Badlands National Park is a unique area of South Dakota and is home to some amazing wildlife, otherworldly landscapes, and American history. Not only was this wild terrain once an inland sea 80 million years ago, but it was also used as a bombing range during WWII and a key location for our nuclear arsenal. The Badlands was one of our first stops on our cross-country road trip in September of 2021 and it did not disappoint. I’d recommend visiting The Badlands in one of the shoulder months (April/May and September/October) because you avoid the crowds and the brutal summer heat. Here are 10 can’t-miss experiences to make the most of your time during your visit to the Badlands.
1. Pinnacles Overlook at Badlands Entrance
Located right near the entrance to the Pinnacles entrance gate, this is the perfect spot to take in your first dramatic views of the Badlands.
2. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
This short boardwalk trail winds you through one of the few wooded areas in the entire park and brings you up close and personal to the massive white cliffs. At just 0.5 miles round trip and about 300 ft of elevation gain, this trail is a relatively easy trail for many people.
3. Notch, Door & Window Trails
All three of these popular trailheads start from the same parking area. Window and Door trails are easy, and flat and take you to some expansive views. Notch Trail is the most popular but it starts off with a challenging ladder that may turn away many visitors. Once at the top, you get to walk along the cliff edge to an overlook of the Cliff Shelf area.
4. Fossil Exhibit Trail
Designed for families, this wheel-chair accessible trail follows along a quarter-mile boardwalk trail and includes fossil displays and information panels about the animals that had been in this area in the past.
5. Panorama Point
If you only have one day to visit Badlands National Park, Panorama Point is definitely worth the stop. This vast view of the landscape makes for a perfect sunrise spot as well.
6. Prairie Dog Towns
Roberts Prairie Dog Town just west of the Pinnacles entrance and Badlands Trading Post just outside of the NE Entrance are both great spots to check out the quirky animals. If you’re lucky, they might run right up to you!
7. Conata Basin Overlook
Another can’t-miss scenic overlook is the Conata Basin Overlook. The wide variety of colors you will see in the landscape here makes this a view you could stare at for hours. Catch it at sunset for a fantastic show.
8. Ben Riefel Visitor Center
A trip to a National Park is never complete without a stop at a Visitor Center. Ben Riefel Visitor Center has fantastic exhibits and you may even be able to watch Paleontologist work.
9. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Though not technically part of Badlands National Park, Minuteman Missile site is a fascinating stop for history buffs. Little did we know that this rural area in South Dakota is a strategic location for our nuclear arsenal, dating back to the Cold War. Learn about the history, watch an informational movie or catch a tour to visit the actual missile sites.
10. Wall Drug
Once again, though not actually located in the park, you can’t miss a stop at the infamous Wall Drug roadside attraction. Learn about truck stop history and explore all of the stores and vendors inside before grabbing an ice cream cone and continuing on with your adventure!
Badlands National Park can easily be done in one day or enjoyed over the course of a few days. We only gave ourselves one day in this park but when we return someday, I can’t wait to take a few days and do some of the longer hikes to get off the beaten path. There is so much that this park has to offer that is so different from the other National Parks in the country. Make sure you find some time on the calendar and start planning out your own trip to Badlands National Park!