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Badlands National Park is one of the most underrated and unique landscapes in the United States. Its name originated long ago when the Lakota people first called it “mako sica” or “land bad”. The extreme temperatures, rugged land, and lack of water made the area undesirable. Today, the term “badlands” is used to describe the terrain. Badlands National Park is a great place for hiking, wildlife viewing, or taking a scenic drive. This guide will provide you with everything you need to know before visiting as well as the top things to do in Badlands National Park.
History of Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park was established as a national monument in 1939 and later re-designated a national park in 1978. The rocky formations were not always present though. The landscape that you see today was formed over tens of millions of years. The creation of the badlands began when the land started rising and sea waters receded.
As the environment changed, layers of sediment were deposited upon the dry seabed. The layers would eventually compact into soft rock and any animals trapped within the rock would fossilize. Badlands is home to some of the world’s richest fossil beds and many ancient creatures have been found in the park. Flowing waters eroded the sedimentary rock to form the ravines, buttes, and spires that we see today. The Badlands continue to erode at the rate of about one inch per year.
Badlands National Park is located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. Many people tend to include Badlands on a road trip to surrounding areas; however, there is a nearby airport. A handful of airlines offer flights to Rapid City Regional Airport, including Delta, Allegiant, and United. No form of public transportation is available within the park, so plan to rent a car upon arrival.
The park protects 242,756 acres (982 sq km) of land in southwestern South Dakota. The land is separated into two units: the North Unit and the South Unit. The North Unit is designated as a wilderness area and is the more visited unit. This post will primarily focus on the north. The land in the South Unit belongs to the Oglala Sioux tribe (a sub-tribe of the Lakota) and lies within Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This unit is currently co-managed by the park service and the tribe. Much of the South Unit is undeveloped and there are no roads going in. However, you can still drive its perimeter for some great views.
Depending upon your itinerary and where you are coming from, you’ll access the North Unit through one of three entrances. The Pinnacles Entrance will be used if you’re coming from the west, the Interior Entrance if you’re coming from the south, and the Northeast Entrance if you’re arriving from the east.
Top Things to Do in Badlands National Park
1. Hike Notch Trail
If you are going to pick just one trail to experience at Badlands then I recommend choosing Notch Trail. Notch Trail is a short trail that is about 1.5 mi (2.4 km) round trip and is what I would consider being moderately difficult. The sign at the trailhead implies that it is more difficult and takes more time than it actually is/does. I found it to be fairly easy, but understand how parts could be difficult for some.
It took me about an hour and a half to complete at a leisurely pace with lots of photo taking. Traffic on the trail can be heavy and there is little to no shade. I suggest going in the early morning to avoid both the crowds and the heat. I found 7 am to be perfect. You’ll want to park in the lot that is designated for Notch, Window, and Door Trails. The trailhead is located at the south end of the parking lot and the trail begins by winding through a canyon. Look for the markers if you’re having trouble locating the designated trail.
After following the trail for about .5 miles (.8 km), you’ll find a 50 foot (15 m) ladder. The ladder is the highlight of the trail. It looks steeper than it is and is actually not too difficult to climb. The trail continues along the ledge of a cliff and through an area of rocky landscape resembling that of another planet. Those with a fear of heights may find this part to be challenging. After a short distance, the trail ends rather abruptly and you’ll find beautiful views of the valley below.
2. Drive Badlands Loop Road
Loop Road is a 38 mile (61 km) stretch of Highway 240 that runs from the town of Cactus Flat to Wall. Without stopping, it would take about an hour to complete the stretch but you’ll definitely want to take advantage of the incredible roadside photo ops. The road passes through buttes, pinnacles, and beautiful prairies.
There are 15 overlooks and a handful of trails along the drive that you’ll definitely want to check out. Be on the lookout for wildlife as well. Bighorn Sheep, prairie dogs, bison, and more can be spotted throughout the landscape. Must visit points include Big Badlands Overlook, Panorama Point, and Pinnacles Overlook. A drive through Badlands’ unique terrain is truly special.
3. Watch the Sunset at Pinnacles Overlook
The Pinnacles Overlook is one of the best vantage points in the park. It’s located just one mile south of the Pinnacles Entrance and while you can get great views from the parking lot, I suggest continuing on to the observation deck. A set of stairs, located off of the parking lot, leads to a short trail that you will follow to the deck and the ultimate Badlands view. The overlook is located at one of the highest points in the park. Sunset is the perfect time to visit and catch the beautiful glowing rock. It can also be a great place for wildlife. Look carefully among the rocks and you might get lucky and spot a bighorn sheep.
4. Experience Sunrise at Panorama Point
Get your camera ready! As its name suggests, Panorama Point is the perfect place for a panoramic view of the Badlands. You’ll find expansive views of the rocky pinnacles mixed among green prairie. The view is especially breathtaking at sunrise. It’s located about 10 mi (16 km) north of the Interior Entrance on the left-hand side.