If You Have Only 1 Day
It's relatively easy to explore the highlights of the North Unit of Badlands National Park in a day or less. (Most visitors spend an average of 3-5 hr.) A few miles south of the park's northeast entrance, the closest entrance to I-90, is the park headquarters. It's open year-round and includes the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Cedar Pass Lodge, and a campground, amphitheater, and dump station. After you stop at the visitor center exhibits, bookstore, and information desk, and then watch an orientation video (which we recommend), it's time to hit the trail.
The visitor center is within 5 miles of several trail heads, scenic overlooks, and three self-guided nature trails. Each of the seven trails in the area offers an opportunity to view some of the formations for which the Badlands is famous. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is wheelchair accessible. The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and the Door Trail are moderately strenuous and provide impressive glimpses of Badlands formations. But none is longer than 1 mile, and you can hike any one of them comfortably in less than an hour. Also, a short hike on the Castle Trail from the Door Trail parking area will take you to some impressive formations. A hike shortly after sunrise from the east will paint the formations in wondrous light, or walk farther past the formations late in the day for delightful color.
Leading directly from the visitor center is the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road, the park's most popular scenic drive. Angling northwest toward the town of Wall, it passes numerous overlooks and trail heads, each of which commands inspiring views of the Badlands and the prairies of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Binoculars will increase your chances of spotting bison, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and coyote.
The paved portion of the Loop Road ends at the turnoff for the Pinnacles Entrance. Beyond this point, the road becomes the Sage Creek Rim Road, a 30-mile gravel road, at the end of which is the Sage Creek Campground. Five miles west of the end of the pavement, a visit to the Roberts Prairie Dog Town gives you a chance to watch black-tailed prairie dogs.
If You Have More Time
Those staying overnight have more opportunities to explore the park at a leisurely pace, taking advantage of some of the other trails, such as the Castle Trail, which connects the Fossil Exhibit Trail and Window Fossil Exhibit Trail, and Notch Trail. You could also take in some of the park's summer evening ranger programs.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.