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Expansive prairies, rugged rock formations, neverending views, and abundant wildlife. Welcome to Badlands National Park, encompassing more than 244,000 acres of desolate beauty.
The Badlands are home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds and most incredible geological features, not to mention bison, big-horned sheep, burrowing owls, and thousands of prairie dogs. It’s also full of amazing hiking trails and one of the most stunning night skies around.
As someone who melts when the temps soar past 85 degrees, I’m not sure how I found myself in Badlands National Park during a heatwave in the middle of summer, except that summer really is the best time for road tripping.
My nieces and I managed to do lots of hiking in the early morning and late evening, found a fabulous, but crowded free campground with a resident bison, and spent the heat of the day learning about Badlands history in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Despite temperatures that regularly top 100 degrees, summer remains the most popular time to visit Badlands National Park. If you’re planning a summer trip to the Badlands, you’re in good company. Pack your sunscreen, your wide-brimmed hat and lots of water and get ready for a trip you won’t soon forget!
Why You Should Visit Badlands National Park
The Badlands are incredibly unique! The landscape consists of a mixed-prairie ecosystem, with badlands formations that include steep buttes, rocky pinnacles, and one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America.
The buttes and rock formations are constantly eroding, and eventually, they will be completely eroded away. The hiking trails in the Badlands provide expansive views for very little effort, and the wildlife is easy to spot.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Badlands?
Summer is definitely not the best time to visit Badlands National Park, but even with crazy heat and thunderstorms, I’m glad we went. For us, it was summer or nothing, which seems to be the case for most visitors. July is the busiest month, followed by August and then June.
If you can choose any time at all to visit, go with May or September, when you’ll experience relatively mild temperatures and fewer crowds. It will be warmer and drier in September, which would be my choice if I had one.
If you have to visit Badlands National Park in the summer, don’t dispair. It’s beautiful any time of year. You just have to be prepared for lots of sun and be careful when hiking.
How Much Does it Cost to Get into Badlands National Park?
The Badlands National Park entrance fee for a vehicle and all of its occupants is $25 and good for seven days.
If you are traveling to more than one national park, I’d recommend buying the America the Beautiful Pass for $80. It’s good for a year and gets you into all national parks in the United States. You can buy the pass at any national park or at REI. If you do buy the pass online from REI, they will donate 10% of the proceeds to the National Park Foundation.
Read more about visiting our national parks with this hiking and camping guide.
Badlands National Park Camping
There are two front-country campgrounds within Badlands National Park. Cedar Pass Campground is conveniently located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, as well as the most popular hiking spots within the park. There are 96 sites here, some of which have electric hook-ups for your RV. Cedar Pass Campground also has running water and flush toilets. Rates are $22 per night and $37 for sites with hook-ups.
Sage Creek Campground is free for visitors and way out in the middle of nowhere. There are no hook-ups, no running water, and only a composting toilet. It’s basically a huge field surrounding a prairie dog village with a few shaded picnic areas. The whole area feels a bit lawless, like rowdy festival grounds, and even though there are length restrictions for RVs, we saw lots of big ones trying to maneuver around the sites.
You park your car around the edge of the circular field and then you can set up camp in the middle. Sites are numbered, and most have picnic tables. A few even have shaded cabanas, but those sites are in high demand.
It seems that when the sites fill up, people just pitch their tents wherever and there is no delineation between sites. We did not see a park ranger or park employee out here at all during our stay.
We stayed in Sage Creek Campground for several nights and really enjoyed it despite the overcrowded feel.
What we Loved About Sage Creek Campground
- The animals! The road into Sage Creek Campground passes through some wildlife hot spots. We saw bison, pronghorn, lots of bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and burrowing owls. The campground surrounds a prairie dog village and has a resident bison, or at least we think he’s a resident bison…
- The remoteness. Sage Creek Campground is in the middle of nowhere, which means you have to plan ahead. We left the site each morning and didn’t return until late in the evening after sunset. I’m guessing that it takes over an hour to drive from the Badlands National Park Visitor Center to Sage Creek Campground.
- It’s free. You can’t beat free, right?
What we Didn’t Love About Sage Creek Campground
- The dirt road is terrible! Seriously awful. You would think it would deter people. Nope.
- There’s no shade. Aside from the few shade cabanas sprinkled around the field, there is no way to escape the sun. We had a large tarp that we set up over our picnic table, which worked out well for us.
- The animals. I know, we said this was something we loved about Sage Creek Campground, but what we didn’t love was how some people interacted with the bison and the prairie dogs in the campground — getting way too close for comfort, which made me angry and nervous.
Bottom line — I would stay at Sage Creek Campground again, especially if we visit in the offseason. It’s a beautiful, remote part of the park, and even though the road is awful, the views are amazing coming and going.
Badlands National Park Hiking
Our hikes in Badlands National Park consisted of shorter day hikes because we limited our hot-weather hiking to early in the morning or later in the evening. Day hiking works really well in Badlands National Park as most trails are short.
The longest trail in the park, Castle Trail, is 10 miles. Of course, there are lots of opportunities to adventure off-trail, but we didn’t during our trip. Here are the hikes we tackled during our summer visit to Badlands National Park.
- Cliff Shelf Trail. This was the first trail we discovered explored as soon as we entered the park on day one. This is a short trail that climbs about 200 feet in elevation. It is one of the shadier trails on the park as it meanders through a juniper forest. We saw several deer browsing in the forest and the views were spectacular. The total distance is just a half-mile.
- Notch Trail. The Notch Trail is probably the most famous trail in Badlands National Park, probably because of the wooden ladder that you have to climb. I admit that the ladder didn’t look so bad from the bottom, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re scared of heights. The Notch Trail is 1.5 miles with an amazing view of the White River Valley.
- Windows Trail. This one begins at the same parking area as the Door Trail and the Notch Trail. It’s very short, but there are great views.
- Door Trail. I love how the Door Trail really does feel like you are traveling through a door. When you start, there are walls on either side and then all of a sudden, a break in the wall known as the door. The .75-mile trail follows a number system beyond a short boardwalk. There’s not exactly a trail, you just search for the next number as you meander along the rock formations. It’s quite fun!
- Fossil Exhibit Trail. A very easy and short interpretive trail near a picnic area. We did this one at lunchtime and it was sweltering. We were the only ones on the trail. There are signs and fossil replicas which were super interesting. The whole trail is a boardwalk and is accessible for wheelchairs.
Tips for Hiking in the Badlands in the Summer
During our trip to Badlands National Park, signs warned folks about hiking in the heat, telling us to take the risks very seriously, so we’re passing that information on to you.
- Wear long pants and boots. There are rattlesnakes. Although we didn’t see any, there were signs everywhere. Also, there are lots of prickly plants.
- Wear copious amounts of sunblock, sunglasses, and a brimmed hat. Carrying an elegant parasol is totally fine as well (see photo).
- Hike during the early morning or later in the evening to avoid heatstroke.
- The NPS recommends two liters of water per person per hour.
- Stay 100 feet away from wildlife.
Planning a national park road trip this year? Check out these posts!
- Joshua Tree National Park: The Complete Guide for Families
- Best Kept Secrets of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- A Family Road Trip Through North Cascades National Park
- Camping and Hiking at Indiana Dunes National Park
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