The Black Hills is known for our towering ponderosa pines, but just to our east is a landscape unlike anything else you’ve probably seen. Badlands National Park is a wide expanse of wilderness known as the land of stone and light. It’s home to striking geological formations, curious wildlife, and picturesque open skies.
Badlands National Park covers over 244,000 acres of wilderness, which means it’s a good idea to plan for exactly what you want to see. Simply driving nonstop through the park will take you an hour — and that’s if you don’t get stopped behind a bison herd or group of bighorn sheep. While driving straight through certainly lets you experience this other-worldly landscape, stopping at a few places will ensure you have the adventure of a lifetime.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is worth a stop for information on the park and its geological formations. Plan to spend at least an hour here for the video and exhibits. You can also pick up an activity booklet for Junior Rangers if you have kids who take part in the program. Making time for a ranger-led fossil talk is a great way to learn about the geology of the park; you can meet rangers at the Fossil Exhibit Trail in the park, then explore the short trail in the area.
Beyond the basic loop on Highway 240 and the visitor center, popular activities within the park are stopping at overlooks or exploring hiking trails. The Notch Trail is a short trail known for its wooden ladder that will take you up the face of the rocks to a spectacular overlook. There is a moderate amount of terrain and part of the trail follows a cliff’s edge, so if you have young children, keep a close eye on them. For a slightly easier trail, check out the nearby Door Trail. It follows a short boardwalk with handrails to a great vantage point that will immerse you in the majesty of the Badlands’ peaks and canyons. The trail continues past the boardwalk if you choose to extend your adventure; with an overall elevation gain of 50 feet, it’s gentle enough for everyone to enjoy.
As you journey through the park, you’ll undoubtedly encounter wildlife roaming through the rock formations and across the grassland. Bighorn Sheep are often seen dancing along the rocks around Pinnacle Overlook. If you’ve stopped to hike the Notch or Door Trails, sheep also like to hang around nearby Castle Trail. Prairie dogs have towns scattered throughout the park; stop by the Roberts Prairie Dog Town to see the largest in the park and listen for their high-pitched chatter. While prairie dogs are cute and fluffy, they can carry plague, so keep a distance from them like you would any other wildlife. To see bison, your best bet is to head down a gravel road through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. It’s on the edge of the Badlands, but the grassy plains provide ample grazing land for the bison who congregate here in large numbers.
Not only does Badlands National Park protect the land and animals that live there, the park is home to renowned open skies. You can enjoy glorious sunsets and twinkling stars any time of the year, but the park also hosts a summer astronomy festival. This annual three-day event promotes the safekeeping of our night sky as a natural resource. The relative seclusion of the park allows for pristine night skies uninterrupted by night pollution from civilization. While the lineup changes a bit year-to-year, previous events have included telescope viewings, demonstrations, and guest speakers.
Beyond the natural beauty of the park, film buffs of the late 1990s will recognize the Badlands from two Hollywood hits: 1997’s “Starship Troopers” and 1998’s “Armageddon.” Both used the park as an out-of-this-world locale; “Starship Troopers” filmed scenes for fictional alien world Tango Urilla here, while “Armageddon” staged the landscape of their humanity-ending asteroid near Interior. For the full effect, plan to get to the park early and catch the sunrise; visitors swear the early morning light makes the park look like the surface of the moon.
Badlands National Park is worth the time to explore while you’re here — don’t miss your chance to see a rare and beautiful landscape. Keystone is the perfect base for your adventures in the Black Hills, and beyond! After a full day exploring one of our nation’s pristine national parks, we’ll be ready to welcome you back for some rest and relaxation.
Current park entry fees are $30 per vehicle or $25 per motorcycle. For more information, see Badlands National Park’s chamber listing here.