Days 1 & 2: A Day in Badlands National Park

by | Mar 21, 2022 | Travel | 0 comments

Need a little context before reading about our day in Badlands National Park? Part 1 here

Road Trip Day 1: Thursday

Generally, Rob and I are those annoying road trip people who like to leave before it’s even light out to maximize driving time. When we were planning, Rob made a good point that he didn’t want to feel rushed and end up forgetting something for a trip of this length. We ended up leaving mid-morning and it was the right choice for us, this time.

Originally we planned to drive from Hancock to Kadoka, SD on day one and be able to start our day in Badlands National Park bright and early, but we amended our plans, agreeing to a good night’s sleep and an easy first drive day.

There’s not much to say about the first day of driving. Rob realized he had worn through his Keen hiking boots the week before; they weren’t going to ship in time so we routed our trip to go through Bloomington, Minnesota so we could make a stop at R.E.I. Traffic was atrocious despite not being “rush hour,” but it was necessary and Rob says his Targhee III Keen hiking boots are even better than his cherished Targhee IIs.

We spent night one at Comfort Inn outside of Sioux Falls, SD. It was clean and quiet and looked brand new! Best of all, it was only a couple of blocks from a Starbucks 😉 We would likely stay there if we were in Sioux Falls again.

Time on road: 9h 30m, mileage 612

Road Trip Day 2: Friday

So here’s the thing. As nice as our hotel was, I don’t know that we would plan the same itinerary if we did another trip to Badlands. We had a 4 hour drive Friday morning to get to Badlands National Park. While I’m glad we didn’t stay in Kadoka like we originally planned (it is a tiny little town!), in retrospect we could have split the difference, crossed the Missouri River and spent the night somewhere there. Our morning drive would have been shorter, so we could be in the park earlier.

I was excited to see Skeleton Man Walking Skeleton Dinosaur on our drive. I love goofy roadside things like that! We didn’t stop but I snapped a picture as we drove by.

Something I Googled multiple times but couldn’t find a concrete answer to (because the term “badlands” is actually associated with a lot of different areas versus just this national park area) was where the badlands started / appeared. Could not find a concrete answer, so here it is for you –

We started seeing the rock formations we identified with the Badlands about 45 minutes east of the park itself.

That was exciting because we knew we were finally getting close! We pulled off at a turnout and got some pictures. It was a great chance to stretch our legs and get excited, totally worth the stop. We also saw our first antelope of the trip (not pictured).

How We Spent Our Day in Badlands National Park

I used Dirt In My Shoes for reference on what some of the best hikes are during a day in Badlands National Park. This was a really helpful site because the author, Ash, is a former park ranger. We couldn’t do them all, of course. Just have to go back again! 😉

Short Hikes and Exploring

We arrived just before 11 a.m. (MDT) and the park was already busy. We wanted to start exploring right away, so we started at Door Trail and walked part of that. This was worth the walk, but there were a lot of people all with the same idea. I loved the variety of terrain to explore.

There is a sign at the start of Door Trail with a quote that Rob and I loved:

There are many ways to go, from the short walks and well-marked longer paths … the main thing is to get out of your car and away from the parking lot if you can.

-John madson / life on the back side of the moon

This is one of my favorite pictures from our day in the Badlands. It was a challenge to try to capture the enormity of the geologic deposits so I used Rob for scale. 🙂

Next, we hiked Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. This was a short but pretty hike and gave some great elevation views. After a quick bathroom stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (including a clothing change because it was much warmer than I expected), we walked the Fossil Exhibit Trail.

We could have skipped the fossil trail. I was expecting to see more actual fossils; instead, it was mainly signs with pictures of what they think some of the prehistoric animals may have looked like based on a few bits and pieces of fossils.

After the disappointing fossil walk, we crossed the road and explored a bit of Castle Trail. Castle Trail is described as one of the best hikes in the park, a 5-mile point-to-point trail that takes you through the “backcountry” of Badlands National Park. Between the heat and our desire to explore E V E R Y T H I N G we could, we didn’t attempt the full hike. It’s on our to do list for next time, though! I couldn’t get over how quickly the sounds of people disappeared and we had the land completely to ourselves.

I really wanted to get an “Insta-worthy” shot from the center of the road with my camera low to the ground, but there were just way too many cars coming through for me to feel safe doing so.

Our Favorite Stop in Badlands National Park

Our favorite stop during our day in Badlands National Park was Norbeck Pass. There were a number of good, safe pullouts and this great selfie spot! This section of road gained elevation rapidly and then brought us down the other side. I was impressed by all the mountain bikers tackling the ride!

Later in our trip we discovered that Rob’s watch has an altimeter in it, so we tracked the different altitudes we reached.

A Day In Badlands National Park: Animal Sightings – Finally!

Panorama Point is often recommended as a must stop during a day in Badlands NP. We opted to skip it altogether, though. The viewing platform parking lot was already at capacity, and that’s not our style.

Right after Panorama Point we saw two bighorn sheep walking down the road! They were a lot bigger than I expected. These were the first animals we saw inside the park all day.

bighorn sheep sighting during a day in badlands national park

Yellow Mounds Overlook was such an awesome stop on our drive through the park, completely different from most of the rest of the land. Most of the rocks in the park are white, pink, red, beige, or gray.  But then – BAM.  Bright yellow.

The yellow layer used to be the floor of an inland sea that covered the Great Plains; when this layer was exposed to the air it weathered into yellow soil.  The Yellow Mounds are made up of one of the oldest layers of rock in the park! They’re also smoother, sloping hills instead of the jagged points we normally associate with the Badlands.

a day in badlands national park yellow mounds overlook
a day in badlands national park yellow mounds overlook

Just before exiting at the Pinnacles entrance and heading west towards dinner and our hotel, we saw a buffalo lie down and roll in the dust. A whole mess of prairie dogs come up out of their holes and started squawking indignantly at the buffalo! (seen below)

one day in badlands national park: our takeaways

A few people have asked if Badlands was actually worth the day. Our wholehearted answer is yes!! From a photography/hiking standpoint, I wish we had planned to be there at sunrise. I’ve read sunrises (and sunsets) in the Badlands are magical. Our hikes were all midday in the direct sun. We’re not used to such a warm climate, so we would have benefited from starting exploring earlier.

If you’re considering a visit, we recommend taking the same drive we did – start at the Northeast entrance and drive toward Pinnacles. The rocks get progressively bigger and denser, and therefore more impressive. Had we done the drive in reverse, we probably would have been bored by the time we reached Door Trail and not even bothered stopping.

Time on road: 6h 15m (not including time in park), mileage 421.8

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