Only have one day to explore Badlands National Park? No need to worry. One day is plenty of time to enjoy the highlights of the park – beautiful overlooks, an amazing hike, and plenty of animal sightings. Follow this one-day Badlands National Park itinerary to make the most of your visit.
After driving through flat prairie for miles and miles, Badlands National Park emerges out of nowhere. Seeing the unusual multicolored pinnacles and buttes of Badlands National Park for the first time is something you will never forget.
If you are staying in the nearby Black Hills area, a day trip to Badlands National Park is a must-do. Read the post – Fun Things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota for more awesome things to do on your South Dakota trip.
Badlands – Not Bad At All
Badlands National Park got its name from the Lakota people who lived in the region for hundreds of years before it was established as a National Park. For many years, the Lakota people called the Badlands mako sica, which means “bad lands”. The craggy canyons and pinnacles are an amazing sight but the rough landscape made travel through the region extremely difficult. Travel was harder when the weather wasn’t ideal.
Best Time To Visit Badlands National Park
The best time to visit Badlands National Park is in the fall. The weather is usually perfect and the park isn’t as crowded. Summer in the Badlands National Park can be extremely hot and winter extremely cold. The weather in the spring is hit or miss.
Badlands National Park One Day Itinerary
This itinerary starts at the Northeast Entrance and goes through the park via Badlands Loop Road. The Northeast Entrance is accessed by taking exit 131 off of I-90. You could also do this itinerary in reverse starting at the Pinnacles Entrance, accessed by taking exit 110 off of I-90.
Map of Must-See Stops In Badlands National Park
Big Badlands Overlook
Right after entering the park through the Northeast Entrance, you are treated to your first fabulous view of the Badlands. Make a stop at Big Badlands Overlook and walk out to the railing to take in the incredible canyon display.
Make sure to bring binoculars! We had our first bighorn sheep sighting in the distance from the Big Badlands Overlook.
Notch Trail Hike
After Big Badlands Overlook, drive two and a half miles to the Door, Window, Castle, and Notch Trailheads parking area.
The Notch Trail is the one hike you don’t want to miss in Badlands National Park. It is the most popular hike in the park and for good reason. It is the perfect hike to see the multicolored rock formations up close. The beginning of the 1.5-mile hike is an easy walk in the valley of the rock formations. About halfway through the walk, you arrive at a wooden ladder that you need to climb to get on top of the rocks. There will most likely be a wait at the ladder both going up and coming down. Make sure to communicate with the people at the top and take turns so no one is stuck at the top or bottom for too long.
Note- going up the ladder is easy, going down is a lot harder!
The remainder of the hike takes you along the ridge to “The Notch”, a break in the canyon that offers incredible views of the White River Valley.
You can access two other trails from The Notch trailhead parking lot- the Door and Window Trails. The Door Trail is a .25 mile boardwalk that takes you to a break in the canyon where you get a great view of the Badlands. The Window trail is also only a quarter of a mile one way and takes you to a view of an eroded canyon. Both hikes are easy and worth it if you have the time.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Driving another two miles down the road, your next stop will be the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. This is the main Visitor Center for the North Unit of Badlands National Park. You won’t want to miss the informative film “The Land of Stone and Light” to learn all about the historical and geological history of the park. If you want to watch the film before you get to the park, you can view it on the National Park’s website. The Visitor Center also has informative museum displays. You can visit the Fossil Preparation Lab to learn about the paleontology of Badlands National park.
If you are traveling with kids don’t forget to pick up a Junior Ranger Book!
Amazing Viewpoints In Badlands National Park
After a stop at the Visitor Center, the remaining 43 miles of Badlands Loop Road take you through the park and past 10 incredible viewpoints.
Along the way you can stop at as many or as few viewpoints as you like. Bigfoot Pass and Conata Viewpoints both have picnic tables and are a great place to eat if you brought a picnic lunch. You won’t want to miss the incredible view from Pinnacles Overlook before you leave the park.
Animals To Look For In Badlands National Park
The wildlife in Badlands National Park is plentiful. Keep your eyes peeled for animals as you drive the Loop Road and at the overlooks.
The American Bison is native to the Badlands but the bison was hunted almost to extinction in the late 19th century. Since then, bison have been reintroduced into the Badlands National Park region and the heard now numbers 1,200 head.
If you don’t see bison on your Loop Road drive through the park, take a detour onto the rim road just before the Pinnacles Entrance. There is a good chance you will see bison from the rim road.
Bighorn sheep sightings are plentiful along the Loop Road. If you are lucky you will spot a ram, ewe, and lamb.
Massive colonies of prairie dogs live in Badlands National Park. You will most likely see prairie dogs near the Pinnacles Entrance Station.
Other Animals to Look For-
Although not as easy to see, you could also find Ferrets, Pronghorn, and Rattle Snakes in the park. There are also a variety of amphibians and reptiles.
Tips To Make The Most Of Your One Day In Badlands National Park
- Bring Binoculars to get an up close view of the animals in the park
- Pack a lunch- There are plenty of picnic tables at the viewpoints along the Loop Road, the perfect place for a picnic!
- Experience a sunrise or sunset in the park. The natural lighting at sunrise or sunset make the Badlands even more incredible.
- Stay away from wildlife! Bison are dangerous and it’s not worth putting yourself in danger to get a good picture.
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Wow! This looks stunning. I added this to our bucketlist. And pinned it for future reference. Very helpful!
This is somewhere I’ve ALWAYS wanted to go. I know our kids would love it!
Badlands National Park sounds epic. We didn’t have time for it anymore when we where in the area, sadly. Will just have to come back for it.
Go Wander Wild says
I loved reading about your experience in Badlands National Park. Your descriptions really made it come alive for me. Happy travels!