The best sights in Badlands National Park are found along two excellent scenic drives, offering plenty of opportunity to get out of the car and explore. Don’t forget to stop by the visitors centers to enhance your experience in the park.
Badlands Loop Road
The Badlands Loop Road is the only paved road through the Badlands. It is a 23-mile road that runs between the Pinnacles Entrance in the north to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the southeast. The road winds between the ridges of the Badlands Wall, literally a wall of spires and pinnacles that was once the northern bank of the White River. As the river cut into the sediments of the plains, the wall was left behind.
There are several scenic turnouts along the road, all of which provide dramatic vistas of the Badlands and of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which borders the park. Carry your binoculars and keep an eye out for wildlife. From the north, heading to the southeast, stop at the Pinnacles Overlook, the Ancient Hunters Overlook, and then, if you’ve packed a lunch, keep an eye out for Conata Road, which is located near Dillon Pass. There are picnic tables about a half mile south on the road. Several other turnouts are found between Dillon Pass and Big Foot Pass, and more picnic tables are at the Big Foot Pass Overlook.
White park signs along the route announce activities in the area. Be sure to stop at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This trail is marked with interpretive signs and fossil displays and is an easy, wheelchair-accessible path that can be traversed in 20 minutes or less. It provides a nice stop for a good stretch. It also has humorous (but also rather sad) signs about the fate of some of the historic creatures that lived in the area over time. The theme? “Adapt, Move, or Die.” The road ends at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Sage Creek Rim Road
The Sage Creek Rim Road is a gravel road that is located just south of the northern Pinnacles Entrance to the park. The road travels north and west through the park, and circles the Badlands Wilderness Area. Look for the Hay Butte Overlook and the Badlands Wilderness Overlook. The formations here are a little softer and less craggy than the spires located along the Badlands Loop Road, but the wildlife is more abundant. The park’s bison herd is usually seen in this area.
About five miles down the road, look for the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, a large colony of black-tailed prairie dogs. They’re rodents, but very cute ones, and the barking and social antics of these small animals is fun to watch. At dusk, keep an eye out for the rare black-footed ferret. Prairie dogs are the ferret’s main food source.
Just past Roberts Prairie Dog Town is the Sage Creek Basin Overlook. This is a great place to head into the park for hiking. It’s easy access without the sharp and steep cliffs common off the Badlands Loop Road. Heading south along this road, you will cross a bridge over Sage Creek. At this point, examine the riverbank and you’ll be able to see the Pierre Shale—the oldest visible sedimentary layer in the park, dating back over 70 million years.
Seven miles past Roberts Prairie Dog Town, a left-hand turn on another gravel road will bring you to the Sage Creek Campground. There are picnic tables and pit toilets here. This is another good starting location for off-trail hiking.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center (25216 Ben Reifel Rd., Hwy. 240, 605/433-5361, mid-Apr.-May daily 8am-5pm, June-mid-Aug. daily 8am-7pm, Sept.-late Oct. daily 8am-5pm, Nov.-mid-Apr. daily 8am-4pm, closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s) is located at Park Headquarters on the south edge of the Badlands Loop Road. Watch the award-winning video Land of Stone and Light in the adjacent theater. The video is a great introduction to the park. It is 20 minutes long and plays every 25 minutes during the day. The video features superb photography of the park, along with a narrative discussion of the wildlife, geology, paleontology, early peoples, and history of the park.
Exhibits at the visitors center examine the history, ecology, geology, and paleontology of the Badlands and include samples of fossils found in the park. There is also a bookstore on-site and restrooms.
For the kids ages 7-12, there are Junior Ranger booklets filled with activities to do in the park. And, during the summer months, there is a 45-minute Junior Ranger Program presented by a park ranger that may include a hike into the prairie, a game, or another activity. A completed activity book, or completion of the ranger-led program, will earn the participant a Junior Ranger badge.
White River Visitor Center
The White River Visitor Center (Hwy. 27, Pine Ridge, 605/455-2878, June-Aug. daily 10am-3pm as staff is available, closed in off-season) is located 20 miles south of the town of Scenic off Bombing Range Road (Hwy. 27) on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It is a remote location that services people interested in Pine Ridge and in serious backcountry camping and hiking. Exhibits at the center include fossils and Lakota artifacts, as well as some information about historic events in Lakota history.
The South Unit, or Stronghold District, of the Badlands is not easily accessible, with just one road and no hiking trails. The Palmer Creek Unit of the South Unit is surrounded by private property, and hikers must get permission to cross private lands to get there. The center has a list of property owners and maps to help hikers plot their routes and gain permissions. The Stronghold District was used as a bombing range during World War II, and there is unexploded ordnance in the area. Hikers are asked to report any finds to the Park Service. Do not touch.
Visiting Badlands National Park
The entrance fee to the park is $15 per car. Bicyclists and pedestrians can enter the park for $7, motorcycles for $10. Passes are good for seven days. The Interagency Annual Pass (America the Beautiful Annual Pass) for designated federal fee areas is valid here. The pass can also be purchased at the gate ($80 annual, $10 lifetime for seniors ages 62 and up). The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Pets are allowed in the Badlands but only in “developed” areas, which include campgrounds, roads, picnic areas, and parking lots. They are not allowed on hiking trails, in the visitors centers, or in the Badlands Wilderness Area. They must be on a leash when in the park and cannot be left unattended anywhere in the park.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.