Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one national park that you can visit in a short amount of time, like 24 hours, and still hit almost everything.
This truly otherworldly park is one-of-a-kind with its fossils, moon-like surfaces and fantastic nighttime ranger program, which you won’t want to miss!
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Badlands National Park in 24 Hours
Flying to Badlands National Park
If you’re following our plan to always have a Southwest Companion Pass, so one person in your family can fly free, and using points for all other tickets, you’ll want to fly into the closest Southwest airport to Badlands National Park, which is Denver.
The park is an easy 6.5-hour drive from Denver International Airport.
The park is open 24 hours a day 365 days a year, and entrance fees are $30 per car for a 7-day pass or $55 for an annual pass to this park only.
You can also purchase a 7-day motorcycle pass for $25.
Senior citizens can purchase a lifetime senior pass that covers ALL national parks for $80 or instead choose a $20 annual pass.
Are you an active military member, veteran or Gold Star family? Grab a FREE pass and thank you for your service!
If you plan on visiting more than 2 National Parks in a year, opt for an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80 to save money.
Don’t forget if you have a 4th grader, your whole family gets into National Parks free during their school year and the following summer as part of the Every Kid in a Park Program.
You can also access Badlands National Park FREE on the below days, but keep in mind these days will be even MORE BUSY than usual…
- Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- First day of National Park Week
- Great American Outdoors Act Anniversary
- National Public Lands Day
- Veterans Day
Visiting Badlands National Park
Want to squeeze everything you can out of 24 hours in Badlands National Park?
Follow these tips to get the most out of your visit…
1. Visitor’s Center & Fossil Lab
Make your first stop in the park the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center where you can…
- Watch a movie about the park
- Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet
- Stamp your National Park passport book
- Ask the rangers all your pertinent questions
- Get maps
- Visit the museum exhibits
- Chat with paleontologists who work in the park’s Fossil Preparation Lab
- Pick up park souvenirs
Want to get a jump on learning about Badlands National Park? Watch the 20-minute movie ahead of your visit here.
If your kids haven’t yet participated in the Junior Ranger program, definitely make time to get them started by picking up an activity book, so they can do all the projects and earn a badge.
They can even work on this ahead of time if you contact the park at [email protected] for a digital copy or via Pick Your Park Adventure in the Badlands.
Our family has many passport stamps in our National Park passport book, which has created a great record of all our many visits.
Plus, we always pick up a hiking medallion for my husband’s detachable hardwood hiking stick and a Christmas ornament as souvenirs to remind us of our trip for years to come.
2. Take a Scenic Drive
Make your next activity driving Badlands Loop Road to Sage Creek Rim Road, an offshoot gravel road before you reach the west entrance.
On this road, you’ll find several overlooks and have your very best chance of spotting wildlife, including those playful critters at Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
As you head back toward the visitor’s center, Badlands Loop Road, AKA Highway 240, will take you to many overlooks including Panorama Point, Yellow Mounds and more, now mostly on the right-hand side.
There are 12 distinct overlooks, so pull off the road to get the best views and not block traffic.
It’s time to head to Cedar Pass Lodge to check-in.
In a word, these cabins are fantastic!
You’ll find a little covered porch with solid pine chairs to relax with your provided morning coffee.
Inside, you can look forward to comfortable beds with plenty of pillows and a kitchenette area with mini fridge, microwave, as well as a table and chairs.
There’s a closet area with luggage rack and bench right outside the double sink area of the bathroom, which is separate from the tub and toilet, making it easier for everyone to get ready.
You also have a flat-screen TV and strong Wi-Fi.
The lodge is within walking distance of the store, restaurant, visitor’s center and campground amphitheater.
As soon as you’ve checked into your cabin and unloaded, walk over to the Cedar Pass Restaurant and get an order of Indian Frybread tacos to go.
Eat them at the picnic table outside your cabin for a unique experience. Yummy!
With only 8 marked hiking trails in this National Park, most less than 1 mile long, you’ll find it’s easy to see the best the park has to offer in a short time.
Three of the popular hikes start from the same parking lot. These hikes include…
- Door Trail (.9 miles roundtrip)
- Window Trail (.3 miles roundtrip)
- Notch Trail (1.5 miles roundtrip)
Plan on hiking Window and Door Trail right after dinner but before sunset.
Door Trail is great to go off-trail into the heart of all the rocks once the sun has dipped below the formations.
Save Notch Trail, which is known for its ladder and some close-to-the-edge moments, for the morning.
Also in this same area of the park, you’ll find lots of cliff swallow nests and might even encounter a bird you’ve never seen or heard before like we did!
My husband found a great app for identifying bird songs called Merlin Bird ID.
You can record the bird singing and then it will search its database and identify the bird for you right on the spot.
We discovered our little songster was a Meadowlark using this app!
Nearby is also Cliff Shelf Nature Trailhead (.5 miles round-trip, 200 feet elevation gain), a great spot for sunset or, on our trip, a moonrise.
[Read more of our top tips for visiting US National Parks]
Nighttime Program & Stargazing
The Nighttime Program at Badlands National Park was one of the highlights of our visit.
Beginning at 9 p.m. every night during the summer, you can walk over to the campground amphitheater for the ranger program and star-gazing.
Our perfect summer weather evening started with taking a close look at the full moon through telescopes followed by the program where they talked about the various animals in the park.
Next was a slideshow of all the National Parks where everyone clapped if they had been to that park.
It was fun to see how many people had been to each one!
Then they showed shots from the new James Webb telescope versus the Hubble, which had just been released that very day.
They pointed out stars with a laser pointer, which was super cool, and while watching, I saw a shooting star and some satellites go by!
To conclude the program, they had the telescopes directed at binary stars, which appeared red and blue, from the Cygnus constellation.
This is a “must-do” when visiting Badlands National Park.
Epic Road Trip
You might consider making Badlands part of an epic road trip and include all of these in one fell swoop using the TravelSouthDakota.com website as your starting point for lots of great info on things like…
- Wall Drug for shopping, 5-cent coffee, chocolate or maple cake donuts, a ride on a Jackalope and their famous “free ice water” 🙂
- Custer State Park for scenic drives on Wildlife Loop Road, Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road or hiking Cathedral Spires, Sunday Gulch or Black Elk Peak Loop trails or swimming, kayaking or SUP on Sylvan Lake
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, making reservations well in advance if you want to tour Delta-01
- Mount Rushmore
- Crazy Horse
- Rocky Mountain National Park following our Ultimate Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Have you been to Badlands National Park? What was your favorite part of your visit?
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