Visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota might feel like you’ve been dropped onto a whole new planet. It’s a 64,000-acre Mars-esque landscape just waiting to be explored–with bighorn sheep, bison, and a litany of mind-boggling rock formations.
Here’s your guide to RVing Badlands National Park in South Dakota:
Why Visit Badlands National Park in an RV?
Renting an RV, or taking your own on a national parks road trip, is a great way to visit Badlands because there’s an epic off-grid camping location right outside the park’s northeast entrance. You’ll learn more about that later, but setting up an RV basecamp is ideal here for other reasons.
They don’t call it the Badlands for nothing, and on a really hot day here, shade is virtually impossible to find. So having an RV to retreat to will give you either an air-conditioned space to escape the heat or an outdoor area underneath your awning to enjoy the scenery without baking in the sun.
The park’s main road is a little windy and slow speeds are advised, but it is accessible to most RVs and travel trailers under 40 feet. Larger rigs should consider parking outside and taking a toad to check out the park’s interior attractions.
When to Visit Badlands National Park
The park is open to visitors year-round unless weather closures create unsafe conditions that force park operators to close down essential roads and services. The Badlands actually has two peak seasons, one in the spring (April through June) and another in the fall (September through November).
Badlands National Park in the Spring
The spring is one of the most popular times for visiting the Badlands because nightly temps begin to consistently rise above freezing but daytime highs don’t yet hit triple digits on a regular basis. While overnight lows in April can still dip into the mid-30s, highs by the time you reach June average in the low 80s. Speaking of June, it also happens to be the wettest month in a park that only receives about 16 inches of annual rainfall accumulation, on average.
Badlands National Park in the Summer
Summers in the Badlands can be extremely hot and dry and come with the possibility of occasional violent thunderstorms. Whoever named this park most likely visited in the summer, when daytime highs can reach as much as 116℉.
Badlands National Park in the Fall
The fall is another popular time to visit because temperatures start to cool down and nights will still be reasonably balmy. The average high in September is 81℉, but that drops to 50℉ by November. The average lows for those months are 51℉ and 26℉, respectively. While unlikely, hailstorms and occasional tornadoes can descend on the Badlands during the fall and winter.
Badlands National Park in the Winter
Winters in the Badlands can be exceptionally cold, with record lows being recorded as chilly as -40℉. Snowfall accumulations during the winter months range from 12 to 24 inches, which actually turn the Badlands into a picturesque winter landscape if you’re willing to brave the cold temperatures and gusty winds. Although snow is a possibility, December and January are the driest months of the year in the park.
Regardless of the season you visit, sudden and dramatic weather changes are possible year-round. Always check the local weather forecast before heading out on a hike or a drive in the park.
Where to Stay
There are two frontcountry sites to camp in Badlands National Park. If you are interested in exploring the backcountry during your visit, check out the park’s website for more information on backcountry camping.
Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground are the two campgrounds within the park. With a total of 96 sites and some including electric hookups, Cedar Pass is the more RV-friendly of the two.
Reservations are available for Cedar Pass, but Sage Creek Campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis and offers 22 campsites. RVs, travel trailers, and vehicles over 18 feet in length are prohibited in Sage Creek Campground, so this makes it slightly more restrictive for RVers.
Here’s a little more info on these two campgrounds:
Cedar Pass Campground
- Located near Ben Reifel Visitor Center
- Open year-round, but with limited availability in the winter
- Reservations for summer open during the first week of March each year
- Camping stays are limited to 14 days
Sage Creek Campground
- Located on Sage Creek Rim Road, which may close temporarily due to winter storms and spring rains
- Pits and picnic tables are available, but no water.
- RV generator use is not permitted.
- The site is free and available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Staying Outside the Park
During my latest visit to the Badlands, I took advantage of the free boondocking RV site just outside of the park’s Pinnacles Entrance Station. This camping area has no facilities and no shade (other than what your RV awning provides), but here’s where this campground is located. If you haven’t done much off-grid camping, read up on how to boondock in an RV before your visit.
For nearby campgrounds with services, check out these RV parks:
- Sleepy Hollow Campground: Offering 37 full-hookup sites roughly 12 minutes from the Pinnacles Entrance Station.
- Badlands Motel & Campground: Offering 22 full-hookup sites roughly five minutes from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
- Minute Man RV Park & Lodging: Offering 16 full-hookup sites roughly 15 minutes from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Tips For Booking
- Reservations for Cedar Pass Campground can be made through Cedar Pass Lodge online or by calling 1-877-386-4383.
- For more direct information about camping in the park, visitors are encouraged to call a separate line at Cedar Pass Lodge at 1-605-433-5460.
- Four group campsites are also available at Cedar Pass Campground.
- Due to high fire danger, campfires are not permitted inside the park.
- Cedar Pass offers two wheelchair-accessible sites in the main campground and one in the group loop.
- The terrain at and around Sage Creek is rough and cannot be considered accessible.
How to Get Around Badlands National Park
There are three entrances to Badlands National Park: the Pinnacles entrance, the Northeast entrance, and the Interior entrance. The three main roads you’ll use to get to the park’s various attractions are the Badlands Loop Road, Sage Creek Rim Road, and Sheep Mountain Table Road.
Of those three, Badlands Loop Road is the only paved surface, but it is a two-lane road with steep passes and reduced speed limits. Still, it’s navigable for most RVs and travel trailers and it is the main road used for exploring the park’s most popular attractions, such as Panorama Point and the Big Badlands Overlook.
Sage Creek Rim Road is a dirt/gravel road that is navigable for most vehicles and smaller RVs and trailers. Sheep Mountain Table Road is more rugged and a four-wheel-drive vehicle with higher ground clearance is highly recommended.
Because driving an RV or a personal vehicle is the best way to get around Badlands National Park, you are strongly encouraged to check out maps of the park before your visit.
Places to Go
The Badlands is big on scenic viewpoints and wildlife viewing, but no trip to a national park is complete without a stop at one of the park’s visitor centers. So let’s start there.
There are two visitor centers in the Badlands. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the more central of the two, but the White River Visitor Center is the perfect starting point for exploring the park’s south unit.
Overlooks and Viewpoints
Taking a drive to see the sights of the Badlands is the perfect activity if you’ve never been to this park. And it’s also a great option to beat the heat as long as you’ve been keeping up with the basics of RV air conditioner maintenance.
There are multiple viewpoints and overlooks along both the Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road. Most of these overlooks include interpretive signs and displays that will help you learn more about the park and its inhabitants along the way.
Sheep Mountain Table
Sheep Mountain Table is located on the border of the park’s northern and southern units. Exploring this area does require a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but the first part of the road to the overlook is usually accessible to all vehicles unless there has been a recent storm.
From the overlook, you can also park your vehicle and hike the remaining 2.5 miles of dirt road to explore more of this fascinating area. This road also happens to be one of the places you can hike with your dog when visiting the Badlands.
The South Unit
Driving around the South Unit of the park is a way to see a different side of the Badlands. This section of the park is touched by less human activity because the only access is via backcountry hiking trails and the four-wheel road to Sheep Mountain Table.
Red Shirt Table Overlook is one of the best viewpoints along the drive, but you should also have several opportunities to see wildlife along the trip as well. There are fewer stops along this route compared to the drive through the northern part of the park, so it’s a great option to see additional sights without leaving the comfort of your vehicle.
Things To Do in Badlands National Park
From laying back in your reclining camping chair and looking for constellations to waiting for bison to cross the road, there’s a lot to do in the Badlands. Here’s a quick overview to help you plan your adventure:
Hiking in the Badlands is a great way to explore on foot and off-the-beaten-path. When visiting during the summer, the best times to hike are around dawn and dusk before the temperatures heat up, but hiking during the day is possible if you bring enough water, wear sunscreen, and prepare accordingly.
There are a ton of hiking trails in the park, so here is a quick overview of the main options (all noted mileages are round trip):
- Door Trail: This easy trail is roughly ¾ of a mile and is highlighted by a break in the Badlands Wall (aka ‘The Door’) with excellent views.
- Window Trail: This easy ¼-mile trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with views of an eroded canyon.
- Notch Trail: This moderate to strenuous 1.5-mile hike eventually climbs a log ladder up to a ‘Notch’ that provides glimpses into the White River Valley below.
- Castle Trail: This moderate 10-mile hike is the longest trail in the park and stays relatively flat throughout its entire length.
- Cliff Shelf: This moderate ½-mile hike climbs through a rare juniper forest on top of the Badlands Wall and passes by a seasonal pond where bighorn sheep and deer often come to quench their thirst.
- Saddle Pass: This strenuous ¼-mile hike leads up and through a small pass in the Badlands Wall before connecting with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop trails.
- Medicine Root Loop: This moderate 4-mile hike rolls through the mixed-grass prairie behind the Badlands Wall with views of the rock formations in the distance.
- Fossil Exhibit Trail: This easy ¼-mile hike is on a fully-accessible boardwalk with fossil displays of now-extinct species that used to roam the Badlands.
Certain parts of the park also maintain what they call an ‘Open Hike Policy’. This policy states that off-trail hiking is permitted in places like Deer Haven and the Sage Creek Wilderness. Learn more about this policy and general safety tips for hiking in the Badlands before you go.
Biking the park’s roads gives you a chance to experience the scenery without the filter of your dirty RV windshield. Biking in the park is only permitted on Badlands Loop Road, Sage Creek Loop, Northeast-Big Foot Loop, and Northeast Loop. Learn more about the rules for biking safely and dealing with wildlife when bicycling in the Badlands.
Night Sky Viewing
Because the Badlands is so far from a densely-populated urban area, one of the best things to do in the park happens after the sun goes down. With minimal light pollution, the dark skies over the Badlands are a great place to teach kids your favorite constellations or look for shooting stars.
At certain times, park rangers and astronomy volunteers will set up telescopes and teach you about what to look for in the night sky above. Night sky viewing is truly one-of-a-kind here and, if you get lucky, you might even arrive in time for the annual Badlands Astronomy Festival.
The bison of the Dakotas have earned a reputation that has spread almost as far as their kindred to the west in Yellowstone. While I maintain that the bison here were slightly more petite than the ones I encountered in Yellowstone, they are still a sight to behold.
In addition to bison, the park is home to bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes, snakes, black-footed ferrets, and the always-curious prairie dog. The great part about spotting wildlife in the Badlands is that you often don’t even have to leave the main road to do it!
Photographing (or just Enjoying) Sunrises and Sunsets
Some national parks are known for sunrises and others are better for sunsets. The Badlands has both–in spades. Photographers often come from all around the world to capture the rising or the setting of the sun over the park’s unique rock formations.
The park’s rock can sometimes even appear to take on new colors depending on the time of the day and the lighting. So you’ll rarely photograph the same rock at different times of the day and produce an identical image. Whether you’re into getting up early or staying out late, the Badlands is the place to be.
Visiting the Fossil Preparation Lab
There is no shortage of fossil evidence to tell scientists about the previous animal and Native American inhabitants that once called the Badlands home. At the Fossil Preparation Lab, you can see paleontologists at work and learn more about the ongoing collection and exploration of fossils in the Badlands.
If you have horses, exploring the park’s mixed-grass prairie on horseback gives you a sense of what some of the first settlers experienced when they entered this rugged rock labyrinth. While there are no commercial rentals or day rides available, visitors with horse trailers are encouraged to stay within the portion of Sage Creek Campground that is designated for horse use.
Horseback riding is permitted anywhere in the park, aside from marked trails, roads, highways, and developed areas. Just review the rules and safety tips for riding in the Badlands to make sure you’re respectful of the environment and other visitors.
GPS Scavenger Hunts
The park service also offers a handful of ranger-led programs in the Badlands, and one of the coolest things to do with kids is a GPS-enabled scavenger hunt. This activity can last anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours and it’s a great way to get an overview of the many features of the park. As a bonus, kids will take home an “I Walked The Badlands!” patch.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- Public Wi-Fi is available at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Through the rest of the park, cell coverage can range from full coverage to no coverage, depending on location.
- The only location to purchase food within the park is at the Cedar Pass Lodge. In addition to a place to buy snacks for the trail, the lodge also offers a full-service restaurant.
- The closest towns to stop for groceries to fill your RV refrigerator before entering the park are Wall (if entering at the Pinnacles Station), Interior (if entering the Interior entrance), and Kadoka (if entering the Northeast entrance and coming in from the east on I-90).
- Shade is extremely limited when camping and recreating in the Badlands. Bring and wear sunscreen for all outdoor activities and consider bringing a portable canopy or shade shelter for extra coverage at your campground. It’s also a good idea to brush up on RV awning maintenance tips before your visit.
- Hiking in the Badlands should always be done in closed-toed hiking shoes or boots. From prickly cactus to the presence of prairie rattlesnakes, protecting your feet is a must when traveling on or off-trail in the park.
- Pets are prohibited on hiking trails, in public buildings, in backcountry areas, and in areas with prairie dog towns. They can be in campgrounds as long as they remain on a leash when outside of your RV.
- If you’re camping anywhere besides Cedar Pass Campground, pack extra water in a portable water dispenser.
- Wildlife should always be viewed from a respectful distance of at least 100 feet.
- Be sure to look into other nearby destinations if traveling to the Badlands, such as Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, the Black Hills, and Rapid City, South Dakota.
Brief History of Badlands National Park
The Badlands was originally dedicated as a national monument in 1939 but was officially redesignated as a national park on November 10th, 1978. The history of this national park, and the others nearby in North and South Dakota, cannot be told without mentioning our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1883, Roosevelt made his first trip to the area to hunt bison and became enamored by the area’s potential to support a burgeoning open-range cattle industry. During this trip, he invested in a small ranch property along the Little Missouri River, which later became known as Maltese Cross Ranch.
A year later, he decided to return to grieve the losses of his mother and his young wife, who both tragically died on the same day. Over the next two years, he purchased 1,000 head of cattle, opened a second ranch house (known as Elkhorn), and oversaw a thriving ranching business.
But, sadly, the industry grew too quickly and, in the fall of 1886, it started to become apparent that the land could not support the number of cattle grazing on the open range. In the winter of 1886-1887, which proved to be particularly ruthless, Roosevelt lost more than half his herd.
Over the next year, Roosevelt was forced to abandon the Elkhorn Ranch House and move back to Maltese Cross. By 1898, he openly suggested that the cattle industry in the area was doomed and, eventually, sold the last of his stock there late in the year.
Despite losing much of his fortune in this venture, Roosevelt romanticized his time in the Dakota Territory in his book, The Winning of the West. He would later return as part of a presidential tour in 1903 and efforts to create a national park dedicated to protecting the legacy of his time in the Dakotas began in earnest after his death in 1919.