Driving Through Badlands National Park: A Surreal Road Trip

Driving through Badlands National Park is an amazing road trip adventure in a unique landscape forged over millennia.

Located in southwest South Dakota, Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway is one of the most beautiful scenic routes in the United States. Even though it’s less than forty miles end-to-end, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

The Badlands National Park scenic drive is a surreal and otherworldly experience, a collection of unique vistas and a catalog of geological history.

Seventy-five million years ago, this area of South Dakota was an ancient sea. Over time, the seabed compressed into a two-thousand-foot thick layer of gray-black rock called Pierre Shale.

Volcanoes dumped a blanket of ash. Then rivers flooded and receded, leaving sediment and fossils behind.

Animals were captured in the layers: saber-toothed cats, miniature camels and horses, and giant beasts called titanotheres, which resembled the modern-day rhinoceros.

Badlands National Park - a 75-million year walk

Erosion chiseled away, and what remains is a magnificent landscape of rock formations with jagged multi-hued ridges and deep gorges.

This landscape is extraordinary enough that it became Badlands National Monument in 1939 and a National Park in 1978, and now one million people a year visit Badlands National Park.

Because you’ll be driving through Badlands National Park, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee. Your pass is good for seven days, which means you can take this route and then return after you’ve explored other parts of South Dakota.

The park is near the Black Hills, which contain Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Seeing all these can make for an amazing South Dakota road trip.

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Black Hills of South Dakota
Black Hills of South Dakota

There are several overlooks, so even though you could technically drive the whole Badlands Loop road in about an hour, what’s the fun in that? Instead of rushing through, take a full day and truly dig into this incredible scenic drive.

TLTip: If you plan on doing any hiking, be sure to pack lots of water. There’s a reason the Lakota people called this land Mako Sica, or, Bad Lands. It’s harsh and dry, and the erosion means any water source is not potable.

Jagged peaks of Badlands National Park

Driving Through Badlands National Park

Your Badlands scenic drive begins north of Badlands National Park in Cactus Flat. Take Exit 131 from I-90.

If you’ve got time, turn north first for a stop at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, the first national park globally to commemorate the Cold War.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site - depositphotos

The site is actually three locations: the visitor center, the control center, and a silo containing a Minuteman II missile. Upon launch, a Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) could reach the Soviet Union in only thirty minutes.

This is one of only two places you can see a Cold War-era missile.

As you near the entrance to the Badlands, stop at Prairie Homestead to see an original sod house.

Settlers on the Great Plains built homes with walls made of sod blocks and covered their roofs with the thick prairie.

It was a good use of materials at hand, but not very permanent; Edgar and Alice Brown built theirs in 1909 and it’s one of the few sod houses that remain.

This seasonal attraction gives a glimpse into the rough conditions homesteaders would have experienced.

Shortly after you enter Badlands National Park, pull off at Big Badlands Overlook for a stunning view of the wall of buttes, pinnacles, and cliffs that make up this unique landscape and give the nearby town of Wall its name.

Badlands National Park near entrance

This will be your first of several scenic overlooks, and one you don’t want to miss.

Get out your boots, because the next stop provides access to four hiking trails. Door Trail is three-quarters of a mile on a boardwalk through a natural break in the wall.

It’s an easy trek, but not as easy as Window Trail. At only a quarter of a mile, it’s another one of the park’s short hikes and will only take about twenty minutes. Early risers will get the best sunrise view in the park at either of these trails.

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

Notch Trail is one and a half miles of moderate to strenuous hiking. You’ll climb a log ladder and follow a narrow ledge, but the view of the White River Valley is worth it. That is, unless you’re afraid of heights. Stay off it during or after rain, because the trail will quickly go from moderate to treacherous.

Day hikers can pick up Castle Trail. It’s five miles one way and a round-trip hike makes it the longest trail in the park. Plan on at least five hours on this relatively level path.

Your next pullout is the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. Boardwalks and stairs take you half a mile into a juniper forest and there’s a two-hundred foot elevation change, so it’s considered moderate.

While rain might be bad for Notch Trail, it could create a pond off of this path, drawing deer and bighorn sheep.

It’s time for a break, so enter the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, named for the first Lakota to serve in the U.S. Congress. Inside you can watch an orientation film and browse exhibits, including models and murals, that detail the area’s history and geology.

Ben Reifel Visitor Center - Badlands Naitonal Park

If you’re hungry, you can get a bite to eat at the seasonal Cedar Pass Lodge. The restaurant has snacks and full-service dining.

There are also picnic tables outside the visitor center.

The lodge itself has been welcoming guests since 1928. Next door is also one of the park’s two official campgrounds. Cedar Pass Campground has both tent sites and RV campsites with electrical hookups. 

You won’t be back on the road for long before another trail beckons. Saddle Pass is small but mighty: it’s only a quarter of a mile, but it could take up to an hour because it climbs up the Badlands Wall.

For an educational, and much gentler, hike, you’ll want Fossil Exhibit Trail. It’s the same length as Saddle Pass, but it’s fully accessible and has fossil replicas and interpretive signs telling the story of many of the extinct sea animals. This trail is especially great for kids. 

Badlands National Park - Oreodont

White River Valley Overlook is a wonderful place to see the tall rock formations collectively known as the Castle.

Be careful, because not only are there steep drop-offs, rattlesnakes like to set up camp on the rocks and pavement and soak in the sun.

This is a good place to see either sunrises or sunsets. You might also spy some American pronghorn antelope.

Badlands National Park - beware of rattlesnakes sign

Big Foot Pass Overlook is named for Chief Spotted Elk, who was also known as Chief Big Foot. In 1890, the chief led a few hundred fellow Lakota through the rocky formations to avoid the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry.

The Native Americans escaped notice for five days before the U.S. soldiers intercepted them and diverted them to Wounded Knee. Interpretive signs at the overlook tell the tragic story.

The view itself is magnificent, with layers of grays, browns, tans, and reds.

Badlands National Park - gorgeous overlook

Panorama Point provides similar views to Big Foot Pass and is another rattlesnake hotspot, so be careful as you follow the boardwalk to the viewing platform.

And for something completely different, Prairie Wind Overlook provides a sense of the vast grasses that used to blanket the plains states.

Badlands National Park - Prairie Wind Overlook

It’s hard to believe, but at one point there was a freshwater stream in this dry land. Wilson Burns found it and built a homestead and raised sheep.

Burns Basin Overlook is named for the fortunate man, although the stream dried up long ago and wells now have to be dug several thousand feet deep.

The Homestead Overlook tells the story of settlers like Burns, as well as the Native Americans those homesteaders displaced. 

Conata Basin Overlook is like Badlands 101, with a grand view of the many layers and jagged peaks that make up this beautiful land.

Yellow Mounds Overlook will definitely bring some color into your world. Mustard yellow bases are topped with a stripe of purple and capped with domes of gray, and there are some red layers thrown in for good measure. 

Yellow Mounds at Badlands National Park

If you missed the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail near the Badlands National Park Visitor Center, what you’ll see at Ancient Hunters Overlook is very similar. While the view, like every overlook in this park, is impressive, what’s most interesting about this spot is what was found at your feet.

Archaeologists uncovered the remnants of what was most likely a base for Native American hunters, including pottery shards, arrowheads, and charcoal from campfires of long ago.

Badlands National Park - Ancient Hunters Overlook

Be aware of the road conditions: if you notice road damage, it’s because the land itself is a slide that broke off from the wall and is constantly moving.

Pinnacles Overlook is considered the best place in the park to watch the sunset, and like Big Badlands Overlook near the park’s northeast entrance, the view illustrates the sheer magnificence of this unique landscape.

To the east is the cragged and serrated wall; to the west, the sweeping Sage Creek Wilderness Area. This overlook might also provide your first glimpse of bison. 

From this point, the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway turns north towards Wall and the famous, or infamous, Wall Drug. However, before heading to that tourist destination, it’s worth it to take Sage Creek Rim Road.

Stop at the first pullout at Hay Butte Overlook. From this vantage point, not only can you see Hay Butte itself, a grass-topped mesa and one of the most recognizable formations in the park, but you’re also likely to encounter Bison and Bighorn Sheep.

Driving through Badlands National Park you'll want to stop at one of the many overlooks
Badlands National Park - Hay Butte Overlook

Be careful: neither of those wild animals are afraid of humans and their vehicles, but you should be cautious of them. They both roam freely in this section of the park and Bison are particularly dangerous.

The largest North American mammal is not only big, but also fast. These beasts can get up to thirty miles an hour, and with a male weighing up to 2,000 pounds, they can do considerable damage.

Stay at least a hundred yards away, and never ever try to feed or engage them.

The Badlands Wilderness Overlook sits on a transition between the wild rocky formations and a vast prairie. The view goes from jagged to undulating, offering a more hospitable environment.

Soon you’ll see prairie dogs popping up as they jump out of one burrow and scramble to another. Roberts Prairie Dog Town is a great place to watch them scurry. 

Roberts Prairie Dog Town sign in Badlands National Park
Prairie Dog burying something in Roberts Prairie Dog Town

Your final overlook is Sage Creek Basin Overlook. The Badlands eroded, leaving behind mixed-grass prairie. You’ll see a few trails, but be careful hiking them because these were formed by bison, not humans.

Also in the distance is Sage Creek Campground. This primitive site is free and first-come, first-serve. There are a couple of pit toilets and equestrian enclosures, but other than that it’s you and the bison and prairie dogs.

Badlands National Park - pink and blue sunset
Badlands National Park - bright yellow sunset
Sunset while driving through Badlands National Park

Related: See what it’s like to go camping in Badlands National Park – in the middle of the bison.

At this point, you can take the twisting roads and curves back towards the Pinnacles Entrance and head north to Wall and I-90, and then continue heading west to Rapid City and the Black Hills.

You could also continue following Sage Creek Road until it dead ends at SD-44 and then drive through Buffalo Gap National Grassland to Wind Cave National Park.

No matter which way you choose, driving through Badlands National Park is one of the most majestic, scenic, and awe-inspiring scenic drives in the country.

Badlands National Park Facts

Despite its appearance as an inhospitable landscape, humans have lived in the Badlands for over 11,000 years. From mammoth hunters, to nomadic tribes that hunted bison, to the Arikara, who made homes in the White River area.

The Lakota Sioux replaced them. They also hunted bison, but atop horses, which had been brought by the Spaniards and flourished in the North American plains.

But the arrival of French fur trappers, followed by other Europeans who would become Americans, decimated the prairies and the bison. After the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, the Lakota were forcibly removed to reservations.

Homesteaders moved in and raised cattle instead of bison, and it was hard going.

Badlands joined the national park system as Badlands National Monument in 1939. It became Badlands National Park in 1978.

Badlands National park is 244,000 acres and 379 square miles of rough beauty in southwestern South Dakota.

Visitors can see prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer. There are also plenty of American bison, the largest mammal in North America.

Badlands National Park is about 40 miles east of Rapid City between the White River and Cheyenne River.

There are three units:

The North Unit of Badlands National Park contains the Badlands scenic loop

The Stronghold and Palmer Creek units are within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The White River Visitor Center is on Oglala Sioux tribe land. The Stronghold unit is where the last known ghost dances took place.

Badlands National Park Fees

  • Private, non-commercial vehicle $25.00
  • Motorcycle $15.00
  • Per person, walk-in or bicycle $12.00
  • Non-commercial vehicles with a capacity of 16 or greater $12.00 per person

As a member of the National Park Service, entrance is included in the America The Beautiful Annual Pass.

Want more Midwest road trips? Check out Midwest Road Trip Adventures, and don’t forget your guide to Planning Your Perfect Road Trip.

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