Badlands National Park: 10 tips for your visit to the park – USA TODAY
Driving through southwest South Dakota, Badlands National Park seems to appear from nowhere, suddenly appearing in the sweeping valley landscape. Millions of years of erosion have carved out beautiful buttes, canyons and gullies, attracting about 1 million visitors annually from around the world to the 244,000 acres of parkland. Another draw if the park is also home to one of the world’s largest fossil beds. To make the most of your visit, we checked in with travelsouthdakota.com to compile these 10 tips (in no particular order!) to make the most of your visit. The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, however the Visitor Centers’ operating hours vary seasonally, and road closures may occur due to weather conditions.
1. Start to Finish: Park rangers suggest spending two full days to truly experience the park, but you can certainly visit in less time. If you have one full day to spend, plan on being at the park for both sunrise and sunset – the light cast over the Badlands is incredible. The best spot to take in the sunrise is at the Door and Windows Trailhead on the east side of the park, and for sunset, head west to the Pinnacles Overlook. (Tip: If you have just a few hours to spend in the park, check out the rangers’ highlights on the FAQs page of their website.)
2. Get Wild: Wildlife abounds in Badlands National Park, and one area that’s off the beaten path and a terrific place to spot animals is the Sage Creek Wilderness Area in the northern part of the park. Here you may see buffalo, bighorn sheep, antelope and more. That’s not to say you won’t see wildlife outside of Sage Creek, though; keep an eye out for prairie dogs, eagles, raptors, rattlesnakes and maybe even the endangered black-footed ferrets. Keep your binoculars and cameras at the ready.
3. Hiking for Everyone: While there are certainly hiking opportunities for enthusiasts, Badlands National Park is accessible for people of all ability levels. The well-marked trails make it easy to stay on course, and range in levels of difficulty as well as scenery. Katlyn Richter with travelsouthdakota.com says she likes to take her children out to the park and “turn them loose on some of the easier trails – they can jump, climb, explore and run at their own will without being restrained to a trail.”
4. Hiking for Enthusiasts: More experienced hikers will enjoy the accessible trails as noted above, but may opt instead for going off the paths and into the park’s very remote backcountry, where they can camp as well. Before taking off, check in with a park ranger at the Visitors Centers for your safety and so that you can be sure to not venture into private lands without first asking permission. Be sure to plan ahead on the supplies you’ll need as well, as temperatures range from freezing in the winter to 100-plus degrees with little to no shade in the summer, and water is unavailable in the backcountry.
5. Take a Drive: A terrific way to see a lot of the park and its myriad formations in a shorter amount of time is by driving the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, which runs right through the park. Stop along the way at the various pull outs – with ample parking – to take pictures, go on a quick hike, or simply sit and take in the views.
6. Go for a Ride: If you have your bicycle, take a ride through the park for a different perspective. Bikes are permitted on designated paved, gravel and dirt roads within the park, all of which offer their own experiences. To plan your cycling trip in Badlands National Park, check out the park’s Bicycling in the Badlands and Bicycling Off the Beaten Path publications for routes and safety messages.
7. Take in a Park Ranger Program: With such a wide expanse of parkland to discover, and the aforementioned fossils, take time to join a park ranger for one of their interpretive programs. Two to definitely check out are the Geology Walk, which explores the park’s geologic history, and the Paleontology Lab, during which paleontology staff prepare fossils found within the park. A number of years ago a saber tooth cat was found by a young girl during her visit to the park!
8. Eat Like a Local: If you’re in the park and start to get hungry, stop by the Cedar Pass Lodge and its restaurant for a bite to eat. While there, try the Sioux Indian Tacos: fluffy fry bread with buffalo meat and wojapi, a Native American berry sauce. Or, for breakfast, opt for the fry bread topped simply with powdered sugar.
9. Seeing Stars: The lack of light pollution means the night sky lights up over Badlands National Park. Whether you join a park ranger for a Night Sky Viewing or take your own binoculars or telescope and go on your own, you’ll be thrilled with what you can see, even with the naked eye. If you’re visiting in the summer, check out the park’s Badlands Astronomy Festival and join science professionals, other amateur astronomers and locals for a “stellar” experience.
10. Fun at Home: Get your kids ready for their trip to Badlands National Park, or keep the exploration going when you get home, with at-home activities for learning more about the park. The park has created a variety of activities for download.
For more on Badlands National Park, and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service, which is hard to find in most of the park.