Bison, Bighorn, and Pronghorn – Oh My! Get Ready to Explore Badlands National Park!

Badlands National Parks is one of the most important historical and cultural national parks in the US. Covering 244,000 acres of treacherous landscape, the Badlands live up to its name with its sprawling rock formations and majestic animals. In our Badlands National Park Guide and podcast episode, we’ll help you navigate through planning a trip, family-friendly activities, wildlife tips, when to visit, and more.

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National Park Travel

Over the past two years, many families have made the turn from city travel to Outdoor and National Park Travel. The experience can be eye-opening and educational, and growing to love the outdoors has caught on worldwide! Traveling and discovering nature can be such a blessing!

Badlands National Park

Known as the land of light and stone, the Badlands is located in the southwestern part of South Dakota – about an hour away from Rapid City. It covers 244,000 acres of sprawling rock formations in this remote area of the state. 

Why Are the Badlands Called Bad?

One of the most popular Google searches is “Why is the Badlands called Bad?” It’s a common misconception of the Badlands, so how did it get its name? The name given to the park is an honor or tribute to the Native populations and tribes prior to it becoming a national park. It was known to the Lakota tribe as Mako Sica – lands that are bad. It’s a mini Grand Canyon with extreme temperatures, dry, rocky, very few natural water sources, not easily traversed because of the geological structures – so the native population found it inhabitable. Bison were hunted in the area, but the winters are extremely cold and the summers extremely hot. So it became to be known as lands that are bad from the native tribes onto the trappers and settlers who came to the area. 

Native Populations of the Badlands National Park

One of the important aspects of the Badlands is the significance of, not only the park but the region to the native populations. Learning the history and background for a trip to the Badlands is a great way to educate yourself about the national park. The Badlands National Park does a good job of addressing the past and the native populations who lived there. 22 different tribes have been associated with the area through cultural significance or hunting, and the entire south area is co-managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The park cannot be altered without conferring with the tribes. 

Ben Reifel Visitor Center

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is actually named after the first Lakata member of Congress. The exhibits give an overview of the native population at the Badlands. There are also special Ranger programs that will discuss the treaties and the history of the native population at the South Visitor Center. And they address the atrocities that happened in the past instead of glossing over the history. 

Is the Badlands a Family-Friendly National Park?

Another commonly asked question about the Badlands is if it’s dangerous, especially with kids. Visiting the Badlands wasn’t a red flag of dangerous places to visit, but there are some safety issues that you would be aware of. It is a very family-friendly park and there are many things to do and see. If you are on a wildlife drive or loop, you should know never to get out of the car. Never get near or approach a buffalo. If you’re hiking, research the trails before you take off. Always read the signs posted on the trail before entering. 

TIP: There isn’t always cell service inside the park, but make sure you charge your phone before entering in case of any emergency situation. 

When is the Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park? 

There are benefits to visiting the Badlands both in peak season and also off-season. Depending on your goals for the park, here some of the benefits for each scenario. 

Off-Season (April – June; September – November)

If you’re planning a trip to the Badlands and want to avoid crowds, visiting off-season is fantastic. The crowds are very low, and you have great views all to yourself. April – June is a great time to go to miss the crowds as well as late Fall: September – November. 

As far as the weather – Spring months can still be quite cold. The best advice is to layer up because the swings in temperatures can be wild. Temps at sunrise can get down to the 20s (F), and by the time you’re hiking during the day, it can climb up to the 70s (F). 

Peak Season (Summer month: June – August)

But if you want to take full advantage of the programs that are run by the park, visiting during the summer is the best time to go. Programs such as the Fossil Preparation Lab is a special aspect of the park that runs only during the summer. It’s an actual working paleontology lab that shows fossils that are being unearthed in the area. The Night Sky Ranger Program is also only available during the summer. Just be advised – summer temps can reach into the sweltering 100 (F) – and without a lot of shade, you’ll need plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat! 

TIP: If you are entering the park after hours, you can simply drive in and pay on your way out. It’s open 24hours, and you just pay with the honor system. 

What to See and Do at the Badlands?

There are a variety of things to do and see at the Badlands, including hiking, driving the Badlands Loop, stopping at the Visitors Center, the Jr. Ranger program, and more. There are also two distinct landscapes inside the Badlands – make sure you see both while visiting. 

North Unit:

  • Badlands Loop – The North Unit has a very popular 30-mile driving loop road called the Badlands Loop. Along the Badlands Loop are many pull-offs for overlooks and hikes that cover the infamous rock formations that many imagine when thinking of the Badlands. 
  • Sage Creek Rim Road – Covered in rolling plains, here is where you’ll find all the wildlife of the Badlands: bison, prairie dogs, sheep. Sage Creek is not a paved road, so make sure your car is suitable for the drive. Seeing wildlife is not a guarantee – but there’s a high chance you will see wildlife. 
  • Ben Reifel Visitor Center – The Visitor Center is a great way to learn about the history, culture, and landscapes of the Badlands. 

South Unit:

  • Sheep Mountain Table – Located on the border of the North and South Units, Sheep Mountain Table is a dirt road you can drive on to the top of the table to the overlook.  
  • White River Visiter Center – Learning about the history and culture of the Badlands tribes through exhibits and videos is a great educational tool. This visitors center is only open seasonal, so check before visiting to make sure it’s open. 

Hiking Tips for the Badlands 

Hiking is also a popular pastime in the park. There are several well-known trails in the park, including Notch Trail. What are the best hikes with kids? And what to know if you attempt Notch Trail? 

Along the Badlands Loop is the access for two boardwalk trails and a hiking trail:

  • Door and Window Trails – These have a built-in boardwalk made for easy and mild hikers. It’s great for young kids and stroller with benches for resting and overlooks as well.
  • Notch Trail – Notch Trail has unique features and is for adventurous hikers. The famous feature inside Notch Trail is the rope ladder with wooden rungs. Photos can make the ladder section of the hike look misleading, but it actually starts quite easy, and then all of a sudden the ladder gets quite steep – straight up and down against the rock. You begin in the valley, and the ladder takes you to the top. The ladder can be tricky for younger kids, and the trail at the top can be slippery. There are no ledges and a steep ledge drop-off at the top, so keep this in mind when hiking with kids.

HIKING TIP: It can be extremely dry, so bring lots of water and hand cream. Because the ground is dry, it becomes very slippery so bring suitable hiking shoes. 

Stargazing at the Badlands

There’s nothing like the night sky and stargazing at the Badlands. The Badlands is known as one of the 27 dark sky parks in the US, so it’s a great place to stargaze. Many of the dark sky parks have night sky programs in the summer, so if you’re into night-sky photography, it’s a great opportunity to view the night sky. If you want to see or photograph the Milky Way, the Badlands is one of the best places to see it from. 

“More stars than I can ever imagine existed”

If you want to see or photograph the Milky Way, the Badlands is one of the best places to see it from. 

TIP: Give your eyes 20 minutes when you first arrive to get adjusted, and then you’ll start seeing even more! 

Wildlife at the Badlands

Seeing wildlife in the Badlands is a special event – especially the majestic bison. You can find them in plentitude while exploring on Sage Creek Rim Road. And they can even walk right up to the road near your car. Prairie dogs, Pronghorn, and Bighorn Sheep can also be seen inside the park. 

There are two campgrounds in the Badlands: a tent camping area at the Sage Creek Rim area. And near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, there’s a larger campground for RVs with restrooms and more amenities. You don’t have to make a reservation for the Sage Creek Rim tenting area, but you do have to book for the RV campground

What to See in the Surrounding Area of the Badlands

The park is located in a pretty remote area, so it’s best to be prepared before a trip to the park. 

  • Rapid City is the closest main city to the Badlands. Driving through this remote region, you have to plan out your gas station and food stops wisely. 
  • Wall is a small town about 30 miles outside the Badlands where you can find gas, food, and other unique items. Wall Drug is a famous stop at Wall and a MUST-SEE during a trip to the Badlands. 
  • Mount Rushmore and other monuments are also great places to visit while in the region. There is really so much to see on a trip to the Badlands, such as the Crazy Horse Monument in Custer, SD, and Dignity of Earth and Sky sculpture located at a rest stop between exits 263 and 265 on Interstate 90 near Chamberlain. 

TIP: Watch the signs for food and gas distances. You DO NOT want to be stuck without gas in the middle of nowhere. 

Do Not Miss Moment at the Badlands National Park

The Sage Creek Rim Drive is definitely a do-not-miss moment at the Badlands. Seeing the bison and the prairie dogs in their natural habitat with the backdrop of the rock formations was priceless! The ladder at Notch Trail was another do not miss moment – such a memorable experience. 

Allison is a mom of 4 (ages 6-12) and a fairly new family travel blogger. She and her family are part-time family travelers with a home base in Charlotte, NC. They travel as many weeks and weekends of the year as they can. They are always looking for unique ways to experience a city or National Park which will give their kids meaningful connections to culture, history, and even science.  Their family motto is life is a journey, not a destination!!

Allison documents all their travels on their Instagram page – @bigtripswithfourlittles – and on her travel blog

National Trippers Podcast

Did you know we also have a podcast all about the Badlands? Get ready for even more awesomeness of this incredible National Park!

Published by Maureen Hochdorf

Writer. Editor. High Techi. Non-Profit Founder. Traveler. Sports Lover. Star Wars Fanatic. Tel Aviver. Michigander....

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