National Parks Guide: Badlands National Park

Fossils uncovered at South Dakota’s Badlands National Park reveal that saber-toothed tigers once chased down a species of miniature three-toed horse. Extinction has done away with both animals, but wandering through this park still occasionally reveals relics of its ancient past to contemporary visitors. You’ve got 242,756 acres of wilderness shaped into otherworldly formations by rain, wind and frost in which to conduct your own search for fossils of long-gone species like that 18-inch tall horse with the three toes.

Badlands National Park is open to visitors all year. Weather conditions make spring through fall the best time to be surrounded by other visitors, but a trip to this park during winter when the snow falls may arguably lend the park its greatest beauty. Early to mid-spring can mean dealing with rainstorms while temperatures in the summer often rise into the 90’s.

Lodging is available inside the park at Cedar Pass Lodge. You have the choice of a cabin with private bath or two bedroom cabin with connecting bath. Slightly larger cottages are also available. Campgrounds inside Badlands National Park are open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Water and flush toilets are available during the summer. Water is not available the rest of the year, but you will find vault toilets.

No permits are necessary for back-country camping inside Badlands National Park. Campers are allowed to set up anywhere in the park as long as they are out of view of any road or trail. Campers should bring their own water as no potable water can be found in the back-country areas. Camp stoves are required for cooking since open flames are prohibited.

This South Dakota National Park is filled with many hiking trails. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is an easy quarter-mile loop that begins and ends at Norbeck Pass. Those looking for a challenge should try the three-quarter mile Saddle Pass Trail that offers views of the Badlands Wall. Castle Trail is a 5.25 mile trek, but offers a moderate-to-easy jaunt along mixed-grass prairie. It is highly recommended that you pack some water with you before undertaking this trail.

You may not trip over a fossil of a rhino-sized pig during your stay at Badlands, but you can be sure to catch a vast array of species that are still very much alive. The number of bison isn’t as impressive as they once were, but you only need to see one American Buffalo to be awed. Other mammals that call this park home are coyote, prairie dogs, mountain lions and bighorn sheep. Birds at Badlands include Canadian geese, turkey vultures, prairie falcons and long-eared owls. Watch out for snakes and toads.

A number of safety guidelines must be followed at all times for maximum enjoyment of Badlands National Park. Stay at least 100 yards away from bison because they are unpredictable animals and can run up to 30 mph. Hiking can be very enjoyable, but the park is home to a number of sheer drop-offs from which you should keep a safe distance. Weather patterns are very unpredictable and sudden lightning storms present a very real danger. Seek shelter and stay out of open spaces when lightning begins. Park water is not even potable enough to be safe to drink after boiling.