One Epic Day in Badlands National Park Itinerary (Hikes & Best Time To Visit)
Planning a visit to Badlands National Park? Well, you’re in for a treat. Our Badlands National Park itinerary will take you all around the park. From popular overlooks to Badlands National Park hikes, and hopefully, a bison sitting or two, one day in Badlands National Park is just enough time to see the main sights and do some of the best things in the park.
Are you ready?! Let’s get to it!
Planning Guide & One Day Badlands National Park Itinerary
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First, Why is Badlands Called Bad?
But, really? Why is it called, “the badlands”? Due to extreme temperatures, lack of water, and rugged terrain, the first people that traveled through these lands called it as they saw it. The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad.” Followed by the French-Canadian fur trappers who called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”
Finally, when Homesteaders came to South Dakota in the late 1800s, a US citizen could claim a 160-acre plot of public land if they lived on and improved the land over five years. Well, not too many people succeeded in Homesteading in South Dakota. The harsh and arid climate proved to be too much to handle.
Get our 7-day South Dakota Road Trip Route and Itinerary here!
Getting To Badlands National Park. What’s The Closest City and Airport?
So where is Badlands National Park? Badlands National Park is surrounded by the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in the southwestern section of South Dakota. Wall, South Dakota is the closest town to Badlands National Park, whereas the closest city to Badlands National Park is Rapid City.
It’s also here, in Rapid City, where you can find the closest airport to Badlands National Park. You should plan your round-trip ticket out of Rapid City to explore not only the Badlands but the beautiful Black Hills National Forest as well.
Get our complete guide to things to do in Custer and Custer State Park!
What Is The Best Time of Year To Visit Badlands National Park?
May to September is the best time to visit Badlands National Park. The summer months can get rather hot, so if you are visiting during summer, come prepared with sunscreen and plenty of water. Also, start your day early to beat the heat of the afternoon sun.
Summer is also Badland’s busiest month. So, if you are looking to escape the crowds, plan your trip to Badlands National Park before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.
How Many Days Should You Spend In Badlands National Park?
While this is a one-day Badlands National Park itinerary, we honestly can say that you can see a lot with just one day in Badlands National Park. If you have two days, you’ll be 100% set and have plenty of time to explore everything the park has to offer.
Now, if you are super short on time, a half-day Badlands National Park itinerary is totally an option as well. For a half day, you should focus on doing the Notch Trail and driving the park loop road, and stopping at a handful of overlooks.
Check out things to do near Mount Rushmore, right here!
How Long Does It Take To Go Through Badlands National Park?
Badlands National Park is comprised of 244,000 acres, making it the 28th largest National Park in the United States. The good news for you is that the 30-mile, paved park loop road (SD 240) that weaves throughout Badlands National Park takes on average about 1 to 1.5 hours to drive, but that’s without stopping. And you’ll for sure be stopping 🙂
To not be rushed and to enjoy hiking trails, wildlife viewing, and the overlooks, you should plan to allocate a minimum of a half day to a full day to get through Badlands National Park.
Badlands National Park Entrances. Where Do I Start The Badlands Park Loop?
There are three entrances to Badlands National Park and which one you should enter from all depends on where you are coming from.
Coming from Rapid City? You’ll want to head to the NE Entrance Station. If you were like us and staying at the Badlands Boondocking Area (camping) or coming from Wall, you’ll want to head to the Pinnacles Entrance. If you are staying near Interior, South Dakota, you’ll want to head to the Interior Entrance Station.
For most people visiting Badlands National Park, the NE Entrance or Pinnacle Entrance tend to be the two most used exists and entrances to Badlands National Park.
Where To Stay In & Near Badlands National Park
Staying Outside Badlands National Park
For this one-day in Badlands National Park itinerary, we recommend staying as close as you can to the park, which would be in the town of Wall, South Dakota. Badlands Frontier Cabins and Best Western Plains Motel are two options for you to consider. Both will put you miles away from Badlands National Park.
If you are wanting to stay in Rapid City, know that Rapid City is an hour away from Badlands National Park. If you plan to get up to see the sunrise in the park, just know you’ll be in for an early wake-up call! Some top-rated Rapid City accommodations are Best Western Plus, Rapid City Retreat, Rapid City Vacation Home, and Rapid City Base Camp.
Staying Inside & Camping In Badlands National Park
The only lodging inside the park that isn’t camping is Cedar Pass Lodge. Cedar Pass Lodge also offers tent camping and RV camping at their campground, Cedar Pass Campground.
Sage Creek Campground is the second campground inside Badlands National Park. This campground is first-come, first-serve and only offers spots to tent campers and motor homes, pull-behind trailers, and other recreational vehicles under 18ft. If you are greater than 18 feet in length, you are prohibited from staying in Sage Creek Campground.
If you are wanting to tent camp or have an RV and looking to stay near Badlands National Park, we use Campendium to locate our campsites. For us, we stayed at a boondocking site just outside of the Pinnacles Entrance Station.
Entrance Fees, Park Hours & Other Practical Information
- Three Park Entrances: NE Entrance Station, Pinnacle Entrance Station, Interior Entrance Station
- Entrance Fee: $30/vehicle, $25/motorcycle, $15/walkers or cyclists (valid for 7 consecutive days)
- Hours of Operation: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
- Cell Service: For the most part, pretty good! We could receive calls and get text messages out.
- In Park Gas Stations: None. Plan to fill up in Wall, South Dakota before entering the park.
- In Park Restaurants: Yes, one. Cedar Pass Restaurant in Cedar Lodge.
If you are visiting three or more national Park within a year, make sure to get a National Parks Pass so you can save money on park entrance fees.
LEAVE NO TRACE: When visiting any National Park, National Forest, or any outdoor space, leave it better than you found it. Always stay on hiking trails and marked paths, dispose of trash and waste appropriately, completely extinguish any campfire (embers included), leave what you find, and do not feed or approach wildlife.
Badlands National Park Itinerary
With only one day in Badlands, you should plan to start your day early. We recommend getting up and seeing the sunrise in the park. It’s so worth it! If sunrise is just out of the question for you, do your best to be in the park before or by 8 am.
Also, pack accordingly for the park! You’re going to have a full day so bring plenty of water, lots of snacks (no one wants you to be hangry), and plenty of sunscreen and chapstick! And then of course, whatever else you may need with you for the day i.e. medications, phone charger, jacket (weather dependent), sunglasses, etc.
The below route assumes you are entering Badlands National Park from the “NE Entrance Station” and driving the park loop road west through the park. If you are coming from Pinnacles Entrance, just reverse the itinerary. Check the map below for the must-see sights in Badlands.
1) Big Badlands Overlook
After you enter the park, your first viewpoint is Big Badlands Overlook. And this overlook is a fantastic option for sunrise! One of the great things about Badlands National Park is that a lot of overlooks have viewing platforms which are great for those with accessibility needs.
If you are wanting to get a closer view of those amazing buttes and pinnacles, you can follow paths out onto the hills of the Badlands.
2) The Notch Trail
After your first viewpoint, it’s time to hike THE BEST hiking trail in Badlands National Park. Of course, this is just our opinion, but it’s a pretty fantastic and fun hike. The Notch Trail is 1.5 miles out and back trail that takes you through canyons, up a wooden ladder, and to a great little viewpoint that overlooks the park.
This is the most thrilling and adventurous trail in the park, so if you’re up for some fun, definitely make sure you hike the Notch Trail!
Check out our travel to can’t miss hikes in Custer State Park!
Tip: Get started hiking as early as you can in the morning to 1) beat the crowds and 2) beat the heat. There is no tree coverage on this trail so if you hike when the sun is high and out, it could get a little toasty.
3) The Window Trail
Now, the great thing about The Notch, The Window, and the next trail, The Door is they are all located within the exact same parking lot! Pretty convenient. You can park your car in this lot and easily walk to the trailhead of The Notch, The Door, and The Window. The Notch is the longest of the trails three by far.
The Window Trail is a short 0.3-mile planked boardwalk path that takes you to a rock opening (aka window) that gives you a view of the Badlands and its pinnacles.
4) The Door Trail
The farthest trail to the right of the parking lot is The Door Trail. You have two options when doing The Door Trail, walking the short planked boardwalk to the viewing platform, or continuing on to do the full trail, which is a 0.9-mile out-and-back trail.
Again, do your best to hike in the early hours of the morning to avoid hiking when the sun is high in the sky and more intense.
Optional Stop: While we did not visit the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, we wanted to add it to this post just in case you want to! The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is your next point of interest after you leave The Door Trail. The trail is 0.5 miles in length and takes on average 12-15 minutes to complete.
5) Ben Reifel Visitor Center
After you’ve spent your morning taking in the sunrise and doing a few hikes, it’s time to head to the visitor center. Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a great little stop if you are wanting to knab a souvenir, talk to park rangers or just learn more about Badlands past and present.
Tip: The only restaurant in the park, Cedar Lodge, is next to the visitor center. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner so if you are hungry, you could swing into the lodge for a bite to eat. Alternatively, packing a cooler and having your lunch/snack break at one of the picnic benches around the park is another option for you! Bringing your own food is a great option if you are on a budget or looking to save time. If you are needing to leave the park to eat, the closest restaurant is about 40 minutes away in Wall. Leaving the park for lunch (especially when it’s hot) could be an option for those looking for relief from the heat.
Optional Hike: After the Visitor Center, you can add another hike to your day. The Castle Trail & Medicine Root Loop via Saddle Pass Trailhead. In total, the trail is around 5 miles. You start and the Saddle Pass Trailhead and end here.
6) Fossil Exhibit Trail
Did you know at one point, the Badlands were completely submerged underwater? Crazy to think about right? The Fossil Exhibit Trail is an outdoor, planked boardwalk that takes you past rock formations with fossil replica placards explaining what animal fossils were found where and how long ago they were here.
The path is about 0.4 miles in length and takes on average about 7-10 minutes to complete.
7) White River Valley Overlook
One of our favorite overlooks in Badlands National Park is the White River Valley Overlook! There are so many paths you can take to get great views of the pinnacles and the Badlands. This is also a great overlook for sunset!
8) Panorama Point
One of the more popular overlooks in Badlands is Panorama Point. This is another great overlook to come and watch the sunset from.
9) Conata Basin Overlook
Another favorite overlook of ours was Conata Basin Overlook! This overlook gives you different views of the park and great views of the Yellow Mounds. You’ll see the sign, but just in case, be on the lookout for Rattlesnakes here! We didn’t see any (whew!), but it is something to be mindful of.
10) Yellow Mounds Overlook
One of the neat geological features of Badlands is its yellow mounds. Due to the fact that at one point Badlands was underwater, the yellow sediment shows the point in time when the water level dropped, and the sea floor became land. It’s from the decaying sea plant life that the soil turned yellow.
11) Drive Sage Creek Rim Road
You are slowly nearing the end of your one-day in Badlands National Park itinerary. By this time, you are approaching Sage Creek Rim Road, which is down the way from the Pinnacle Station park entrance.
The Sage Creek Rim Road is a well-maintained gravel road that takes you to viewpoints such as Pinnacles Overlook, Hay Butte Overlook, Badlands Wilderness Overlook, Robert’s Prarie Dog Town, and Sage Creek Basin Overlook.
Tip: You don’t have to drive all the way to Robert’s Prarie Dog Town to see Prarie Dogs. There’s a whole field of them right next to the Pinnacles Entrance Station.
Drive as far as you would like, but in our opinion, you don’t need to drive too far. The area is flat, more rugged, and primitive when compared to the rest of the park. Sage Creek Rim Road is a popular place to spot wildlife in the park. We drove the Rim Road for a few miles and saw a few Big Horn Sheep, and the Bison we did see was right outside of the Pinnacles Entrance Station, which to be fair, is right by Sage Creek Rim Road.
However far you drive is up to you, just plan on making your way back to Pinnacles Overlook or Hay Butte Overlook (the first two viewpoints on Sage Creek Rim Road) for sunset.
12) Pinnacles Overlook and/or Hay Butte Overlook For Sunset
Hay Butte Overlook was another favorite overlook of ours. Both Pinnacles Overlook and Hay Butte Overlook are exceptional places to see sunrise and sunset. So if you are looking to end your day with a Badlands sunset, either of these overlooks will do just fine!
From Pinnacles Overlook and Hay Butte Overlook, you are less than 2 miles from the Pinnacles Entrance Station. From the Pinnacles Entrance Station, Wall is about a 15-minute drive, making Wall a great place to get dinner and check out the famous Wall Drug Store after your one day in Badlands National Park is wrapped.
Alt Option: If visiting in the summer, when the day hours are long, you could leave the park to get dinner in Wall (Rapid City is probably too much of a push) and then come back into the park to catch the sunset at either Pinnacles Overlook or Hay Butte Overlook.
You could also opt to stay in the park and grab dinner at Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant and catch the sunset at Big Badlands Overlook rather than at Pinnacles or Hay Butte. From Sage Creek Rim Road, Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant is about a 40-minute (22-mile) drive and then another 9 minutes to Big Badlands Overlook. At this point, your closest exit to the park will be where you entered, at the NE Entrance Station.
If you are staying in Rapid City, after sunset (or before if you don’t want to stay in the park), make your way into Rapid City for dinner at Que Pasa Cantina, Sickies Garage Burgers & Brews, Independent Ale House, or Juniper.
Want More Information?!
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