Location: South Dakota
Park Tally: 29/59
Orientation: Visitors are lured to Badlands National Park by the magnificent rock formations, countless photographic opportunities and the chance to explore ancient natural history. The park is split into three units – North Unit, Stronghold Unit and Palmer Creek Unit. The North Unit is the most accessible and frequented section of the park, with the Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units comprising of fewer hiking trails and accessible viewpoints.
Most iconic view: Badlands Loop Road is located in the North Unit and is definitely the most popular way to view the park’s breathtaking landscapes. The 31-mile loop scenic byway offers views of ancient rock formations such as pinnacles, spires, buttes, mounds, and fins. The loop also traverses through prairie grasslands, hiking areas, visitor centers, and almost 30 picturesque overlooks. Have your camera ready for some epic images of dramatic landscapes and diverse wildlife!
Accessible activity: A particularly beautiful area in the park is Big Badlands Overlook. Found halfway between Cedar Pass Lodge and Cactus Flat, the overlook can be accessed via a short boardwalk from the parking lot. A platform provides views out over the northeast and southeast sections of the park and surrounding areas. We were lucky enough to witness an incredible sunset and rainbow during our visit to Big Badlands Overlook!
Another popular activity in the park is fossil discovery, as Badlands has one of the most concentrated mammal fossil beds in the world. The Fossil Exhibit Trail off Badlands Loop Road is an interesting and family-friendly activity. Be sure to only observe and snap photos of fossils from a distance. Touching or removing fossils is strictly forbidden.
The Notch Trail is a short hike worth checking it, though keep in mind that it involves some stair and ladder climbing. The 1.5-mile roundtrip trail takes hikers on a walk back in time, through ancient rock formations and ending at a stunning viewpoint over the southeast section of the park.
For the adventurous: The 12-mile Castle Trail is the perfect hike for those looking for something a little more challenging. The trail passes by large sand structures that almost appear to be abnormally large sand castles. The park also has numerous options for overnight trips into the backcountry – the perfect way to find solitude and unwind from the daily grind.
Best photo opportunities: Badlands National Park is an incredibly diverse photography location. The dramatic weather, dark night skies, ancient fossils, abundant wildlife, and jagged rock formations provide endless shooting opportunities. We particularly enjoyed photographing sunrise and sunset at Big Badlands Overlook, plus the night sky at White River Valley Overlook.
- Badlands National Park was established on November 10, 1978.
- The park was reportedly named “mako sica” by the Lakota people, meaning “land bad”. This is likely due to the severe weather, jagged landscape and lack of water.
- Badlands is the largest mixed-prairie grassland in the country.
- Wildlife found within the park include bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, badgers, coyotes, prairie dogs, hawks, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons.
- The black footed ferret is also found within the park – one of the world’s most endangered species.
- The highest recorded temperature in the park was in 1980, at 114 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Each year the park has around 1,000,000 visitors, with many people also choosing to stop by local attractions such as Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.