Badlands National Park is one that I had neither heard much about nor had at the top of any bucket list. After taking a full day to explore this park, I’m glad to say that the Badlands is well worth the trip out to explore. The park is located in South Dakota which I believe is a rather underrated state. Since we had traveled up from Florida and through endless states of corn fields, we were happy to see scenery changes, especially ones as out-of-this-world as the Badlands. You can absolutely spend more than one day exploring this park but if you have only 24 hours in the area, here’s an itinerary to follow so you can make the most of you time here!
7am – Enter Badlands National Park
I recommend staying in the Wall, SD area so that you have a straight shot right into the center of the park. To enter the park you’ll need to pay a $30 admission or purchase the annual parks pass at the Pinnacles entrance gate. We are big fans of getting up early to both beat the crowds and see wildlife! The Pinnacles entrance to the Badlands was crawling with bison and pronghorn when we entered at 7am.
Another perk to getting into the park early is getting to see the views in that special morning lighting. The indirect lighting really helps to exaggerate the shapes and depths of the Badlands landscape. We recommend driving first to the Pinnacles overlook which is one of the more popular views of the park. Here you’ll be able to walk down from the parking area to the cliff edge for some borderline 360 views.
Spend the next two hours driving east along Badlands Loop Road through the park, stopping at as many or as few overlook photo ops as you wish! Take your time really looking around at the scenery because it’s so unique and no two views are the same.
9am – Walk the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Badlands National Park is not necessarily known for hiking trails but they have a few really nice walks you can do to get you out of the car and into nature. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a great stop for people of any level. The trail is primarily a boardwalk path that take you through some trees and out to a closer look of the cliffs. This trail is only 0.5 miles long and classified as easy.
You can continue a bit farther off of the boardwalk path and get a little bit more of a hike in to get the blood flowing but consider it a warm up for an even better hike a little later!
10am: Check out Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center
After the Cliff Shelf stop, swing into the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center and get your tourist fix. If you have a National Park passport, make sure to get your stamp! I personally collect pins as well so I make sure to never miss a visitor’s center stop. This center also has an exhibit area so that you can learn more about the local tribes, prehistoric animals and the current animals of the Badlands.
I also always recommend chatting with a ranger while you’re there because they are the most passionate and informative people you’ll ever talk to. We learned a bit about the big horned sheep and pronghorns of the area and some of the diseases they were tracking through the animals.
11am: Hike the Notch Trail
The Notch Trail is by far the most popular trail in Badlands National Park so if you’re going in the popular season, you may want to try to shift this earlier in the day but we had no issues with doing this hike around 11am. There was ample parking and we didn’t see any bus loads of people being dropped off.
This 1.5 mile out and back trail takes you on a rather flat route until you get to the log ladder that you’ll need to climb up to the next level. My anxiety built up a bit as we watched these older women with walking poles climb slowly up but when we got our turn, it was WAY easier than we thought. Once you reach the top, you continue on for a bit more, winding through an epic valley trail until you reach the viewpoint of the end overlooking the Cliff Shelf area and visitor’s center you had just been in.
The local that we were hiking along side continued on a bit farther from here while we turned back. This continuation may be worth looking into if you have the time! The way back was just as simple but the log ladder was definitely not. I will admit that it very well could just be in my head but I found it very awkward and nerve wracking to go backwards down this ladder because it’s a real awkward grade. Kyle had no issue going down so take my opinion with a grain of salt! Regardless, this hike is a great short hike to do.
Noon: Stop for Lunch and Prairie Dogs
There are a few more overlook areas to stop at along the way to the exit of the park but by now you’ll be pretty hungry for lunch. We stopped at Badlands Trading Post which is basically a glorified convenience store for some lunch items and snacks. If you’re on a budget, pack a lunch because you’re not missing much. HOWEVER, to the right of the Trading Post parking lot is a field of human-friendly prairie dogs who will come right up to you so it’s well worth the stop no matter what.
We were watching from afar for a while then decided to venture in and it was a blast. I was taking a video of them and one of the little guys ran right up to my camera! Wildlife is always fun to see no matter the size. These guys will keep you entertained for hours.
1pm: Visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
If you’re a history buff then you definitely need to stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Located just north of the Interior entrance to the park, this site is filled with information and tour options to learn all about the hidden nuclear launch sites across South Dakota and the high tensions of the Cold War era.
Since this was before my time, I learned a lot reading through the exhibits and watching the movie that they had playing. There are options to take both guided and self-guided tours through all the missile locations located nearby. We drove to them and flipped through the self-guided audio tour to learn a bit more.
3pm: Stop at Wall Drug
Wall Drug is a roadside attraction that serves quite a few different purposes. It originally started in 1931 as a spot for truck drivers to stop for coffee, donuts and free ice water but it has since blown up into much more. There are sprawling stores with souvenirs, gifts and apparel, and more as well as a restaurant, café, and ice cream shop.
There is also a “backyard” area that is more catered to families with kids. There’s a water show, a giant T-Rex animatronic, photo ops, games and more. For the history buff in the family, you can spend hours looking at all the old photos of Wall Drug.
By the time you finishing wandering the sprawling halls of Wall Drug, it’ll be time for dinner. Treat yourself to dinner at the restaurant or venture to one of the local restaurants in Wall, SD. Since we live in a camper, we ventured back to our camper to cook some dinner and save some money.
6pm: Back to Badlands NP for Sunset
After you get yourself some dinner, complete the full circle back to Pinnacles entrance to see the park in the evening hours. Instead of following the loop road to the east, this time we recommend you turn right and head west to explore the other side of the park. We stopped at a few more overlooks along the way and then drove along the winding road as the sun set ahead of us.
\We went as far as one of the campgrounds on the West side of the park and pulled over where there were some bison grazing. As we drove back to our camper in the dark, we passed by dozens of deer on the side of the road so keep an eye out for that! Definitely worth venturing out at this time of day.
Badlands National Park is definitely doable in one day so if you find yourself in the South Dakota area, make sure you venture to this wild National Park. I guarantee it’s different than anywhere else that you’ve been to.
If you’re trying to plan a trip of your own and don’t know where to start, check out InMotion Adventures to see what I can do for you! Until next time…
Badlands National Park is a place I have heard of but never been to. If in the region of South Dakota, this really looks like a great place to explore. I certainly see what you mean about the landscape and the prairie dogs look so cute! The ladder does look like a bit of a challenge so I get where you are coming from there – what goes up, must also come down! Love that there is a choice of hikes and quite a lot to see over the course of a single day. Must look at planning a visit here in future.
It wasn’t really on my list but im so glad I made it out there! Hope you get a chance to as well!
I remember visiting the Badlands back in the 1980s on a family roadtrip but we didn’t tour extensively. I would love to go back and revisit, especially to spot some of the wildlife you saw by getting going early morning!
That’d actually be fascinating to hear about! I feel like the landscape must change so much because of how much the wind rips through there.. I wonder if it’d look different 30 something years later!
Looks like quite the place to visit. Learning about the wall drug place was interesting. Very unique place and it sounds like it has its history.
Indeed! It was very unique for sure. We didn’t know what to expect but worth the stop nonetheless.
Loved it too. Visited Minuteman and Wall too. But didn’t get to hike like you.
I think Badlands is good for that! Some parks you neeeed to hike to really experience it. Badlands is more of a great drive thru park!