Road Trip To South Dakota’s Badlands
Growing up we didn't take vacations to far away places. We usually stayed close to home. However, we did go to South Dakota - twice! When I think of families vacationing in the summer, I imagine The Badlands, and I feel the same wonder and disbelief I felt as a child. This park and its out-of-this-world landscape still amazing me today! A trip across South Dakota is one of America's great road trips — wide open spaces, quirky roadside attractions, nature galore, and a taste of the wild west.
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Why Visit The Badlands National Park
The landscape is unlike anywhere else in the US, although it shares some similarities with places like Utah and Arizona. But what sets it apart are the abundant grasslands! The rugged formations contrast with the lush prairies which is something you just don't find in the southwest.
The Badlands hold a very special place in my heart. They were my first experience with our National Parks, which I have come to love so much! Living in Iowa has many advantages, but we are in a bit of a National Park desert. The closest park to me just so happens to be The Badlands!
Badlands Loop Road - The Scenic Route
The best way to experience The Badlands is via the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (SD 240). This 38 mile stretch of road takes you through the heart of the park. It is an absolutely stunning drive. You can pull over at any of the 16 overlooks, or maybe all 16 of them!
Big Badlands Overlook is a Must!
Here you can really get a sense of how grand and vast this landscape is. The Big Badlands Overlook is the first one you will encounter from the eastern entrance. A short walk down the boardwalk and you are nearly surrounded by the formations. This location is very accessible and provides an easy introduction to the park. It is so incredible you just might find yourself wondering, where am I?
Hiking the Badlands - 8 Trails to Choose From
Our last trip to The Badlands included my parents and was actually a pit stop on our way to bike the George S. Mickelson Trail. That being said, we didn't have nearly enough time to hike as much as we would have liked. We asked my parents to drop us off at the Saddle Pass Trailhead. From there we hiked straight up the formation wall. The trail wasn't clearly marked which always adds to the excitement! It also involved lots of loose pebbly dirt. Saddle Pass Trail is listed as a strenuous hike. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone with a fear of heights. Be prepared to climb and crawl as needed - possibly some butt scooting too!
From Saddle Pass Trail we connected to Castle Trail. I think we met one other person. Otherwise, it was just us. It is the longest trail you will find in the park at 10 miles (roundtrip). The section we explored was flat with the formations on one side and the rolling prairie on the other. We went during the spring when the wildflowers were in full bloom. It is neat to see the cracked earth and how the formations rise up out of these crevices.
Travel Tip: If you go during the summer be sure to bring lots of water as this trail offers no escape from the sun. Also, just because you are in the north doesn't mean you won’t find any cacti… So watch out!
The trail ends at the Fossil Exhibit Trail where we found my parents looking around. This fossil trail is also very accessible, with a boardwalk and features exhibits and fossil replicas. There were more people here than anywhere else in the park that day.
We also jumped out of the car at the Window and Door Trails. These short trails offer way more than just an excuse to get out and stretch your legs. I don't see how you could go wrong with any of the outlook and hiking options. As always, be sure to stay on the trail and mind the posted signs. While most of the park is incredibly accessible and family-friendly, it can also be quite dangerous. Come prepared, stay safe, respect nature as well as our National Parks, and you should be fine.
Yellow Mounds Overlook - My Favorite
Most of The Badlands make you feel as if you've traveled to the moon. But in some places it can become otherworldly — cue The Yellow Mounds. The colors are unreal and it is truly spectacular! I have only experienced something similar while in Nevada at the Valley of Fire State Park (also HIGHLY recommended). This section of the park made for a perfect ending to our trip along the scenic byway.
Sightseeing Opportunities to the East
We always travel east to west when driving to The Badlands. If you are headed in this direction as well, you will find lots of roadside attractions. Not all attractions are created equally. You will find everything from charmingly quirky stops to full-blown tourist traps. Here is a list of just some of the roadside wonders you might come across on I-90.
Falls Park - Sioux Falls: I have never been, but my parents have and really enjoyed their time there. Looks like a good spot for a quick stop.
Corn Palace - Mitchell: This is where things get a little weird... a classic roadside attraction. Definitely not for everyone, but if you need to stretch a bit and are interested in corn murals, this just might be the place for you.
The Chamberlain Bridge - Chamberlain: This is always one of my favorite parts of the trip. Crossing the Missouri River (Francis Case Lake) meant that we were finally far from home.
South Dakota's Original 1880 Town - Murdo: Okay, we may have just stopped to get gas. I only got a glance at this historical "town" made of over 30 buildings from roughly 1880-1920. This stop checks most of the boxes for a great roadside attraction - historical, educational, family-friendly and a little bit strange.
Badlands Petrified Gardens - Kadoka: My childhood favorite! This place rocks, literally! I have very fond memories from this stop. I was pretty easy to entertain as a child, and an endless supply of rocks to look at was right up my alley. They have polished stones, gems and lots of fossils! Not to mention the entire tree trunks that have been petrified (turned into stone).
Wall Drug - Wall: Chances are if you have made it this far you are well aware of Wall Drug's existence. They only have a zillion billboards begging you to visit along the way. The exit for Badlands Loop Road comes *before* the exit for Wall. Let's just say this is a good thing! If highly touristy attractions are your thing then, by all means, check it out, there is a lot to see. Be sure to smash a penny or two (I still have mine from the early 1990s). Otherwise, if you avoid tourist traps like the plague, it might be best to drive right on by.
Road Trips - My favorite Memory Makers
My favorite childhood memories were made in South Dakota with my family. I can still see my little brother and me, dressed in our new South Dakota souvenir t-shirts. I recall collecting rocks, marveling at fossils and eating picnic lunches from the back of the van. Even after all this time, I still enjoy going back. I was delighted to take my Memphis-born husband to South Dakota for his first time. What memories will you make or have you made in South Dakota?
Inspiration - The Badlands National Park, South Dakota
South Dakota left an impression that has stayed with me for decades. I often think back to this time in my life and how simple family road trips helped shape my love for travel. I have kept my souvenir rocks and flattened pennies all these years as well. So naturally, for my inspiration piece, I have illustrated just some of the many rocks of South Dakota.
Cheers! To rocks!
Freelance Graphic Designer
This trip took place during the spring of 2017. When planning your own adventures, please be sure to check for any current travel alerts or changes in destination conditions first. Keep in mind that businesses mentioned may no longer exist or offer the same products recommended in this post.