We were so excited to visit Badlands National Park after having such a wonderful experience at Palisades State Park. South Dakota was proving to be an insanely beautiful state. We drove 288 miles (463 km) along I-90 and started our new audio book, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and read by James Franco. I was very skeptical about a reading by the beautiful Mr. Franco, but his voice actually fit perfectly with the feeling of the story, and the misadventures of Billy Pilgrim kept us entertained all the way to the Badlands.
Badlands National Park Overview
Badlands National Park is located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, off of the I-90 freeway. The three sections of the park include over 240,000 acres (97,000 h) of national park land. The North Unit, which is the one we explored, is the most popular and includes a convenient looped road along the major stops within the park.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Badlands National Park is in the spring or fall. There is very little shade and the sun can be quite intense against the light colored rock formations. The spring will provide the best temperatures at 35 – 80°F (2 – 27°C), but also has increased chances of rain. The fall temperatures are a few degrees colder, but you’re less likely to get rained on. Regardless, I strongly suggest sun protection no matter when you decide to visit the Badlands.
How to Prepare
The town of Wall has several hotels and RV campgrounds (plus the famous Wall Drug), but it is bit of a drive to the park. The absolute best place to stay is within the park itself at Cedar Pass Lodge. The lodge includes cabins, RV parking, and camping sites, all of which overlook the national park.
The price to enter Badlands National Park is $20 per car, $10 per motorcycle, or $10 per hiker (as of 10/2018). Each pass is valid for seven consecutive days. As we plan on visiting at least four national parks within the next 12 months, we opted to purchase the America The Beautiful Pass for $80. This allows everyone in our car to visit all of the USA national parks for free for the next 365 days.
I am a big fan of nuclear history and strongly suggest including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Sites in your trip. To get the best experience, reserve your Delta-01 tour as soon as possible. The tour lasts 30 minutes and costs $6. When we went in the off-season, tickets had already sold out three weeks prior. Without a reservation, we were limited to the visitor center and the Delta-09 site, where you can take pictures of the exterior of a decommissioned Minuteman silo. But if you want to tour the inside of the bunker (and who wouldn’t?!), reserve ASAP.
The Places We Live: Badlands National Park Loop
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
Location: North of I-90 Exit 131
Time: 30 minutes
During the Cold War (1947-1991), the United States produced over 1,000 ready-to-launch nuclear-tipped missiles and stationed them in hidden silos throughout the Great Plains. This was done to close the missile gap between the USA and the Soviet Union, allowing the United States to apply the military strategy of mutual assured destruction.
The LGM-30 Minuteman is an intercontinental ballistic missile developed in the mid-1950s. Like the Revolutionary War’s Minutemen, whom the missile was named after, the LGM-30 Minuteman missiles were armed and ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
Walking through the visitor center gave us a great idea of what it was like to live during this time when the whole world was facing death on a hair trigger. More importantly, in my humble opinion, it outlined the history and the philosophical dilemmas surrounding such an instant killing arsenal. As a physics hobbyist with an interest in nuclear energy, I found the whole thing fascinating.
Location: North of I-90 Exit 127
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $6 for adults and $4 for youth under 16 (as of 10/12/2018)
Tours begin and end at the gate outside of the Delta-01 compound gate. Tickets must be reserved in advance as only six people are taken in at a time; I strongly suggest booking at least three weeks before visiting. We were unable to take the tour since all of the spots had been booked out beforehand. The tour takes visitors down into an old Minuteman control bunker, including the upper support building and the actual launch control site 31 feet below the surface.
Get more information about visiting the Delta-01 Site HERE.
Location: South of I-90 Exit 116
Time: 10 minutes
Honestly, I was a little disappointed with the Delta-09 compound. There is a self-guided cellphone tour available, but all of the stops are above ground, and there isn’t much to see. The main attraction is a window with a limited view into a launch silo (pictured above). It was a great way to get a glimpse into a silo without access to the Delta-01 tour, but it left us wanting more.
Pinnacles Overlook is the first major pull-out we came to as we entered Badlands National Park. It ended up being one of my favorite stops. There were several different overlook areas with varying levels of accessibility. I think the view at Pinnacles Overlook gave the most expansive view of the rock formations the park is known for.
Just outside of the Pinnacles Overlook parking lot is where we spotted our first wild bison. Bison are America’s national mammal and are often called “buffalo” within the USA and Canada. Although they played a major roll in the lives of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, the American Bison nearly went extinct in the 19th century. Now the bison population is doing very well, though most only live domestically or within national parks and reserves.
Homestead Overlook isn’t particularly impressive without knowing a bit of the history of the area. The overlook offers a view of the main settlement area for homesteaders of the 19th century, Lakota peoples before that, Arikara people before that, and even the nomadic mammoth hunters before that. This place is so arid and windy, home to little more than scrub grass and hardy shrubs, so it’s strange to think anyone would call this “home”.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
“Jen, you just skipped so much of the park!” Yes, I know. Driving from Homestead to the visitor center was absolutely stunning. We stopped at a couple of pullouts along the way but, I’ll be honest, they weren’t really worth the heat. Panorama Point was similar to the rest of the sites and the Fossil Exhibit Trail might be cool for kids, but was a huge disappointment for me (there are no actual fossils there). Save your energy for the amazing hikes that await just past the visitor center.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main visitor center for the Badlands National Park and is open year round. The southern visitor center, called White River Visitor Center, is a great starting point for the Stronghold Unit of the park, but is only open seasonally. The visitor centers are a great place to learn about the historical and geographical aspects of the park. It is also a great place to hit the bathroom and cool down in the AC!
Hands-down, our favorite adventure in Badlands National Park was our brief hike of Door Trail. It begins with a short boardwalk into the canyon. Once inside, the boardwalk ends and a more technical hike begins.
The hike is no longer handicap accessible after the boardwalk ends; the ground becomes very uneven and rocky. The trail is not paved or even very obvious, marked out by numbered yellow poles you had to spot and find your own way to. It wasn’t always easy to spot the next marker (I’m still not sure where number 7 is) and reminded us a lot of the Harrier House Hash Run we did in Thailand. Although it didn’t seem particularly easy to get lost, it was obvious that we could, in fact, get lost. The surrounding landscape had very little in the way of distinguishing features, and I can imagine how easily I could get turned around if I made a wrong turn.
Thankfully, we didn’t make any wrong turns and successfully reached the end of the trail, which gave us an amazing 360 degree view of the Badlands. It was hot, windy, barren, and beautifully ugly. It was like being on another world.
We spent three days at Badlands National Park and enjoyed every moment. Like every national park I have been to so far, it truly exceeded my expectations. In those three days, we were able to see everything the park had to offer, plus the surrounding neighborhood, and get some work done. One day should be more than enough to visit all of the best parts of the park. Next up, we’re traveling just a few hours away to the eastern border of Wyoming and our next camp site below the awe-inspiring Devils Tower!
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