When to Go
All-year park. Summer is the most popular season, though daytime temperatures may top 100°F. Spring and fall are usually pleasant, with moderate temperatures and fewer crowds. Winters can be bitter cold, but snow accumulations are rarely a problem in this arid climate.
How to Get There
The park is about 3 miles south of I-90 at S. Dak. 240, 75 miles east of Rapid City and 27 miles west of Kadoka. Airport: Rapid City.
How to Visit
The 30-mile Badlands Loop provides a rich eyeful of classic badlands for a one-day North Unit visit (a shorter loop can be devised as described below). Make sure to take advantage of the informative nature trails. For those with a second day and a pioneering spirit, a trip to the park's undeveloped South Unit can be rewarding; don't fail to check with rangers about road conditions before going.
Where to Stay
Lodging Inside the Park:
Cedar Pass is a first-come, first-served campground located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It offers cold running water, flush toilets, and covered picnic tables. Part of the campground is open in winter.
Sage Creek Campground is near the Badlands Wilderness Area on the west side of the park’s North Unit. This primitive campground includes pit toilets, covered picnic tables, and, oftentimes, meandering bison. Sage Creek Rim Road, the only way to access the grounds, is unpaved, so spring rains and winter storms may make the Sage Creek area inaccessible. Part of the campground is designated for horse use.
Cedar Pass Lodge and Badlands Inn are two more options. Cedar Pass Lodge offers vintage cabins and cottages with heating, air conditioning, and bath, but no TV or phone. The inn also has 18 guest rooms with more modern conveniences.
Lodging Outside the Park:
Circle View Guest Ranch is a 6,000-acre ranch just south of the park that stays open all year. Tucked below a butte, it offers intrepid travelers a chance to bunk down like a homesteader in a rustic 1889 cabin. There are eight rooms in the guest ranch, all with private baths.
Though stunning, this park was named Badlands for a reason: The land is not easy to traverse. Follow the park’s safety regulations—your safety is largely up to you.
Weather is extreme in the park. Temperatures range from -40 to 116°F, with hot, dry summers interrupted by occasional violent thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hailstorms. One to two feet of snow fall in the winter. Be prepared for high winds.
In the summer, wear sunscreen, long sleeves, long pants, and hats to avoid sunstroke, and drink plenty of water (one gallon a day is recommended) to stave off dehydration.
Weather can change suddenly in the Badlands. Check the local weather forecast before setting off on a hike.
Most areas of the park have no cell phone reception; bring a topographic map and a compass or a GPS unit (and make sure you know how to use them). Bring a first aid kit and flashlight, plus extra food and water. Know when park buildings close because it can be a long way to food stores otherwise if you haven’t stocked up.
Closed-toe shoes or boots are a must to avoid injuries from cactus spines, prairie rattlesnakes, and falls. Twisted or fractured ankles are the most common park injury. Watch for cracks and holes, and know that the terrain is unstable and slippery when wet. High-top shoes can help you avoid ankle injuries.
Keep a 100-yard distance from wild animals, which can be dangerous; bison can charge at 30 miles per hour. Also watch out for prairie rattlesnakes, poisonous spiders, and stinging insects.
Drive slowly on gravel roads; when wet, they can be like driving on ice.
Pets are permitted on a short leash (no more than six feet) in developed areas and areas that are open to motor vehicles. They are prohibited from public buildings, hiking trails, and backcountry areas; service animals are an exception.