How to Enjoy the Badlands Scenic Drive in One Afternoon

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It may be left in the shadow of Mount Rushmore given its location in the southwest corner of South Dakota but there is nothing ‘bad’ about ‘Badlands’ National Park. In fact, having visited here recently I would go as far to say this is one breathtaking national park that should be on your radar. It may not have the lucrative reputation of Yosemite or Yellowstone but after you take the Badlands Scenic Drive through 30 miles of natural landscape, you will soon realize why we are so enamored by this national park.

badlands national park

As is typical with much of our travel style, we only had a few hours to explore Badlands National Park. But despite our lack of time, we certainly made up for this by exploring as much of the scenic drive as possible and taking advantage of the breathtaking scenery in front of us.

badlands national park

We want to share our experiences driving along the Badlands Scenic Drive and perhaps inspire you to head out to the Black Hills of South Dakota and investigate this for yourselves.

badlands national park south dakota

Location

I-90 is located directly north of Badlands National Park making this one of the easier parks to visit around the nation in terms of distance from an interstate. However, given its location in the southwestern corner of South Dakota and the closest major urban area being Rapid City (population of around 70,000 makes this the second largest city behind Sioux Falls), it is not necessarily the first national park you think about visiting.

badlands scenic drive

Having visited Sioux Falls, we headed across I-90 on the four and half hour drive to Rapid City and decided to stay overnight before heading to Mount Rushmore in the morning and spending the afternoon at Badlands National Park.

If you are interested in taking the Badlands Scenic Drive as we did, there are two entrances from I-90 depending on which direction you are coming from.

wall drug store south dakota

The infamous Wall Drug Store is situated perfectly near one entrance (closer to Rapid City) and this is the route we started before leaving further east and heading on towards Pierre and North Dakota.

Sioux Falls to Badlands National Park – 275 miles (approximately 4 hours)
Rapid City to Badlands National Park – 62 miles (approximately 1 hour)
Denver to Badlands National Park – 375 miles (approximately 6 hours)

Useful Information

Entrance Fees

$15 per private, non-commercial vehicle.

As with every other national park, we strongly encourage you to consider the National Park Annual Pass which for only $80 gives you unlimited access to all parks for a full year! It’s a steal and honestly a no-brainer if you plan on visiting multiple parks in the next 12 months.

Lodging and Camping

Cedar Pass Lodge is the best option for lodging within Badlands National Park. Alternatively, if you want to truly experience the breathtaking sunrises, sunsets and live among the wildlife that roams around this landscape, check out the two campgrounds available in the park: Cedar Pass and Sage Creek.

badlands scenic drive

Badlands Scenic Drive

If we were to tell you that the 31 miles of natural beauty through the Badlands Loop State Scenic Drive was one of the nation’s most picturesque routes, would you believe us?

badlands scenic drive

Well, you better believe it because after experiencing this route we can certainly attest that this is a stunning drive that you cannot afford to miss.

A labyrinth of wonderful landscape

Everywhere you look, there is something uniquely beautiful about the panoramic landscape in front of you.

badlands national park geology

Whether you are drooling over the geological phenomena or perhaps trying to figure out the various sedimentary compositions that make up the landscape (I’m sure there are some geography aficionados out there that love this sort of thing!), there is something in Badlands National Park that will definitely spark your interest.

badlands scenic drive

We approached the scenic drive from I-90 at the Pinnacles Entrance and left at the Northeast Entrance so the following information is on the drive from west to east.

badlands national park

There are countless overlooks on the Badlands Scenic Drive and I will admit that we stopped at pretty much every one of them! Many of them do offer very similar landscapes and by the time you reach the end of the drive, you are probably expecting each overlook to be an identical representation of the previous one. That doesn’t mean they aren’t equally stunning.

badlands loop road

We are going to mention just a couple of them based on our opinions but I’m sure you will have your own favorites and we can attest that there wasn’t one overlook that wasn’t worth the time we spent there.

badlands scenic drive

Pinnacles Overlook

Our introduction to Badlands National Park started at the breathtaking Pinnacles Overlook. After parking our vehicle, we made the short walk down the steps to peer across the landscape and catch a glimpse of the ridges, pillars and other natural geological structures that make up Badlands.

pinnacles overlook

The views from the plateau are a great way to start your experience in the park. As your journey through the park continues, be sure to reflect on the Pinnacles Overlook and perhaps compare and contrast the rock types.

pinnacles overlook badlands national park

We found these rocks to be much whiter in appearance and the composition was less noticeable in terms of the various layers that make up the geological structures.

badlands scenic drive

Regardless of your interest, you can’t help but appreciate the natural beauty in front of you.

badlands scenic drive

TIP – Be extremely careful as you approach the edges of the plateau as the sandy rocks can easily make you slip and there is nothing to stop you from falling over the edge. If you are careful, the scenery is spectacular!

Yellow Mounds Overlook

For the most colorful scenes, be sure to check out the wonderfully named Yellow Mounds Overlook. Although this is technically not the only color that you will see, it is a great location to identify a myriad of colors throughout the sedimentary composition of the rocks in Badlands National Park.

yellow mounds overlook

We cannot emphasize enough how awe-inspiring it is to stand in a spot with so many unique landscapes. Even if your appreciation of nature is lacking, a couple of hours staring at views like what the Yellow Mounds Overlook has to offer will surely be convincing enough to acknowledge how spectacular nature really is!

yellow mounds overlook

Panorama Point Overlook

When you see the sign for Panorama Point Overlook, it’s understandable that you will be expecting something pretty spectacular. Don’t worry, this location certainly doesn’t disappoint!

panorama point overlook

The views to the south looking across miles of eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires provide an epic landscape that you will not only appreciate but will likely not want to leave.

panorama point overlook

During our time at this particular viewpoint, time truly got away from us. We were planning on spending just a couple of hours driving through the scenic loop road but we soon fell behind schedule because of the time we spent marveling over the natural beauty at Panorama Point.

panorama point badlands scenic drive

Wildlife Spottings

Badlands is an enviable location for wildlife spotters. Whether you are seeking mammals, reptiles, birds or even butterflies, this national park is a hub of various species waiting to be discovered.

badlands bighorn sheep

We were fortunate to stumble across a number of different species during our scenic drive, the first of which was an impromptu meeting with a herd of Badlands bighorn sheep that decided to interrupt our drive and wander into the road.

badlands wildlife

Of course, we were in their habitat so they wanted to check out who was exploring their homeland and their curiosity was a real sight to behold.

bighorn sheep in badlands national park

Their agile movements and ability to clamber up the side of steep-sided ravines and mountains was impressive and certainly captured the attention of many onlookers who chose to stop on the side of the road to capture a few memorable shots. As you can see from our images, we got a pretty up close and personal experience with them.

badlands bighorn sheep

We continued on our drive and soon noticed a large number of prairie dogs wandering around the flatlands. After pulling over on the side of the road, I was able to get relatively close without causing them any disturbance and watch them scamper around.

prairie dogs

These black-tailed prairie dogs are highly sociable creatures, so it’s no surprise to hear that visitors are able to get pretty close without them fearing human interaction.

Although we didn’t get to encounter any bison as we had done previously in Yellowstone National Park during our scenic drive through that landscape, we did spot several from quite a distance while we admired the breathtaking scenery from the various overlooks.

TIP – Always be on the lookout for wildlife because you never know where they may be. Just like all other national parks, remember that you are visitors to their home! Respect them and appreciate the beauty and wildlife surrounding you!

Summary

If Badlands wasn’t on your radar before reading this post, it sure is now! That’s exactly how we felt before heading to South Dakota but the moment we left I-90 and started experiencing the Badlands Scenic Drive, we were immediately engulfed in the magical natural beauty that surrounded us.

badlands national park in south dakota

It’s possible that we are just huge national park buffs that are easily impressed so we will just let you decide on how spectacular Badlands National Park really is from our array of pictures that barely touch the surface at how amazing it is here.

badlands scenic drive

South Dakota is not the first US state that we thought about visiting for gorgeous natural landscapes but after this adventure, we are definitely ready to head back to explore more.

badlands national park

If you need to see more breathtaking images, don’t worry we have plenty more over on our Travel Photos site: Badlands National Park

Have you visited Badlands National Park? Are you just as impressed as we are by the panoramic views and geological formations around this park?

6 COMMENTS

    • It really is spectacular! We were pleasantly surprised at how much amazing scenery there was on the scenic drive as we had little to no expectations. As you drive along I-90 there is nothing to suggest what it will be like when you drive a couple of miles from the interstate. Thanks for the kind words, we appreciate it!

  1. We drove in the other direction, and reached Pinnacle at sunset. Breathtaking! However, it meant we got to Wall Drug just as it was closing. That was OK. BTW, we stayed at the KOA there. You have to drive into the park (and pay) in order to get there. Good thing we have a pass!

  2. My husband and I are heading to The Black Hills area this Labor Day. Our flight gets in at 9:30 am and our first stop will be The Badlands. Thanks for the info and beautiful photos.

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