The best things to do at Badlands National Park – better than Rushmore!

Cliff Shelf Trail at Badlands National Park
Cliff Shelf Trail

So, you finally made the trip to the iconic Mount Rushmore in Rapid City, SD. It was amazing, so much bigger than you thought it would be! But, if you’re being honest, 15 minutes later you were left wondering… now what? Lucky for you, South Dakota has so much more to offer. Rapid City is an amazing jumping-off point to explore the stunningly gorgeous badlands. There are so many things to do at Badlands National Park, that you can be rest assured your vacation has barely started.

The itinerary below provides instructions for a laid-back trip filled with scenic driving, various levels of hikes, wildlife viewing, and a big, greasy dinner to top it all off. Get your sunscreen and road snacks ready – it’s time to see the real South Dakota!

Getting there

When leaving Rapid City, travel East on Highway 44 into Badlands National Park. The entire drive takes approximately 1.5 hours and is almost completely devoid of civilization. During this scenic drive, you’ll enjoy large, open fields and get a preview of some of the rock formations in the park. Just make sure to have plenty of gas and use the bathroom before you leave.

The first hike to do at Badlands National Park

It’s time to start your tour of the park. The Badlands have plenty of short, scenic hikes that are easy to access from the main road. 

Firstly, you’ll hike Cliff Shelf, which is about half a mile, roundtrip. This hike mostly takes place on a boardwalk, with a healthy amount of steps. Throughout the hike, you’ll enjoy stunning views of the prairie below. You’ll also see some examples of the area’s most prominent geological features: buttes, pinnacles, and spires. These rock formations are over 75 million years old and have been eroding for the past 500,00 years. That is to say, you are looking at a hotbed of ancient fossils.

3 more trails to do at Badlands National Park

Next, you’ll continue driving on Highway 240 to the pullout for the Notch, Window, and Door trails. All of these trails are hike in/hike out, and are relatively short. Here you will find the first of 2 available restrooms in the park. Both are outhouses – I look at it as the price of enjoying nature.

The Door Trail at Badlands National Park
The Door Trail

Your first stop is the Notch trail, which is 1.5 miles, round trip, and the Park’s most famous trail. It meanders through stunning rock formations, requires a near-vertical climb up a manmade ladder, and ends with a view of the White River Valley. To be clear, the ladder is a vertical climb and certainly not for the faint of heart.

Next, you’ll find the Window trail, which is really more of a lookout point, running at just .25 miles, round trip. Still, I’d say it’s worth the 10 minutes to get a look at the Badlands wall (a series of canyons and rock formations, which separates the lower and upper prairies). 

Finally, the Door Trail is a can’t miss in my book. It’s about .75 miles, round trip, but traverses right into the middle of the Badlands wall. This is not a typical trial; you’ll have to follow a series of poles, staked into the rocks by the park rangers. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view of the canyon.

Bonus hike

Depending on how fast you are, you may have time to take the Castle Trail to Old Northwest road. This is roughly 2 miles, round trip, and travels right through the center of the park.

On the other hand, you can find somewhere interesting to hang out around the Door trail and enjoy the quick drop in temperature as sunset approaches. During your break, make sure to take some time to enjoy your trail snacks and compare pictures with your travel mates.

Late afternoon, the Badlands come to life

Now it’s time to climb back into your comfy car and start the drive down Badlands Loop Road. This requires some backtracking to the visitor’s center, where you will turn left onto the clearly marked road.

The entire drive is roughly 30 miles with 18 overlook points. The area is crawling with prairie-based wildlife including herds of bighorn sheep, a ton of prairie dogs, and, possibly, some bison if you are lucky. Make sure to stop at Fossil Exhibit Trail, which is a cute, little boardwalk loop featuring informational panels about the local fossils. This is also the location of the 2nd available restroom in the park.

Sunset is the perfect time to hit this side of the park as the temperature will continue to drop and the wildlife springs to life. Make sure to take plenty of pictures, the big sky, and wide-open prairies are the perfect backdrop for your next great shot.

After sunset

The Badlands Loops Road ends in the charming town of Wall. Most of the town will be closed for the night (a small trade-off for experiencing the sunset on the prairie). A few restaurants stay open after dark and you can’t go wrong with any of them. I recommend Badlands Saloon and Grille, a place that serves hearty meals, and you are guaranteed to not feel self-conscience about being covered in dust.

From Wall, it’s just under an hour’s drive to get back to Rapid City. In short, the Badlands National Park is a beautiful mix of prairies, rock formations, fossils, and wildlife. It’s a surprisingly low-effort trip that will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.

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