission fee will last for a full 7 days.
- Private car – $30
- Walking or biking – $15
- Motorcycle – $25
Where to Stay in Badlands National Park
Looking for somewhere to stay after your Badlands National Park day trip? Here are a few Airbnb options in the area.
- 1880s Homestead Cabin – You can rent a room on a farm from the 1800s to really have a unique experience. (rates start at $55 per night; book your house here)
- The Bunkhouse at Circle View Guest Ranch – You can rent this entire bunkhouse that sleeps up to eight people, which makes it perfect for large groups or families. (rates start at $375 per night; book your house here)
- Charming Farmhouse – This three-bedroom home stays cold in the summer and warm during the winter, so it’s a great base any time of the year. (rates start at $125 per night; book your house here)
The Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
You don’t have to worry about Badlands National Park hours – it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a great thing because the night sky is as incredible as the daytime landscape, making it great for a camping trip. Even if you’re there for just a day, you can extend your visit into the night’s early hours.
Badlands is a nature lover’s paradise. Besides the land’s fantastic views, several animals including bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and the endangered black-footed ferret roam the land. Several native wild birds can be spotted, and the park holds an entire legacy of fossils.
With all that said, here are essential things to do on a one day trip to Badlands National Park or you can split them up into multiple days when looking for what to do in the Badlands.
Start the Day at Sunrise
While the Badlands have their own kind of beauty, one thing you may notice is the rocks look a bit washed out midday. That’s why I recommend being at the park first thing and staying until sunset if possible to get some amazing photos.
The sun reflecting off the rocks gives them a completely different look that you’ll want to capture. Just make sure you stay on the trails to be safe as the sun goes down.
Follow Badlands Loop Road
When researching what to do in the Badlands, an easy way to see plenty of the park is to stick to Badlands Loop Road. This 40-mile loop takes you along dozens of different viewpoints that you can pull off on to get photos.
You’ll want to make sure to always fully pull over on the side of the road so you don’t block other visitors. Wildlife can also walk across the road at any time, so you’ll want to ensure you go at or below the speed limits at all times.
Learn About the Park at Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center
One of the best things to do in Badlands National Park is to stop by the visitor’s center first thing. Pick up your info pack about Badlands National Park activities here, and learn some fascinating history about the Badlands National Park. That includes the life of the people that lived here, the rich fossil history and the wildlife you can expect to see on your day trip.
Don’t forget to ask about the ranger programs, especially if you’re bringing kids along. It could be a great alternative for them if you plan to do a trail that may be too difficult for younger hikers. There’s also a Fossil Preparation Lab that they’ll love playing at when you need a break from outside.
Badlands isn’t half as crowded as Yellowstone National Park gets, but I still recommend coming to the visitor’s center early before late risers get there.
Take a Walk on Saddle Pass Trailhead
Close by are a couple of trails you can try out. The first is Saddle Pass, a moderate walk just under a mile. It’s a little steep but will reward you with a wonderful morning view of the landscape.
The thing to remember here is that parts of the trail are quite slippery due to loose gravel and steepness. Make sure you have a good grip on your hiking shoes if you add this to your list of things to do in the Badlands.
Stroll Along Cliff Shelf Nature Trailhead
Another trail to go on is the Cliff Shelf trail. It’s a little shorter, and takes about 15 minutes, so why not try it if you feel like adding another short walk? From the top, you’ll catch a remarkable sight of the White River Valley. You can see Eagle Butt, nearly 25 miles to the south from here. Amazing.
Well over a mile long, with a ladder to negotiate, and a few narrow ledges that may not be kind to kids or elderly folks. The lookout is worth it, offering a view of virtually the whole park along the way. You may even see wildlife from here.
Educate Yourself on the Cold War
There’s a fascinating history around the Cold War and the Great Plains, where many nuclear missile silos were held. That’s why one of the more unique what to see in Badlands National Park is the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center. The story of the MinuteMan Missiles is chronicled here at the Visitor Center just outside the park.
The center offers insight into what it was like living in the proverbial shadow of imminent destruction at these weapons’ hands. Exhibits and information focus on the technology, the missile crews’ men and women, and an array of missile fields across the region.
Challenge Yourself on Notch Trailhead
If you’re looking for one of the more physical things to do in the Badlands, check out this trail. The Notch Trail is 1.3 miles but steeper than the others and can be challenging. Similar to hikes with no shade in Joshua Tree National Park, I’d recommend doing this one in the morning, or even at sunrise to avoid the midday swelter and lack of shelter.
Make sure you wear tennis shoes for this (no flip flops please!) so you have enough support during the trek. You’ll have a beautiful view high up of the Badlands as your reward and be glad you added this to your list of what to do in the Badlands.
Pay a Visit to Roberts Prairie Dog Town
They’re everywhere! Visitors regularly swoon over these cute critters, which is the biggest prairie dog town in the US (a colony is called a town – adorable!). This is by far one of the cutest Badlands National Park activities
They aren’t shy of people, so you’ll have no problem seeing them go about their business. It’s a wonderful stopover for anyone looking to experience a little warm and fuzzy feeling in their heart.
Take Photos at Pinnacles Overlook
It’s a very short hike at 0.2 miles, but it’s made exciting by a sign that says “Beware of Rattlesnakes.” If that doesn’t bother you too much, you’ll have some of the most spectacular landscape views known to humankind.
View Stunning Yellow Mounds
Of all the views available in Badlands, the most unusual and striking has to be the Yellow Mounds Overlook, where the rocks seem to glow yellow in the sun. Look closely, and you’ll also see orange and beige stripes in the rock. It’s without a doubt one of the most amazing things to see in the Badlands.
See a 360-Degree View at Panorama Point
The appropriately-named Panorama Point is an excellent end-point for a day trip for two reasons. One, this final view of the Badlands can’t be beaten for scope. Two, you can choose to watch the sunset from here, and it’s well worth the wait.
Stop at the Wall
In South Dakota, the “Wall” is the name given to the Badlands’ rocky, mountainous rim. It’s also the name of a town in the most famous area for its huge “dinosaur” and the Wall Drug store.
While this isn’t in the perfect, it’s a 10-minute drive away, making it the perfect place to break for lunch, catch a tasting, or buy a souvenir. Try the 5-cent coffee in the Art Gallery Restaurant for a laugh when looking for things to see in the Badlands!
The Ultimate One Day Itinerary for Badlands National Park
Only have one day in Badlands National Park? As it happens, the list above provides a convenient blueprint for a one-day trip to the Badlands. Plotted as a loop, each of the above attractions is a convenient stop along the 90 and 240 routes. The driving itself could take around two hours if you don’t stop (but you’ll want to since there are so many things to do in the Badlands!).
The best entrance to Badlands National Park is the North East Entrance or exit 131 off the I-90. Start at sunrise at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. From here, it’s easy to choose one or more of the Saddle Pass, Cliff Shelf, or Notch trailheads to kick off your day. Either one will offer a glorious early morning viewing experience while avoiding the heat of midday.
On to the MinuteMan Missile Visitor Center for a look at the Cold War and atomic era, and then head down the 90 to Wall for lunch and a midday break. You’ll need a cold refreshing drink by now, especially in Summer.
After a visit to the prairie dog town, take on two more amazing trails for a unique look at this amazing landscape: Pinnacles Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook.
Finally, head to Panorama Point for the sunset scene across the vast prairie of South Dakota if you can, stick around after sunset for a breathtaking night sky.
Whether you only have one day in the Badlands or can spend several days exploring, you’ll love all the things to do in Badlands National Park during your trip.