Badlands National Park, south of Wall, South Dakota, is a popular “drive-through” National Park for those on their way to other destinations. Often, this means that there are some incredible opportunities within the park for families that get missed. Being extremely familiar with this National Park (we consider it one of our two “home” parks), we feel there are six short stops you should make that will help you experience most of the Badlands in a span of a few hours. Ideally, we recommend one full day minimum to have the full experience of these activities, but the whole circuit could be accomplished comfortably in about four to five hours.
The order of these activities are listed from east to west, and can easily be reversed, depending on your entry point along your own route. If you are coming from Rapid City, simply start at number six and work your way up the list. Our preference is to run these stops from east to west even though we come through Rapid City to visit the Badlands.
Stop #1: White Prairie Dogs
Getting off Interstate 90 at the Cactus Flats exit, you will turn south toward Badlands National Park. Before you get even 100 yards from the highway you will see a prairie dog town on the west side of Highway 244 like no other. Near the only gas station at this exit is a large town of leucistic prairie dogs. Most of them are all white, some mottled, and some the traditional brown. If you park at the gas station you can walk about their underground homes and take great photos. Do approach them with caution and maintain a hefty distance as they, like all wild animals, can certainly bite!
Stop #2: The Window and Door Trails
Just inside the northeastern entrance to Badlands are several short trails that give you panoramic views and the ability to wander through the landscape. Start with the Window Trail, which takes you up an incline to an opening in the Wall where you can look east for miles out onto the lunar-like terrain. This trail is mostly boardwalk. After scoping out the amazing view, take a trip down the Door Trail, which brings you around behind the Wall and into the vast landscape. This part is also a boardwalk and ends at an overlook point. From this point, you can go off-trail and wander, following a series of yellow guideposts, allowing exploration of ravines, caves, and buttes. A great exercise stop for traveling families! In addition, this stop has clean, accessible pit toilets with hand sanitizer.
Stop #3: Ben Reifel Visitor Center
This visitor center is located just west of Cedar Pass, and is open all year. Inside you will find a nice gift shop, museum, water and restrooms, and a 20-minute film about the park. The museum is small but quite informative. Our sons, 5 and 9, beg us to stop there every time. There is not food available in the visitor center, although next door at the Cedar Pass Lodge there is a convenience store open seasonally. In winter months, visitors are asked to stop at this center to validate their entry to the park, when the entrance stations are unmanned.
Stop #4: Fossil Exhibit Trail
This boardwalk trail is very short (1/4 mile) and features information stations about creatures and plants that were in the Badlands area long ago. Very quick but informative, any geology or history lovers in your family will enjoy it! Keep an eye out for cottontail rabbits and ground squirrels under the boardwalk!
Stop(s) #5: Panoramic Overlooks – Conata Basin & Pinnacles
There are so many overlook sites throughout the drive on Highway 240. How do you know if they are worth the stop? Our two favorites, with the best panoramic views are the Conata Basin Overlook and the Pinnacles Overlook. At Conata Basin, the sunrises and sunsets are unparalleled. The overlook area is hundreds of feet above the basin, and the view is breathtaking. Pinnacles Overlook is our real favorite stop, because in addition to the panoramic views south and west, the beautiful Black Hills tower along the horizon, including a view of Harney Peak, the tallest free-standing mountain east of the Rockies.
Stop #6: Sage Creek Rim Road
At the point of Pinnacles, you can easily exit the park to the north. However, if the weather is fair and you came to see wildlife, take one last detour onto Sage Creek Rim Road. Down this expanse of prairie road that hugs the drop-off on its south edge, you will see bison, bighorn sheep, and find Robert’s Prairie Dog Town. Once you reach Highway 502, turn north and head back toward the Interstate. There are signs that will help you navigate back to I-90.
We hope you enjoy our six favorite drive-through activities for Badlands National Park! If you do (or don’t!), please comment below. Did we leave anything out? And by all means, please let us know if you are driving through the area, we love to meet fellow family travel gurus!