Called “Mako Sica” (“land bad”) by the Lakota, and “les mauvaises terres à traverser” (“bad lands to travel across”) by early French trappers, Badlands National Park has long been known to be a harsh and inhospitable environment. The parks 244,000 acres of land contain sharply eroded buttes, colorful spires and pinnacles, deep gorges, and sprawling prairies. Harsh winds ravage the land, and thunderstorms, lightning, and tornadoes pose a constant threat. There are few trees in the park, and average temperatures in the summer can reach near 100°F, and drop as low as 30°F in the winter. If you are looking to find one of the most desolate and unforgiving landscapes in America, this is it.
However with that ruggedness comes exceptional beauty, and visitors get to experience the same untamed wilderness that early explorers encountered. But thanks to the National Park Service, we can see it safely. And with a little planning and preparation, your visit to Badlands can be smooth and easy! I have prepared this guide to help you in your endeavors. From useful tips, sample itineraries, to a packing list, here is everything you need to know before heading to Badlands National Park!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
- There are really fun tourist things located outside of the park at both entrances that should be included in any Badlands itinerary. Be sure to check out Wall Drug and Ranch Store.
- In 2-3 days, you can see pretty much everything in the entire developed section of the park. Keep reading for a sample itinerary!
- The weather varies a lot month to month (and even hour by hour!). Here is a chart to help you choose what month to plan your visit:
Badlands Weather Averages
- Be respectful of wildlife. After all, the wildlife is indeed wild, making them unpredictable. Admire them from a distance, especially bison.
- Watch out for rattlesnakes. These guys seek shade during the hot day and will hide in places like under boardwalks and stairs, and within tall grass. Do not stick your hand (or any other body part) in places you can’t see (like crevices, overhangs, in holes, under plants, etc). At night they seek warmth on paved roads, so carry a light and watch your step. Keep your ears open for their warning rattle, and if you encounter one, back away slowly.
- Wear closed-toed shoes (hiking boots are best). This will help protect your feet from cactus spines, accidental steps on rattlesnakes or spiders, and will help prevent you from slipping when walking on the rugged, unstable terrain.
- Stay hydrated. This will help prevent heat exhaustion.
- Use plenty of sunblock. There really aren’t any trees or shade in this park, and that sun is brutal.
- Start your hikes early in the day to avoid the risk of heat exhaustion. Here is my blog post on preventing and dealing with heat exhaustion.
- Don’t rely on your cellphones for anything. Reception is pretty awful in the park. Use park maps, bring a portable GPS system, and above all else, STAY ON THE TRAILS!!
- Be prepared for sudden and extreme changes in the weather. The day could start hot and sunny, but quickly turn into wind or thunderstorms. Even tornadoes are a possibility. Check daily weather forecasts, dress in layers, and carry a rain poncho. If you hear lightning, seek shelter and avoid trees, high places, and dry washes that can quickly fill with water.
Here’s how we did Badlands. Was it the best possible itinerary? Kinda yes, kinda no. But it did allow us to see everything we wanted to see. Our itinerary included two nights in the park, one full day, and two half days.
-Arrive in the late afternoon.
-Stop at the Visitor Center to obtain information and souvenirs.
-Check in to Cedar Pass Campground and set up tent. Click here for information on camping and lodging options in Badlands.
-Hike: Window Trail, 0.25 miles/0.4 km (round trip)
Easy. This short trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with a view of an intricately eroded canyon. Please stay on the trail (NPS website).
-Hike: Cliff Shelf, 0.5 miles/0.8 km (round trip)
Moderate. This loop trail follows boardwalks and climbs stairs through a juniperforest perched along the Badlands Wall. A small pond occasionally exists in the area and draws wildlife, such as deer or bighorn sheep. Climbs approximately 200 feet in elevation. Please stay on the trail (NPS website).
-Hike: Notch Trail, 1.5 miles/2.4 km (round trip) – My favorite hike!!
Moderate to strenuous. After meandering through a canyon, this trail climbs a log ladder and follows a ledge to “the Notch” for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. Trail begins at the south end of the Door and Window parking area. Watch for drop-offs. Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. Treacherous during or after heavy rains (NPS website).
-Hike: Door Trail, 0.75 miles/1.2 km (round trip)
Easy. An accessible ¼ mile boardwalk leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands. From there, the maintained trail ends. Travel beyond this point is at your own risk. Watch for drop-offs (NPS website).
-Hike: Castle Trail, 10 miles/16 km (round trip)
Moderate. The longest trail in the park begins at the Door and Window parking area and travels five miles one way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Relatively level, the path passes along some badlands formations (NPS website).
*This was our itinerary fail. You should never start your longest hike of the day in the middle of the afternoon, especially in hot weather. I ended up getting heat exhaustion and we were unable to finish the trail. My friend and I had to take the Saddle Pass Trail to get me back to the road faster. That trail doesn’t need to be on any itinerary, unless you are looking for a way to cut the Castle Trail short*
-Return to Visitor Center to cool off with a popsicle from the general store.
-Tear down camp.
-Hike: Fossil Exhibit Trail, 0.25 miles/0.4 km (round trip)
Easy. Fully accessible boardwalk trail features fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area (NPS website).
-Stop at every viewpoint on the scenic drive on our way out of the park.
The only trail we didn’t have time to add in was the Medicine Root Loop, which is a moderate 4 miles round trip. An additional half day in the park would’ve allowed plenty of time for this trail. Two full days and one half day would be a perfect amount of time for everything. Three days is the most I would recommend staying in Badlands. If you only have one day to spend there, cut the Castle Trail/Saddle Pass from the itinerary, and don’t add in Medicine Root Loop.
- Propane Stove. There are no open fires permitted in Badlands due to extreme fire danger, so propane stoves are a must when cooking. Wind shields, like on this one by Coleman, are VERY useful in this park. This is the stove I use, and it’s awesome. It has two burners, each with their own temperature controls, and it can fit two pans at the same time, which is great for cooking for groups like I do.
- First Aid Kit. You never know what can happen out there, and this park has more than its fair share of things that can take you down. So it’s always good to be prepared! This kit has 275 useful, hospital grade medical supplies to get you through any situation. And it’s nice and compact, measuring only 12″w x 8.5″w x 4″d. For this particular park, having a snake bite kit on hand couldn’t hurt either.
- Bandannas. If you read my post on surviving heat exhaustion, you already know that bandannas are a useful tool to help cool you off if you start overheating. Wide brimmed hats are also great to help keep the sun off of your face and shoulders. Gotta be prepared for that hot weather!
- Electrolyte Powder. When the temperatures get this high, you need a little extra boost to help keep you hydrated. This electrolyte powder can easily be mixed into your water, so it’s great to have on hand for when you are feeling a little drained or weak.
- Dome Tents. It gets crazy windy in Badlands, so a dome tent is more stable than a huge walled-tent with standard poles. The straight sides of those tents basically act like sails and catch the wind, whereas the wind blows right over the dome tents. Our big tent ended up collapsing from the wind, and worrying about it happening again lead to very sleepless nights.
- Hydration Daypacks. Another easy way to make sure you keep drinking water? Have it strapped on your back with a convenient drinking hose right next to your face. When it comes to backpacks, I always turn to Osprey. These are some great options:
- Portable GPS System. As mentioned earlier, cellphone reception sucks in Badlands (as it does in most national parks), so you can’t rely on it as your navigation system. If you follow park maps and stay on designated roads and trails, you probably won’t need any sort of additional navigation. The signs are pretty easy to follow. But if you enter the backcountry, you’ll definitely want a portable GPS system as a backup plan should things go wrong. Hell, they are always handy to have as a backup plan, even just to keep in your car for emergencies. This one is powered with AA batteries and lasts up to 20hrs. And it’s waterproof too.
USEFUL INFO (OBTAINED FROM NPS WEBSITE):
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance fees are collected year round. The park is in the Mountain Time Zone.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Hours of Operation – Mountain Time Zone
8am – 4pm (Winter Hours)
8am – 5pm (April & May)
7am – 7pm (Summer Hours)
8am – 5pm (early September to late October)
CLOSED on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day
Cedar Pass “Badlands Loop Road” Hwy 240
Cedar Pass Lodge, Badlands Inn and Campground, operated by Forever Resorts, an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service, is only open during the summer season. The Lodge offers rental cabins, a gift shop, and full-service restaurant.
Call (877) 386-4383 for reservations.
Private Vehicle: $20 – Valid for 7 days
Motorcycle: $10 – Valid for 7 days
Individual (hike, bicycle, etc…): $10 per person 16 and older – Valid for 7 days