See the Wall—the park's distinctive 100-mile-long natural barrier—from your own window in one of the cinder-block cabins that comprise Cedar Pass Lodge. A backcountry horse-packing trip is highly suggested for equestrians. Hike the South (Stronghold) Unit, accessed by the gravel Sheep Mountain Road, for a remote, alone-in-the-wilderness experience. Learn about fossils and constellations in ranger talks.
Take Exit 110 or 131 off Interstate 90 to the Badlands Loop Road, a 51-mile route that winds past multiple outlooks for dramatic views of the bizarrely beautiful Badlands Wall—a stretch of buttes striped in purple, red, and orange layers.
All trails can be accessed from the Badlands Loop Road.
Door Trail is an easy 0.75-mile hike that leads to and through “the Door”—a famous break in the Badlands Wall—to a magnificent view. The trail begins on a boardwalk and ends past the Door. Continue beyond at your own risk.
Start on the 1.5-mile Notch Trail at the north end of the Door and Window parking area. Not recommended for those who are afraid of heights, this moderate to strenuous trail snakes through a canyon then ascends a ladder to a ledge—and the “the Notch,” a viewing spot that looks out on the White River Valley. Beware of drop-offs along the trail, and avoid hiking it during or after heavy rainfalls.
Castle Trail, the longest trail in the park, can be accessed from the same Door and Window parking area. This moderate trail covers five fairly level miles one way, passing Badlands formations and ending at the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail loops through a juniper forest, where a seasonally filled pond attracts deer and bighorn sheep. At only 0.5 miles, this trail is a moderate hike that climbs about 200 feet in elevation.
Even shorter (0.25 miles) than Cliff Shelf but more strenuous is Saddle Pass, which climbs up the Badlands Wall and leads to a view over the White River Valley. It ends at a junction with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop Trails.
View the Badlands from a distance on the Medicine Root Loop Trail, a four-mile spur trail that can be accessed from the Castle Trail at two points: near the Old Northeast Road and at the intersection with Saddle Pass Trail. Hike along the mixed-grass prairie, watching out for cactus.
Fauna in Badlands National Park includes the black-footed ferret (a rare mammal that was successfully reintroduced in the park), foxes, bighorn sheep, bison, coyotes, porcupines, bobcats, black-billed magpies, prairie rattlesnakes, and black-tailed prairie dogs. This arid park is home to a mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, with more than 60 types of grasses; other flora include cacti, yucca, dozens of flowering plants, and a few tree and shrub species.
The Badlands also claim many fossil discoveries: The bones of a hornless rhinoceros, three-toed horses, turtles, tiny deer-like creatures, and a bobcat-size saber-toothed cat have all been found in recent excavations.
The Badlands look best at sunrise and sunset. A photo tip is to include a nearby road in the shot to provide a sense of scale. Conveniently, the Badlands Loop Road (Hwy. 240) was built with views in mind. One popular stop is Pinnacles Overlook, by Rte. 240 at the Pinnacles Entrance. Pull off the Badlands Loop Road near the northeast entrance for shots from Big Badlands Overlook, then continue on to Yellow Mounds Overlook for another excellent photo op. Use a long exposure at night to capture the weaving tail lights of cars.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Smart Traveler Strategies
The National Park Service offers daily walks and talks from late May/early June to mid-August. Rock fans should arrive by 8:30 a.m. to join a 45-minute ranger-led walk to learn about the geology of the White River Badlands. Meet in front of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the evening (check times) for a half-mile ranger-led Prairie Walk. Fossil Talks are held several times daily. Check the National Park website to see when the Night Sky Program, a presentation on the constellations with an astronomy-trained ranger, will be held. The program starts when the sky is dark, but dates vary.
Both the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the White River Visitor Center are wheelchair accessible. Cedar Pass Campground has two accessible sites, available on a first-come, first-served basis to all campers; restrooms are accessible. Several ranger programs and portions of the Geology Walk are accessible.
Excursions Outside the Park
While you’re in the area, don’t miss Mount Rushmore (99 miles west of the park). North of Rushmore are Black Hills National Forest and the Crazy Horse Memorial, carved right into a mountain. Also, the last Ghost Dance held before more than 150 Lakota Indians were massacred at Wounded Knee in 1890 took place on Stronghold Table, in the park’s South Unit. The Wounded Knee Museum is in Wall, about 22 miles from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.