Welcome to Badlands National Park, a gateway into the secrets of the past. The park’s signature sprawling landscape is shaped by ages of erosion and captivates visitors with its fossil-filled areas, diverse wildlife, and thrilling activities and sites. However, some sites are better than others which is why I’m going to help you uncover the best things to do in Badlands National Park!
But first, can be please uncover the great mystery of how the Badlands got its name? It comes from the Lakota term “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.” This is because of the difficulty faced by the people who tried to navigate the area.
Regardless, during my first time here, I was kinda sorta scared something bad was gonna happen (am I thinking too far into this). Happy to report that of all the US national parks, this one is highly underrated and I’m going to show you why.
Let’s dive in!
📌 Save this to Pinterest!
Disclaimer: Hey explorer! This post contains affiliate links which means I earn a small percentage of each purchase made through my links. I only ever recommend products I believe in and appreciate your support if you decide to use my links—thank you!
FREE Masterclass: How to Get Paid as a Travel Influencer
In 60-minutes, I’ll walk you through 5-steps I use to get brands like Mazda, Adobe, REI, and Tourism Boards to pay me to travel the world!
10 Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
The Badlands National Park’s attractions are endless and photogenic among other things, so here’s a list of my top recommendations to help you narrow down your itinerary.
#1 Visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
As the main visitor center in the North Unit of the park, the Ben Reifel visitor center offers everything you need. Check out the Fossil Preparation Lab, the museum, the movie theater, or the bookshop.
You could also stop at the information desk to chat with a ranger for some valuable insider tips. That’s where I found lots of information on some of the beautiful viewpoints there like Pinnacles and Yellow Munds!
And a little history never hurt nobody!
Read Next: How to Become an Adventure Photographer
#2 Hike the Notch Trail (Unforgettable Thing To Do in Badlands National Park)
The Notch trail is one of the park’s most popular, and for good reason. You’ll get right into all the wonderful things you came to see. It’s not about where you’re going with this trail but how you get there.
Climb a log ladder and get your heart rate up along some narrow ledges. At the end, you can relax with an epic view from the overlook of the White River Valley.
I LOVED this hike. It’s not the longest, not the shortest, but that’s not what it’s trying to be (as if it has a personality lol). It’s just fun! The little thrill you get climbing between the canyons will put a smile on your face.
And you’ll also lowkey feel like you’re hiking through Mars…
#3 Experience the Door Trail
If you think the Notch Trail might be a but too much for you, check out the more relaxed Door Trail.
Venture along the boardwalk that leads to a “door” through which you can see the most spectacular views. You can stop here or go through the doorway to view more of Badlands beauty.
I enjoyed walking this trail in the early morning, BUT you’ll need a pair of sunglasses. It gets so bright!
Tip: You can also join a Geology Walk ranger program to learn more about the park on this trail.
#4 Look for Wildlife
Can we please talk about the wildlife here? The park is teeming with fluffy wildlife and offers you the chance to see bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bison, and some adorable prairie dogs. Wildlife spotting is a whole lot of fun, especially if you’re visiting with kids.
The Badlands National Park service will be able to give you an idea of where to spot some animals and when the best time to look is.
I saw bighorn sheep just about everywhere we went and I found myself going “AWWWE!” They’re so darn cute.
But please remember that the wildlife is meant to be admired and not touched! This is for your safety and theirs.
#5 Follow the Sun
The colors on the formations come to life with sunlight. The sun rising over Big Badlands Overlook, Panorama Point, or Norbeck Pass makes for an unbeatable sight.
Grab a sunrise tour to make sure you don’t miss out. At the end of the day, you’ll be rewarded with a Badlands sunset, one of the best you’ve ever seen.
Catch it from Pinnacles Overlook, Hay Butte Overlook, Conata Basin, or the Castle Trail for a memorable treat and some of the best Badlands National Park photos you’ll get.
I mean seriously, some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken have come from this park. Make sure you have your travel camera gear handy!
#6 Take A Scenic Drive Down the Badlands Loop Road
This is probably the best way to see the Badlands with ease. The road runs through the North Unit, passing so many stunning spots where you can make frequent memorable pitstops.
You get to weave in and out of desert formations. Honestly, it’s kind of what I wish some of the best Utah National Park drives were like.
#7 Go Backcountry in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area
Wander off the beaten path into a remote wonderland. If you can navigate and want to get into the heart of the Badlands landscape, go backcountry camping near the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
As one of the largest preserved mixed-grass prairies in the US, it’s a close look into the park, and you can spot some majestic bison on one of the unmarked trails.
I didn’t see bison, unfortunately, but I did see some of my cute sheep friends, haha. And if bison is what you want, then you need to head to Yellowstone National Park.
#8 Go to the South Unit
While the North Unit is more popular due to its many hiking opportunities, the South Unit offers some underrated secluded views without the crowds.
Along the perimeter, you’ll find the Red Shirt Table overlook for a panoramic look at the unit.
#9 Discover Fossil Exhibits
You can hike the Fossil Exhibit Trail to loop through areas with eerie fossil replicas and information about the land’s ancient history.
The interpretive signs and the Fossil Talks ranger program will have you feeling like an expert in no time. If you’re into the science behind the fossils, visit the Fossil Preparation Lab for an interactive tour of a functional paleontology lab.
Fossil Exhibit Trail is one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park because it’s that perfect mix of scenic views, a leisurely walk, and a touch of history.
#10 Stargaze at Cedar Pass
You won’t miss city lights when you see the vast open night sky here. Head to the Cedar Pass amphitheater after sunset between April and August.
You can use the available telescopes to get a closer look at the sky or just lie back and bask in the ethereal glow of starlight.
If you happen to visit in July, you might be able to pop in at the Badlands Astronomy Festival for an opportunity to do an astronomy workshop or get some tips from an astronomer while you browse the night sky.
Top tip: Enjoy a sunset and star gazing tour to maximize the Badlands night experience.
Best Things to do in Badlands National Park + Map
- Visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
- Hike Notch Trail
- Experience Door Trail
- Look for Wildlife
- Follow the Sun
- Go Backcountry Sage Creek Wilderness Area
- Go to the South Unit
- Discover Fossil Exhibits
- Take a Scenic Drive Down the Badlands Loop Road
- Stargaze at Cedar Pass
Where to Stay When Visiting Badlands National Park
Cedar Pass Lodge
The Cedar Pass Lodge is the only place you can stay in Badlands National Park. The lodge offers rustic cabins as well as an RV park and a campground. There’s also a restaurant packed with local flair and flavor and even some Sioux dishes to enjoy.
Beyond the park, you can stay in a neighboring town. Here are a few great options:
- America’s Best Value Inn – Wall, SD
- Best Western Plains Motel – Wall, SD
- Badlands Hotel & Campground – Interior, SD
- Days Inn by Wyndham – Wall, SD
The Wrap-Up | See South Dakota’s Badlands
Now that you’ve got all this information at your fingertips, you can see how visiting the Badlands State Park is one of the best things to do in South Dakota. So what do you think? Did I convince you that some of the best things in Badlands National Park prove it’s underrated?
As one of the prettiest US national parks, having the Badlands on your travel bucket list is definitely something you won’t regret. Get planning and happy exploring!