We were blown away by the beauty and peacefulness of Badlands National Park! During our one-day visit, we found ourselves comparing this dry, rugged, and dramatic park to other favorites: it has much of the same feel as Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. However, Badlands adds another element: high prairie wildlife and terrain that will impress in a subtile, almost delicate manner.
Allow me to explain: while the first thing visitors are likely to notice about the park is its dramatic rock formations and chasms (think of Grand Canyon in miniature, or as one fellow traveler put it, of being a giant hiking in the Grand Canyon), it’s quickly evident that beyond, and in some cases, above, these rock formations, lie plateaus, gulches, and lowlands blooming with sunflowers and wildflowers, harboring prairie dogs and rabbits, and opening up onto prairie grasses. The juxtaposition of dry, cracking rock and flowering plants is stunning.
The park is well-known for fossil finds dating to prehistoric eras, though we learned that dinosaur fossils are not found here. The region was underwater during that time period. Instead, early mammal fossils are found quite regularly, and dig sites can still be active.
How to spend a day at Badlands National Park:
Ready for your Badlands National Park itinerary with kids? Though the park area is quite large, most of the sites and hiking options are in a concentrated area, making this park do-able in a day, if needed. As we always suggest, start at the Badlands visitor center to get your bearings. Here, kids can see a well-made 20-minute video, then tour several rooms of exhibits on the park’s geological history, wildlife, and native history (this is Lakota territory). Stop at the desk and ask for a form on which to document any fossil finds. They can still be spotted in the rock throughout the park, and park scientists depend on visitor documentation to help their research. Cool, right?
After touring the visitor center, take the Badlands Loop Road. Backtrack to the Window Trail and Door Trail parking lot.
Tip: to do this itinerary as described, enter the park via I-90 Exit 131 instead of via Exit 110 near Wall. We suggest this direction because it places families at the visitor center early on.
The Door Trail offers an amazing vista of the canyons of the park, with half a mile of ‘trail’, which is actually rock hopping and free-form hiking from marked post to post (the rock bottom here doesn’t allow for a proper trail). The way is easy enough, but kids can make it more fun by climbing a few short rock formations along the path. The nearby Window Trail consists just of a boardwalk ending in a vista to see a very deep chasm in the canyon. Definitely do both. Note: we hit this trail at sunrise, which rewarded us with beautiful light against the stone.
Accessed from the same parking lot, the short Notch Trail is great for kids who want more climbing, as this 1.5 mile loop descends through the canyon then up a wooden ladder to follow a ledge to a great view of the White River valley. Only proceed on this trail if you’re comfortable with heights.
For those wanting a longer hike, The Castle Trailhead is located just across the street from the Door and Window trails. This trail is 10 miles long, and travels west all the way to the opposite end of the Badlands Loop Road at the Fossil Exhibit. Those wanting to hike 10 miles will need a car to pick them up on the other end. However, thanks to a very user-friendly trail system in the park, it’s possible to hike only a portion of the Castle Trail. Starting at the trailhead at Door, hike a short distance on flat terrain to the junction of the Castle and Medicine Root trails. At this point, families have access to a loop of 4 miles, making the hike around 5.5 miles total, or can opt for an out-and-back for less mileage, turning around at the junction.
Or, do what we did: after seeing Door and Windows, head back on the Badlands Loop Road in your car and stop at the Saddle Pass trailhead. This quarter mile trail connects you to the Medicine Root/Castle Trail loop for a hike of 4.2 miles. The short Saddle Pass section is severely steep as you climb from the valley floor to the top of the ‘wall’, but once there, the terrain is quite flat. Up on this wall while hiking the Medicine Root Loop, you’ll see prairie grasses, sunflowers, wildflowers, and, possibly, snakes and other small animals. There is no shade up here, so plan to accomplish this part of your day in the morning.
Further along the Badlands Loop Road, families will come to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This boardwalk loop of about half a mile features well-done displays en route, which describe the various fossils found here, and whether these prehistoric animals ended up adapting, moving to a new region, or becoming extinct.
If you depart the park via the Badlands Loop Road toward Wall, you’ll come across many more roadside pull-outs with vistas of this area of the park. It seems to go on and on!
Where to eat:
During your day, definitely stop to eat at the Cedar Pass Lodge. This lodge is modern-looking and new, which didn’t quite seem to fit in with the setting of the national park, but inside, it has a very nice gift shop filled with handmade items and Lakota souvenirs, and a casual cafe that serves wonderful fry bread tacos. These native treats can be ordered with buffalo meat or black beans, and they are huge…two people can definitely share one. And yes, they are very fattening. Enjoy!
Where to stay:
The park does have lodging at Cedar Pass, in the form of very nice cabins overlooking the terrain (and the highway, but it’s no big deal). I did not stay the night on this trip, as the park can definitely be done in one day, but certainly this would be a good option as well.
The park is located along I-90 in South Dakota, near Wall. Make a stop at Wall Drug before or after!