While located in the midwest, the Badlands feels like you are somewhere entirely else. Its vast landscapes and jagged hills are breathtaking. It is also teaming with wildlife, so if you have not visited the Badlands yet, I would definitely add it to your list!
Day 1 - Arriving in the Badlands
If you are flying to the Badlands, the closest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport. From there, you will need to rent a car, and it is about a 55-mile drive to the park. Since we live in Minneapolis, and love road trips, we drove instead.
There are two campsites in the park: Cedar Pass which is reservable, and Sage Creek Campground which is free and first come, first serve.
Since we went over the Fourth of July weekend, there were no campsites available, so we stayed at a nearby cabin rental. So I would recommend reserving a site at Cedar Pass well in advance, to assure that you get a spot!
We arrived in the evening, and made dinner on our camp stove, and relaxed at our cabin.
Day 2 - Wall Drug and Minuteman Missile
For our first day in the Badlands, we actually spent it just outside of the park!
First, we headed over to Wall Drug. If you are staying in the park, it is only a 10 minute drive. While this is a giant tourist attraction, and pretty gimmicky, I would recommend it if you have never been there. There are many shops that offer souvenirs, camping gear, books, and food. It is a right of passage to buy a Wall Drug bumper sticker. One novelty is that there is a chapel within the shopping complex!
After touring the giant drugstore, we drove over to the Minuteman Visitors Center. This is a 20 minute drive from Wall Drug, straight down I90. The visitors center was very informational, and we learned that there was a minuteman missile field that covered the western portion of South Dakota beginning in 1963, and lasted until the early 90’s.
From the visitor’s center we drove to the Delta-09 Missile Silo. At this facility, you can see a silo with an unarmed missile inside. There were signs with directions for a cell phone audio guide as well, if you would like more information. It was very interesting for me to learn about this piece of history from the Cold War. This is a time period that I did not know a lot about, so I thought it was definitely worth the stop.
If you would like to explore this site even deeper, you can visit the Delta-01 Launch Control Center. This allows you to see a facility that was prepared for a nuclear war. Anyone can walk up to the gate and look at the compound, but in order to enter this facility, you do need a guided tour.
After visiting the missile, we returned to our cabin to unwind after our busy day of sightseeing.
Day 3 - North Unit
Today we finally are going to enter the Badlands! As you are driving into the park, keep an eye out for wildlife! As we were entering the park we saw prairie dogs, bison, and even a badger! I would recommend getting an early start, as wildlife is more active in the morning. Remember don't feed the prairie dogs! We got some cute pics of a prairie dog eating peanuts that someone threw on the ground.
A big part of the Badlands is driving through the park along the Badlands Loop Road, and admiring the landscape. Pair this with a couple of hikes, you will get an immersive experience with this arid environment.
Coming in from the Wall entrance, Our first stop was at Burns Basin, which features a boardwalk that allows you to get close to the edge of the cliff. While we were here, we saw big horned sheep!
After that, we stopped at Panorama Point, which allowed sweeping views of the jagged rocks.
Then we decided to stretch our legs by going on the Cliff Shelf Trail. This is a 0.5 mile loop that takes you on a boardwalk through a juniper forest, which provides some shade. This was a pretty relaxing hike, and a good warm-up.
We continued a little further down the road, and we stopped at the Door Trail. This is a 0.75 mile trail that starts with a boardwalk, and then continues on with marked signs. After ¾ of a mile the maintained trail ends, so you can continue on at your own risk. We enjoyed walking through the rock, and taking pictures of cacti.
Even if you are choosing to go on short hikes like we did, bring plenty of water! It can get really hot, and there is not much shade.
If you are looking for a longer hike, you can try the Castle Trail, which is 10 miles round trip, and the park’s longest trail. It begins at the Door Trail parking area, and continues on until the Fossil Exhibit Trail, passing plenty of rock formations along the way.
Notch Trail is another popular trail that is near the Door Trail. This trail is 1.5 miles roundtrip, and a highlight of this trail is that it climbs up a log ladder that leads to spectacular views of the White River Valley.
After our busy exploration of the North Unit, we went back to our cabin to cook a yummy steak dinner on our campstove.
Day 4 - Badlands Wilderness Area
Today we decided to explore the Badlands Wilderness Area of the park. Our first stop was at Conata Basin which offers beautiful views of colorful rock formations.
Near to Conata Basin is the Yellow Mounds Overlook, where you can see rolling hills of yellow rock. I really enjoyed this one because of the bright colors!
Then we drove to Pinnacles Overlook. This provides you with sweeping views of the rock formations, as well as a view of the black hills in the distance. This overlook faces South, and is a good sunset destination.
Next, we visited Hay Butte Overlook. This overlook gives you another opportunity to see the infamous rock formation, and it is also a popular destination for bighorn sheep!
Towards the end of the road, you will reach Roberts Prairie Dog Town. This is a huge field of prairie dog burrows! We were able to get good views of the prairie dogs eating and chattering. They are so cute! We did see another badger along here, which we thought was really cool, until we learned that they eat prairie dogs!
After our busy day of overlooks and wildlife viewing, we headed back to our cabin to unwind.
Day 5 - Leaving the Badlands
Today we left our cabin, and said goodbye to the badlands. From here, you can either drive back to Rapid City and fly home, or you can continue your journey. If you do have some extra time in South Dakota you could choose to extend your journey, and visit Custer State Park or Mount Rushmore!
We really enjoyed exploring the Badland’s Unique Landscape and the abundance of wildlife! My highlight was the Cliff Shelf Trail and seeing the prairie dogs. Trent’s highlight was taking wildlife photography- particularly of the big horned sheep.