Read why rule-breaking kids love this national park.
Nineteenth-century French trappers called this area “mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bad lands to travel across,” because of the frustrating, maze-like landscape that the spires, pinnacles, and hoodoos created. Today, about million people come to explore those same features and learn about area’s 75 million years of geological history.
Badlands National Park is divided into three units: the North Unit plus the Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units, which are within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Unless you’re a backcountry adventurer, you’ll most likely visit the North Unit.
Badlands can easily be visited in a full day. Typically, a trip to this national park is part of a longer vacation that includes a visit to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where you’ll find the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials, and Wind Cave National Park.
KidTripster Tip: Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger (ages 5-12) book and return it completed for a junior range badge. Or you can print it in advance by clicking here. Also, make sure to watch the park movie, so you’re primed for your visit.
KidTripster Tip: Have older kids who want more challenge? Pick up a copy of the GPS Adventure Activity Book at the visitor center and use it to navigate to points of interest. Your GPS-enabled device will lead you to natural features, trails, and wayside exhibits where you’ll learn more about the park.
What to do?
My sons absolutely loved this park for one particular reason. Unlike other national parks , they didn’t have to stay on the trails and could climb the many hoodoos and spires at will. At that moment, they declared it to be their “favorite park ever.”
I’d recommend starting your visit to Badlands early in the morning with a short, 45-minute ranger walk at the Door Trailhead located at the far north end of the Door-Window parking area, which is two miles south of the Northeast Entrance Station. The ranger will give you a good orientation to the park, including its geology and fossil finds. From this parking area, you also can hike the easy, 1/4-mile Window Trail or the moderate, 1-1/2-mile Notch Trail to an expansive view of the White River Valley. Even more than the view, my boys liked climbing the log ladder along the trail. If you’re looking for longer hikes, consider the 4-mile (round-trip) Medicine Root Loop or the 10-mile (round-trip) Castle Trail.
KidTripster Tip: It can get blazing hot in the Badlands. Plan to hike early and carry ample water; one quart/hour is recommended. Also wear closed-toe shoes to protect your feet from cactus spines.
The rest of your day can be spent driving the Badlands Loop Road. Highlights include the colorful Yellow Mounds, which were created when ancient ocean mud was exposed to the air, and Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where you’ll see hundreds of prairie dogs poking their heads from their holes. Also keep a lookout for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and pronghorns along the road.
If you’re not overnighting at the Cedar Pass Lodge or Campground, make sure to catch the sunset at Pinnacles Overlook. It’s worth staying late!
The night sky at Badlands is phenomenally clear. During the summer, rangers offer evening programs at the campground amphitheater on Fridays through Mondays. At the end of those programs, they pull out large telescopes and help you find different constellations, stars, and planets. Night Sky Viewing starts at 9:45 p.m. in May, June, and July; in August and September, it starts at 9:15 p.m.
Because we wanted full hookups for our RV, we stayed at the Badlands/White River KOA (20720 SD Highway 44, Interior), located about four miles from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The large, clean campground is what you’d expect from a KOA; my kids were relieved to have a pool. We especially liked the sites along the pet park, which did double duty as a badminton court. Cost: Tent sites start at $22.50/night; RV sites with full hookups start at $47/night; cabins start at $61/night (without bathroom) or $97/night (with bathroom).
However, in hindsight, I wished that we would have stayed at the Cedar Pass Campground inside the park near the visitor center. Even though the RV sites only have electricity, the opportunity to watch the sunset over the Badlands and to take part in the nightly ranger programs would have made up for the lack of water hookups. There are no trees, but each campsite has a shade awning over a picnic table. Cost: Tent sites $22/night (2 people); RV site $37/night (2 people); additional campers $4/night; children (15 and under) stay for free. The campground is open April 1 through October 31.
Sage Creek Campground is located on the west side of the park’s North Unit. It’s a primitive campground with pit toilets and no water. The unpaved road to the campground has limited turnarounds for large RVs and is not passable after winter storms and spring rains. Cost: Free; first come-first serve.
The park also has cabins at Cedar Pass Lodge near the visitor center. The interiors are lined with fallen beetle kill pine from the Black Hills of South Dakota and furnished with handcrafted lodge pole pine furniture from a family-owned company in Montana. Outside, you can lounge in pine deck chairs while you take in views of the Badlands. Cost: $176/night (2 people); additional guest $20/night; children (15 and under) stay for free; pet-friendly cabins available for an extra $20/night. Cedar Pass Lodge is open April 15 through November 1.
Photo courtesy: Travel South Dakota
Where to eat?
There’s one diner-style restaurant in the park near the lodge and campground. Cedar Pass Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Every day, the restaurant makes its own fry bread for Sioux Indian tacos - fluffy fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat (or vegetarian option), shredded lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, and black olives. The restaurant is open mid-April through the end of October.
Photo courtesy: Forever Resorts
The North Unit of Badlands National Park is located about an hour’s drive from Rapid City Regional Airport. As mentioned earlier, a visit here is usually combined with Mount Rushmore, which is about a 1-1/2-hour drive, and Wind Cave National Park, which is under two hours.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV.