At 6:15 a.m., I’m one of only four people along the Door Trail in Badlands National Park. I venture off the boardwalk to find a spot to sit and wait for dawn. It feels hushed and almost sacred as the sky lightens and sun slips above the horizon, throwing a coppery glaze on the park’s spires, buttes and pinnacles.
If I had to pick a top way to enjoy the park, it’s sunrise and sunset. What photographers dub the golden hours of light provides the prettiest paint for landscapes, and few places in the Midwest boast such dramatic scenery as South Dakota’s Badlands, where millions of years of erosion have created an otherworldly landscape.
Here are more tips for getting the most out of your trip to Badlands National Park:
Time your visit Though the park is busiest in summer, visitors in mid-May to June find a greener landscape and longer days, and travelers in September through early October enjoy crisp skies and late-season color from wildflowers and grasses. Midsummer can be blisteringly hot, but early-morning or late-afternoon visits tend to have more comfortable temperatures and will give you a better chance to see wildlife—plus you can catch a sunrise or sunset.
If you’re aiming for sunrise views, my favorite places include Big Badlands Overlook (easy to reach if you’re driving from outside the park), The Door Trail and the Norbeck Pass area. Sunset, meanwhile, accentuates the yellow and rosy tones of the mounds near Conata Basin Overlook and the colorful layers of formations near Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area (named for a Lakota chief). If you’re planning to exit from the park’s east entrance, spires at Pinnacles Overlook also beautifully catch sunset’s glow.
Dig the geology (and wildlife) Drive into the park from the Northeast Entrance (nine miles south of Exit 131 at I-90). Stop at the Big Badlands Overlook for a few "Wow!" moments, then head to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Catch the 20-minute park film and browse exhibits on the park’s formation and wildlife, which includes prairie dogs, bison, antelope and the rare black-footed ferret. Kids earn a park badge for completing a free "Junior Ranger" booklet.
A short drive west of the visitors center, the Fossil Exhibit Trail consists of a 400-foot accessible boardwalk with interpretive panels about the prehistoric ancestors of pigs, camels, rhinoceros and horses that once roamed this area.
Take a hike It can be tempting to quick-cruise your way along the park’s 30-mile drive, snapping selfies and rushing toward the Black Hills 60 miles away. But I recommend slowing down and soaking it all in. Hikes offer solitude and a true feel for the Badlands’ surreal landscape. Several trails branch off from the Door and Window parking lot east of the visitors center.
The easy Door and Window trails and more strenuous Notch Trail give views of “The Wall,” a Badlands “backbone” that stretches more than 100 miles. The 5-mile Castle Trail, the longest in the park, travels through prairie with Badlands views. Whichever you choose, take plenty of water, a hat, sunglasses and rain gear; wear good boots; and watch for rattlesnakes.
Stay the night A major renovation of the only in-park lodging, Cedar Pass Lodge, makes it more tempting than ever to spend the night in the Badlands. New wood-paneled cabins look homey with log furniture, cushy pillows and quilts. A mini fridge, microwave and coffeemaker make it easy for guests to pull together picnic meals and simple suppers.
Cedar Pass Lodge’s main building contains the national park’s sole place to dine. Order the signature Indian tacos with all the fixings heaped onto fry bread, or try upscale entrees such as elk medaillons and buffalo ribeye. After your meal, browse the gift shop filled with Native American art, wagon-wheel furniture and regional wines.
In the evening, grab a chair on the outdoor patios to watch the pinnacles of Cedar Pass darken to shadowy outlines and toast a good day in the Badlands.
Lisa wrote The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path, which has been updated for a new edition that’s out this May. She also wrote Day Trips from the Twin Cities and blogs at LisaMcClintick.com.