Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota and is made up of beautiful buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and prairies. It is a park that you will not want to miss! Also, surprisingly, we saw a ton of animals there- bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs and so many birds! Watching the sheep scale the Badland cliffs was one of my kids’ favorite things to see there. Their climbing skills were quite impressive, and they blend in with the rock, so it was always a fun game of I spy😊 Also, sunset at the park is STUNNING, so if your little ones can last I would definitely plan on staying late to take it all in!
Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle for 7 consecutive days.
Lodging: Badlands National Park has two campgrounds. The first, Cedar Pass Campground, has 96 paid electric sites with reservations accepted online. The second, Sage Creek Campground, is free, primitive and is first-come, first-serve with 22 sites available. There is also one lodge, open April through October-cabins only, with reservations available here. Back country camping is also permitted anywhere within the park as long as you are within 0.5 miles of a road or trail.
Dining: The gift shop has a small section of snacks and drinks and there is one sit down restaurant onsite. Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner but is only open seasonally, April through October. There are 4 picnic areas available throughout the park including ones near both visitor centers.
Must Know Before You Go: You will want to bring lots of water, sunscreen, and hats for your crew because there is very little shade throughout the entire park and you will be in the hot, dry sun most of the day.
Cell Service: We had no service anywhere except the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
One Day Itinerary
Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240)- For this itinerary it is best to enter the park from the Northeast Entrance. If you are entering from the Pinnacles Entrance, just do the itinerary in reverse. All trailheads and stops are off the Badlands Loop Road. There are many amazing overlooks but these are the ones I would not miss- Big Badlands Overlook, White River Valley Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Pinnacles Overlook.
*You can pick up the Door, Window, and Notch Trails all from the same parking lot, so you can really do them in whichever order you would like! There are also several restrooms off this parking lot but no plumbing. You will pick up the Door Trail at the very far left(north) end of the lot and the Window and Notch trailheads will be at the far right(south) end of the lot.
Door Trail- This 0.75-mile roundtrip trail was one of our favorites. The first 0.25 mile is a stroller accessible boardwalk that leads to an overlook, but if able I would definitely recommend continuing down the short set of stairs to the rest of the path. This part of the trail has you walking over rock so to follow the path you will need to find the next numbered pole. They are quite easy to spot. This part of the trail is very flat and easy to walk but does have some drop offs so you will want to keep your kiddos close.
Window Trail- This is an easy 0.25-mile roundtrip trail that leads to a natural window with a beautiful overlook.
Notch Trail- I would say this 1.5-mile roundtrip trail is mostly moderate in difficulty, however, there is a very steep ladder you will have to climb up and then down on your way back that I felt could be strenuous for some. Our 7- and 8-year-olds had no problem completing it, but my husband had to help our 5 -year -old quite a bit. A few people we saw, ended up turning around at that point because they had some difficulty climbing up the ladder. Also, once you are up the ladder you are walking on a very narrow ledge for some time, so I would not recommend the second half of this trail for those afraid of heights. The first half of the trail is walking through the canyon and the second half is walking on the top of the canyon until you get to a spectacular view of the White River Valley for your turnaround point. If you are up for it, this trail was awesome!
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail- This 0.5-mile loop is moderate in difficulty and has approximately 200 stairs. This trail has great views and if you start to the right side of the loop, the first overlook is a great place to sit and have lunch. There are benches but no tables. Our crew usually just sits on the ground. This trail is also close to the visitor center, restaurant, and gift shop if you would rather do lunch there beforehand. There are plenty of picnic tables in the visitor center area😊
Ben Reifel Visitor Center- The visitor center has park rangers to speak with, lots of materials about the park, a short Badlands film, a gift shop, a small museum with exhibits, and a fossil preparation lab (our middle is obsessed with paleontology, so this was a must). Next door to the visitor center is Cedar Pass Lodge which is open seasonally and will be your only food options inside the park.
Fossil Exhibit Trail- This 0.25-mile roundtrip trail is a completely stroller accessible boardwalk where you and the kids can learn about the fossils of animals that used to roam the Badlands area long ago. This area has a large parking lot with restrooms, but again-no plumbing. My middle’s only complaint was that the fossils were only casts of real fossils not the actual real life fossils….haha.
Castle Trail- This trail is 10 miles roundtrip. If you are only at the park for 1 day, I would not skip this and instead only do part of the trail. I would park at the Fossil Exhibit Trail and then walk across the street to one end of the Castle Trail. The other end is at the Door/Window/Notch trails parking lot. If you are only going to do one side, we preferred this one😊 I would recommend hiking to the Saddle Pass trail split and then returning the way you came making it 4 miles roundtrip.
Sage Creek Rim Road- Depending on time, I would end the day with Sage Creek Rim Road. The overlooks are spectacular, and, in the evening, you will have lots of opportunities to see wildlife. After the Pinnacles Overlook, you will take a left onto Sage Creek Rim Road and follow that to the end where you will hit 44 and head home for the evening. If you are short on time, I would take Sage Creek Rim Road for 7 miles and then head out through 502 instead of heading out directly down 240 so you can still see some of the best parts😊
*If you have 2 days to spend at the Badlands, I would save the Castle Trail and Sage Creek Rim Road for day 2 and do both in their entirety.
Hope you have a wonderful adventure!
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