Love National Parks? Badlands is a wild and exciting park located not too far from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Badlands National Park defies the imagination. Rising eerily out of the green prairies of South Dakota, the painted hills of Badlands could not be more different than the Black Hills a few miles to its west. It's desolate, but beautiful.
What is there to do at Badlands National Park for families? Here are our recommendations.
Badlands has hiking trails and beautiful views for everyone, from casual sightseers to backcountry enthusiasts. We fell into the first category. Our children were young, our time was limited, and it was a windy and chilly day in early June. We stuck to short nature trails and exploring the terrain near along the scenic loop road and we were still wowed by the colorful hills and otherworldly terrain of Badlands.
Most of the established trails at Badlands are short, and easy to moderate. No permit is required for backcountry hiking and camping. Whatever type of explorer you are, be sure to take plenty of water and wear sturdy, closed toe shoes to protect your feet from unfriendly plants and animals.
One of the biggest fossil finds at Badlands was made by a 7-year-old girl in 2010. She was visiting Badlands National Park with her family when she found the skull of a sabre-tooth cat near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center while participating in the Junior Ranger program.
If you have a dinosaur lover in your family, keep your eyes open in Badlands. If you want a guaranteed fossil sighting, be sure to check out the Visitor Center, the short Fossil Exhibit Trail and the Fossil Prep Lab. The visitor center has exhibits about local fossils. The stroller and wheelchair friendly Fossil Exhibit Trail features fossils and replicas of prehistoric animals that once roamed Badlands. At the Fossil Prep Lab, you can watch real paleontologists at work on local finds.
Badlands looks desolate, but it protects a variety of wild animals, including some endangered species. We loved finding prairie dog towns. It was fun to watch the cute little prairie dogs scamper from hole to hole. While driving, hiking or biking, watch for bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope.
If you do spot wildlife, keep your distance. Park regulations require visitors to stay at least 100 feet from the animals. They are wild and can cause injury or death if they feel threatened. For more Badlands safety tips, visit the park's website.
Night Sky Programs
On summer weekends, ranger-led stargazing with telescopes is available at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater. Badlands is far away from city lights, so it's a great place to see and learn about constellations, show your kids the Milky Way, or just contemplate our grand universe.
If you have children between the ages of 5-12, check out the FREE Junior Ranger program at Badlands. Ask for a booklet at the ranger desk in the visitor center. The activities in the booklet can help your whole family learn about what makes Badlands interesting and unique, and about conserving it for future generations.
When your children have completed the age-appropriate activities, return to the ranger desk. The ranger will ask them questions about what they learned and swear them in as junior rangers. They will then receive a gold Badlands ranger badge as a souvenir.
Wall Drug isn't in Badlands National Park, but it's nearby. You can't miss all the signs for it along the interstate, and if you're going to drive all the way out to Badlands, you ought to at least stop by.
Wall Drug is the kitschiest, craziest, biggest gift shop we've ever seen. It's a good place to stop for souvenirs, an ice cream cone or “free water.” There are also lots of fun photo ops and almost-museum exhibits. Read my full review of Wall Drug here.
Good to Know
Where: 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. Near I-90 and the city of Wall.
When: Year-round, but warm weather months are the most popular time to visit, with the most things to do.
How Much: $20 per private vehicle, good for 7 days (updated September 2017.) Find out when and how to get discounted admission to all the national parks in my post 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees.
How Long: a half-day or more
Amenities: visitor center, gift shop, camping