Badlands National Park is about an hour east of Rapid City, South Dakota. The hallmark of the park is the sedimentary rock layer formations, which have varying colors based on the type of sediment deposit that formed the rock. The Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center shows a great movie and has newer exhibits. The best way to get an overview of the park is to drive the Badlands Loop road (Highway 240). As a loop, it’s 58 miles and one way is 38 miles. The drive will take you through some of the most colorful and towering parts of the Badlands.
Heading east on the loop from the Visitor’s Center by the Badlands Interior Entrance, you’ll pass Big Badlands Overlook. Then comes the trailhead for Door, Window, and Notch Trails. The easiest is Window Trail, a quarter-mile round trip to a hole, or window, in the Badlands Wall. The Door Trail features a quarter-mile of accessible boardwalk to a break in the wall (hence the name “door”) and you can continue on from there for a little bit should you desire. For a more difficult trail, consider Notch Trail. This is a 1.5-mile round trip that climbs a ladder made from logs. You get a great view of the White River Valley at the end. I enjoyed this trail immensely. For a longer trail here, the Castle Trail leaves from across the street. This is the longest trail in the park and goes 5 miles west one-way and ends around the Fossil Exhibit Trail area.
Continuing on the loop, you’ll pass the Big Badlands Overlook before heading out the Badlands Northeast Entrance. While working your way over to the west part of the loop, you’ll pass the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which informs visitors of the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System and its role in the Cold War.
After a drive west, turn south to re-enter the park through the Badlands Pinnacle Entrance. You must stop at the Pinnacles and the Yellow Mounds Overlook. After some more outlooks, you’ll come to Panarama Point. After this is the Fossil Exhibit Trail, which is an accessible quarter-mile boardwalk trail that shows replica fossils of animals that lived here long ago.
During your journey, you’ll most likely encounter some of the 1,000+ bison in the park. Bighorn sheep are seen in the Pinnacles and if you’re lucky you may see some Pronghorn speeding along throughout the park. Also, if you turn right after entering from the Pinnacle Entrance station instead of left to continue on the loop road, you’ll encounter Roberts Prairie Dog Town and see more than your fair share of wild prairie dogs at play.
For lodging, the Cedar Pass Lodge is the only park lodge and is near the Visitor’s Center. Two campgrounds are available. The Cedar Pass Campground is by the lodge. On the northwest part of the park is the Sage Creek Campground, which is very popular due to its proximity to bison. More lodging options are available in Rapid City, which makes a good base station to visit Mount Rushmore or Deadwood.