Badlands National Park Activities

Badlands National Park Activities
There's no shortage of activities in South Dakota's 244,000-acre Badlands National Park, one of the many jewels of the U.S. public lands system. Indeed, you can become fully absorbed in simply gazing at the fantastically contorted landscape of spires, knife ridges, gullies and tableland prairies. Or you can seek out dawn and dusk color displays from the park's many vistas. There are many ways to occupy yourself in the wild, windblown terrain of the White River badlands.

Wildlife Watching

Keep your eyes peeled for the park's impressive array of wildlife while auto touring, hiking and camping. Hanging out near one of the lively black-tailed prairie dog towns---while keeping a respectful distance from these charismatic rodents---is one way to see a number of diverse creatures, like Ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, bison and even, if you're incredibly lucky, the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Most wildlife is actually more easily seen from vehicles than on foot---but that doesn't mean you shouldn't ditch the automobile and secure your hiking boots (see below). The half-mile Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, which leads through a Badlands Wall juniper woodland, passes near an ephemeral pond that attracts deer, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.


Leave the car---and the roads, which can be bustling in the summer---behind and let your feet take you into quieter sections of the Badlands. A number of developed hiking trails traverse the North Unit. They range from quarter-mile paths like the Window Trail, which leads to a gap in the great geological battlement known as the Badlands Wall, to the longest in the park, the 10-mile Castle Trail, which links to both Highway 240 and the Badlands Loop Road. The short Fossil Exhibit Trail provides interpretative information on the park's rich paleontological heritage.

Adventurous outdoorspeople can explore the Badlands Wilderness on foot, but you should know that there are no developed trails, and you must be prepared for isolation and potentially harsh conditions. Visitors to the Stronghold and Palmer Creek units should check in at the White River Visitor Center to learn about the possibilities of cross-country travel, which can only be undertaken with the permission of local private landowners.


Take your bicycle for a spin on the Badlands Loop Road or, if you're comfortable cycling on unpaved surfaces, try the Sage Creek Rim Road, which skirts wilder country. Bicycles are allowed on all park roads but not on any trails. The Park Service recommends a 22-mile paved tour of the Loop Road, beginning at the Pinnacles Overlook and finishing at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (where you can also acquire a map of suggested bicycle trips in the park).


Look heavenward during astronomy programs based at the Cedar Pass Amphitheater on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday evenings during the summer. These evenings incorporate both presentations and viewing of stars and planets with high-powered binoculars and telescopes. The night skies over the Badlands are legendary for their clarity.

Visitor Centers

Check out the park's visitor centers for a primer on Badlands ecology and history. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center at Cedar Pass, open year-round, includes the informative film "Land of Stone and Light." The White River Visitor Center in the more isolated South Unit, abutting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is open only during the summer months. Staffed by members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, this outpost is a good place to learn about the Badlands' rich cultural heritage. In addition, any general questions about park activities and regulations can be answered at Ben Reifel and White River.

Article Written By Ethan Schowalter-Hay

Ethan Schowalter-Hay is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written for the "Observer," the Bureau of Land Management and various online publishers. He holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.

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