While I did see some flowers what surprised me was the amount of animal life I saw. The reason I saw so much wildlife may be partly because there is much less vegetation to hide it. There are a couple of other animal pictures in a later tip on the Prairie Dog Town.
There are several hiking trails and an overlook near the visitors center; but most of the attraction in the park are along the 11 miles of the Badlands Loop Road between the visitors center and the Pinnacles Entrance. This is a scenic drive through a very interesting and unique terrain.
There is a small picnic area near the visitors center too, with these interesting looking picnic enclosures. The unique design helps protect you from the sun and offers some protection from the wind. This is a nice budget option to eating while at the park.
Near the visitors center is the Cedar Pass Lodge which offers limited grocery items and camping supplies along with gifts and souvenirs, postcards, lodging in cabins, and some dining options (in season).
There were several very well done, interesting, displays about the geological history and formation of the badlands, the vast difference in its climate and wildlife millions of years ago, and its history of human habitation. I especially liked their educational/hands-on displays for children.
If you are entering Badlands National Park through the Interior or Northeast Entrances, begin your tour at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center. Here you can get a brochure and newspaper for the park; look over maps; and get recommendations from the helpful rangers on how to best enjoy your visit based on your interests and the amount of time you have to visit. If you enter the park through the Pinnacles Entrance the visitors center is on the other side of the park down the Badlands Loop Road. The Ben Reifel Visitors Center is open year-round. There are a few other buildings and near, and attractions inside, the visitors center.
This is a kid friendly trail. Boardwalks, lots of steps, and open foot paths. All drop-offs have railings and boardwalk. It's also about the only trail with trees, thus shade and a bit cooler. We were there on a rainy day. Yes, it does rain, but don't count on it. The trail winds through a cedar grove (Junipers to some). This area was undercut until the ground slumped, dropped, compressing the soils so that the rain (when it comes) does not run off, but sinks in and stays. Thus trees.
It's short at a half mile (.8 km).
This is a long trail, across the Prairies. It starts at either the Fossil Exhibit Parking area or the Trails Parking area near Cedar Pass. It's 5 miles (8 km) long, one way. All in the open. In October, the weather was great. Didn't need to worry about heat or needing lots of water. The rest of the year, take plenty of water and sunscreen.
The Door Trail provides for access to wheelchairs for the first 600 yd (abt 600 m). For those that are interested, there is an additiona half mile (abt 1km) walk out onto the tops of the canyons. There is no visible trail, only yellow posts about 2-3 ft high (60-90 cm). You can see the next post by standing near the post you can see. This leaves you the choice of various ways to wander out acorss the tops of the canyons.
Note: In summer, check the safety notes and the warning flags. A half hour in August can give you sunstroke or heat prostration without taking proper cautions.
A 1.5 mile (2.8 km) trail through a canyon and out onto a shelf overlooking the Cliff Shelf. The first part of the trail is very easy. The path curves around and over low mounds of eroding soil. But once you reach the ladder (about half way), it changes. First, the ladder is just a series of logs tied together to provide footing up a step rise. May be 50 ft or 70 ft (about 17 m to 22 m). Then the path follows along a narrow ledge out through 'the notch' to an overlook.
Don't go if it's wet, looks like rain, you have trouble climbing, balance problems, or not comfortable with heights.
Badlands is actually a break in the lands surface. The rock layers through this area are still forming and consist of horizontal layers of deposits. The layers formed during the cretatious? period. When cut by a river, the level plains slows down the flow of water and the erosion becomes large flat surfaces. Therefore, the White River (to the south) has a wide flat(ish) plain, which has broken the older higher plain to the north. Above the breaks, the land is flat with long vistas. Below the breaks, the land is flat, open and long vistas, even looking back towards the breaks.
It is in the breaks that life becomes varied, as there is shelter, some moisture, and shade from the heat. It is also here that the fossils are found. Oh, there are several names for this type of topography, badlands, is common, breaks is often used, as in the Missouri Breaks in north central Montana on the Missouri River. A less common name is wall, as in the town of Wall and it's famous Wall Drugs.
If you want to get away from the people who just do the drive portion of the park, try the castle trail. It is long and but there are some circle trails to that allow you to shorten the hike. If you go out early you have good chance of seeing the wildlife. Once it gets hot everything seems to run for cover. Go out 7-9AM or come out late. To see the trail map use the link
Badlands National Park can easily be visited in a few hours but a whole day will give you a better appreciation of the finer nuances of the terrain. Perhaps the best plan of action is to arrive in the afternoon, check out the visitor center, get to a great spot for sunset to enjoy the rock formations turning their most stunning colors, pitch your tent for the night and bask in the Milky Way, get up early to enjoy sunrise and maybe hit one of the longer trails into the Badlands. That was my plan in 1994 but the sun never really shone so an intense sunset, sunrise, nor glowing rocks were not to be. I did see quite a meteor shower that night from my tent or maybe it was a few shooting stars. Whatever it was, it was quite a light show and my best starry experience up to that date.
On our return trip in 2008, it was supposed to be very quick drive through, really just en route to where we needed to be a lot sooner than we got there. As chance would have it, the light was gorgeous this time around and we wound up staying longer than we planned. Even at that, it was no more than two hours. It was enough time for a leisurely drive of the Badlands Loop Road, a short stop for a scenic snack and a short stroll on one of the nature trails to get a more up close view of the formations. The visitor center was already closed as it was after peak season and we arrived in the park fairly late in the afternoon. So, between my two trips to the park, I had one ideal visit. Which was better? It's hard to say, but the photos from the second trip would make me want to go back again while the first trip had me not making a return.
While Badlands National Park is not exactly a hiker's paradise, the park does have one fair length hike as well as numerous nature trails that all take their origin on the Badlands Loop Road. The Castle Trail is the park's longest at 5 miles one-way and if you have two vehicles, you can avoid backtracking to your car as the trail connects to the Badlands Loop Road in two places. Since we did not have the time to do the full trail, we hiked partially up the trail from both sides and even walking a half mile in gave some nice views of the formations along with giving you a better sense of being the harsh but very beautiful terrain that is the Badlands when the light is just right.
Most trails in Badlands National Park are quite short, generally under a mile round trip, but even within their short span give the hiker a better appreciation of harsh environment that is the Badlands. Though it looks like a lifeless place from a distance, there are indeed living things out there. You just have to look a bit harder to see them and what you will find are some hardy ones. Hikes with even small elevation gains afford nice views of sweeping valleys. Check out Saddle Pass or The Notch, the latter involving a climb of a ladder.
The first thing you will notice is the Badlands is not filled with colorless drab formations. Even in poor light, it is apparent that the formations have many layers. When the light is good, those layers really jump out at you. The layers have different origins and date back accordingly with the lowest layers being the oldest. These black layers of Pierre Shale date back 75 millions years and are filled with remnants of an ancient sea. The Yellow Mounds are a fossil soil and resulted from the weathering of older layers and their mixing with the elements. The grey Chadron Formation dates back 35 millions years to a time period when the sea was replaced by a river flood plain. The tannish brown Brule Formation dates back 30 million years when a dryer climate found forests dominating. Red layers are to Brule much as Yellow is to Pierre Shale, fossil soils. Rockford Ash is volcanic remains and act as a buffer between Brule and the top Sharps Formation are the most recent going back only 28 millions year ago. The most rugged formation are largely Sharps and Brule Formations.