Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one national park that you can visit in a short amount of time, like 24 hours, and still hit almost everything.

This truly otherworldly park is one-of-a-kind with its fossils, moon-like surfaces and fantastic nighttime ranger program, which you won’t want to miss!

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Badlands National Park in 24 Hours

Flying to Badlands National Park

View of Denver airport and wing of Southwest airplane

If you’re following our plan to always have a Southwest Companion Pass, so one person in your family can fly free, and using points for all other tickets, you’ll want to fly into the closest Southwest airport to Badlands National Park, which is Denver.

The park is an easy 6.5-hour drive from Denver International Airport and there’s lots more to see in the area, so it’s totally worth the drive.

Entrance Fees

The park is open 24 hours a day 365 days a year, and entrance fees are $30 per car for a 7-day pass or $55 for an annual pass to this park only. You can also purchase a 7-day motorcycle pass for $25.

Senior citizens can purchase a lifetime senior pass that covers ALL national parks for $80 or instead choose a $20 annual pass and active military members, veterans or Gold Star families get a FREE pass. Thank you for your service to our country!

If you plan on visiting more than 2 National Parks in a year, opt for an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80 to save money.

Don’t forget if you have a 4th grader, your whole family gets into National Parks free during their school year and the following summer as part of the Every Kid in a Park Program.

You can also access Badlands National Park FREE on the below days, but keep in mind these days will be even MORE BUSY than usual…

Visiting Badlands National Park

Want to squeeze everything you can out of 24 hours in Badlands National Park?

Follow these tips to get the most out of your visit…

Head to the Visitor’s Center & Fossil Lab

Sign for Badlands National Park Ben Reifel Visitor Center with mountain in background
Ben Reifel Visitor Center, NPS photo

Make your first stop in the park the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center where you can…

  • Watch a movie about the park
  • Pick up a Junior Ranger booklet
  • Stamp your National Park passport book
  • Ask the rangers questions
  • Get maps
  • Visit the museum exhibits
  • Chat with paleontologists who work in the park’s Fossil Preparation Lab
  • Pick up park souvenirs

Want to get a jump on learning about Badlands National Park? Watch the 20-minute movie ahead of your visit here.

If your kids haven’t yet participated in the Junior Ranger program, definitely make time to get them started by picking up an activity book, so they can do all the projects and earn a badge. They can even work on this ahead of time via Pick Your Park Adventure in the Badlands.

Our family has many passport stamps in our National Park passport book, which has created a great record of all our many visits.

Plus, we always pick up a hiking medallion for my husband’s detachable hardwood hiking stick and a Christmas ornament as souvenirs to remind us of our trip for years to come.

Take a Scenic Drive

View of Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook

Make your next activity driving Badlands Loop Road to Sage Creek Rim Road, an offshoot gravel road before you reach the west entrance. On this road, you’ll find several overlooks and have your very best chance of spotting wildlife, including those playful critters at Roberts Prairie Dog Town

As you head back toward the visitor’s center, Badlands Loop Road, AKA Highway 240, will take you to many overlooks including Panorama Point, Yellow Mounds and more, now mostly on the right-hand side.

There are 12 distinct overlooks, so pull off the road to get the best views and not block traffic.

Stay Overnight

It’s time to head to Cedar Pass Lodge to check in. You won’t find an actual lodge anywhere on the premises, but you will find some fantastic cabins!

Each cabin has a little covered porch with solid pine chairs to relax with your provided morning coffee. Inside, you can look forward to comfortable beds with plenty of pillows and a kitchenette area with mini fridge and microwave, as well as a table and chairs. 

There’s a closet area with luggage rack and bench right outside the double sink area of the bathroom, which is separate from the tub and toilet, making it easier for everyone to get ready. You also have a flat-screen TV and strong Wi-Fi.

The cabins are within walking distance of the park’s store, restaurant, visitor’s center and campground amphitheater.

Get Dinner

Indian Flybread Taco in to-go container
Indian Frybread Taco

As soon as you’ve checked into your cabin and unloaded, walk over to the Cedar Pass Restaurant and get an order of Indian Frybread tacos to go.

Enjoy them at the picnic table outside your cabin for a unique experience. Yummy!

Take a Hike

Ladder going up rocks with person climbing up - on Notch Trail, Badlands National Park
A ladder on the Notch Trail

With only 8 marked hiking trails in this National Park, most less than 1 mile long, you’ll find it’s easy to see the best the park has to offer in a short time.

Three of the popular hikes start from the same parking lot. These hikes include…

Plan on hiking Window and Door Trail right after dinner but before sunset. Door Trail is great to go off-trail into the heart of all the rocks once the sun has dipped below the formations.

Rocks and mountains on Door Trail in Badlands National Park
Door Trail

Save Notch Trail, which is known for its ladder and some close-to-the-edge moments, for the morning.

Also in this same area of the park, you’ll find lots of cliff swallow nests and might even encounter a bird you’ve never seen or heard before like we did!

Cliff swallow nests in Badlands National Park
Cliff Swallow nests

My husband found a great app for identifying bird songs called Merlin Bird ID. You can record the bird singing and then it will search its database and identify the bird for you right on the spot. We discovered our little songster was a Meadowlark using this app!

Nearby is also Cliff Shelf Nature Trailhead (.5 miles round-trip, 200 feet elevation gain), a great spot for sunset or, on our trip, a moonrise. 

[Read more of our top tips for visiting US National Parks]

Participate in the Evening Ranger Program & Stargazing

Outdoor seating area for presentations at Badlands National Park, mountains in background
NPS Photo / Serena Rosales

The Evening Program at Badlands National Park was one of the highlights of our visit. Beginning at 9 p.m. every night during the summer, you can walk over to the campground amphitheater for the ranger program and stargazing.

Our perfect summer weather evening started with taking a close look at the full moon through telescopes followed by the program where they talked about the various animals in the park.

Next was a slideshow of each National Park. You were to clap if you had been to that park. It was fun to see how many people had been to each one!

Then they showed shots from the James Webb telescope versus the Hubble, which had just been released that very day. Then they pointed out stars with a laser pointer, which was super cool, and while watching, I saw a shooting star and some satellites go by!

To conclude the program, they had the telescopes directed at binary stars, which appeared red and blue, from the Cygnus constellation. 

The evening ranger program is a “must-do” when visiting Badlands National Park!

Epic Road Trip

Tall grass and yellow flower with Badlands National Park mountains
Sunrise at Badlands National Park

You might consider making Badlands part of an epic road trip and include all of these in one fell swoop using the TravelSouthDakota.com website as your starting point for lots of great info on things like…

Have you been to Badlands National Park? What was your favorite part of your visit?

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