The Ultimate Guide to Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks

South Dakota packs adventure into a western pocket of the state, home to two national parks: Badlands and Wind Cave. Explore wondrous geological formations both above and below ground in these natural playgrounds.

These western South Dakota national parks—paired in our guide due to their relative proximity—show how even the harshest environments can be strikingly beautiful. 

The shades of twilight in Badlands National Park would test the limits of a Crayola 64-pack—the darkening sky contrasted against multilayered rock formations changing colors in the dying light. On day hikes, you'll find yourself surrounded on multiple sides by gnarled knolls of layers of sand, silt and mud, almost as if you've wrapped yourself inside a colorful tapestry that changes subtly with every step. 

Meanwhile, in Wind Cave National Park, more than 300 million years of water advancing and receding created massive subterranean chasms. Rock formations with evocative names—boxwork, calcite rafts, dogtooth spar, frostwork—add glorious texture to the underground maze. Caves can be dark and scary, no matter how many tourists walk through every year, so you may feel a building (thrilling!) trepidation in the back of your mind as you walk deeper into the cavern. You're never in danger, though, since the park offers only guided tours.

You may find your attention divided out here, especially in peak road-trip season. There's just so much to do, whether you want to see bison (Custer State Park), check off an icon (Mount Rushmore) or meet some cold-blooded friends (Reptile Gardens). But give yourself time to savor these underappreciated national parks, where you can't help but marvel at the geologic wonders of our planet.

Credit: Getty Images, Ryan Donnell, Getty Images
You Should Know
What to pack and how to get there
Hikers in Badlands National Park

PLAN Despite being one of the most stunning national parks, Badlands doesn't get anywhere near Yellowstone-level crowds, and shoulder seasons are even better. Wind Cave is a great day-trip destination, surrounded by the rugged Black Hills. Spring, summer and fall tours typically sell out hours before the scheduled start, but you can buy them online beforehand

PACK During summer, sunscreen and a shady hat are a must for the Badlands, where you won't find many shade trees. Be sure to pack an additional layer for Wind Cave, which remains 54 degrees year-round, as well as long sleeves, pants and sturdy boots if you plan to do the strenuous Wild Cave Tour.

DRIVE Depending on where you are and where you're going in the parks, it can take anywhere from one to two hours to travel between the two parks. Be cautious of routes Google might take you on as they might be gravel roads; sticking to major interstates is always a good bet, albeit a bit longer. If you have all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, you can explore the northern reaches of Badlands' wilderness area. You should also be wary of GPS at Wind Cave, where many apps will inadvertently misdirect you when traveling to the visitors center. As you enter the park, follow signs for the correct way.

FLY Located conveniently in between the two parks, Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) is serviced by multiple major airlines, including American, Delta and United.

Credit: Ryan Donnell
Hike Highlights
Hikes inside Wind Cave are all ranger-led tours. There's an adventure for nearly every difficulty level, including one that's wheelchair-accessible. You can explore Wind Cave's above-ground treasures on your own, both on and off designated trails and boardwalks. Both Badlands and Wind Cave have an open-hike policy, which means off-trail hiking is allowed.
Castle Trail in Badlands National Park

NATURAL ENTRANCE (WIND CAVE) The 75-minute tour covers less than a mile, but visitors will end up traversing about 300 stairs by the end. Guides point out natural highlights and boxwork formations and discuss the history and significance of the cave to the Lakota people.

WILD CAVE (WIND CAVE) For more serious cavers who are at least 16 years old, this summer-only, four-hour tour requires crawling, climbing and contorting. Participants must dress appropriately and be able to fit through a 10-inch-tall by 3-feet-wide opening.

CASTLE TRAIL (BADLANDS) This 5-mile (one-way) trail winds through prime Badlands scenery to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Hike it as an out-and-back or connect to other trails for a loop. For an easier walk with similarly spectacular views, check out the 0.75-mile Door, 0.25-mile Window and 1.5-mile Notch trails (all round-trip) from the same trailhead.

SADDLE PASS (BADLANDS) At less than a mile, this hike over the Badlands wall might be short, but it's steep and strenuous. The reward is an awesome view of the surrounding formations. This hike can also connect to the Medicine Root and Castle trails.

Credit: Getty Images
Credit: Getty Images, Ryan Donnell, Getty Images
Scenic Stops
Driving Badlands Loop Road through the park takes between one to two hours, depending on how often you stop. And stop you will: Practically every pull-off point offers incredible panoramas.
Big Badlands Overlook in Badlands National Park

BIG BADLANDS OVERLOOK Expansive views of the Badlands.

BIGFOOT PASS OVERLOOK Beautiful views with a troubling history. Chief Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot) led his band of Miniconjou Lakota and about 200 Hunkpapa Lakota through this area in 1890 after the murder of Sitting Bull. They were later massacred at Wounded Knee.

WHITE RIVER VALLEY OVERLOOK Lovely views of tall formations known as the Castle, as well as the White River Valley.

PANORAMA POINT OVERLOOK A boardwalk leads to a view stretching for miles.

PINNACLES OVERLOOK Located in the North Unit of the park, the views here at sunset are some of the best in the park. It's also great for spotting bighorn sheep.

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Wildlife Watch
The iconic bison and bighorn sheep are seemingly everywhere in the South Dakota countryside and foothills, respectively, but it remains a thrill to see them each time. Look for these animals (and more) on your visit.
Badlands Wildlife Watch
Where To Stay
Would you rather bed down at a hotel or camp under the stars? These basecamps put you close to the action so you can explore the park by day and unwind your way each evening.
Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, South Dakota

CHECK IN With abundant water activities and lake views, Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park is perfect for visitors who want to explore Wind Cave and the Black Hills. Located on the outskirts of Badlands, Cedar Pass Lodge offers multiple cabin options, including several that are wheelchair-accessible. For city slickers, the historic Hotel Alex Johnson is in downtown Rapid City, with modern rooms and a rooftop bar.

CAMP OUT At Wind Cave, Elk Mountain Campground offers more than 60 primitive sites (flush toilets and drinking water are available May through September). If you need hookups, neighboring Custer State Park has excellent facilities, with more than 10 campgrounds, some with electric or full hookups. 

About a mile outside Badlands' western entrance, Nomad View can't be beat as a free campsite. Parked along a cliff's edge in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, boondockers have expansive views of the geological magnificence. Inside the park, Cedar Pass Campground is a reservable, paid campground with nearly 100 sites, including several with electric hookups. Sage Creek is a free, first-come first-served campground with 22 sites, but RVs are prohibited.

Credit: Courtesy of Alex Johnson Hotel
What (Else) To Do
So much beauty, history and wilderness is packed into this relatively tiny patch of South Dakota; try to experience as much of the area as possible.
Mount Rushmore Memorial

CUSTER STATE PARK Bordering Wind Cave, this South Dakota state park rivals many national parks. Drive the 14-mile, impossibly scenic Needles Highway and 18-mile Wildlife Loop through grasslands and forest—but be prepared to brake for bison and burros!

MOUNT RUSHMORE AND CRAZY HORSE MEMORIALS These impressive stone carvings—the Crazy Horse Memorial is still under construction—are more than memorable monoliths. They also now serve as conversation-starters about our changing, more nuanced interpretations of history.

BLACK HILLS NATIONAL FOREST Spanning 1.2 million acres, this scenic national forest offers camping and both motorized and nonmotorized recreation opportunities. You could add days to your trip just to explore this area alone.

GEORGE S. MICKELSON TRAIL The 109-mile, crushed limestone trail slices through the heart of South Dakota from Deadwood to Edgemont, passing over more than 100 converted railroad bridges and through four rock tunnels. Fifteen trailheads allow hikers, bikers and horseback riders to choose their own adventure.

Credit: Ryan Donnell
State Game Lodge
State Game Lodge, Custer, South Dakota
| Credit: Jason Donnelly

Where To Eat

If you're hungry for more than just great views, Rapid City has the most dining options, but the area offers some off-the-beaten-path gems, too.

Related Content

  • State Game Lodge

    Custer State Park's acclaimed eatery has a casual ambience for breakfast and lunch, but busts out the white tablecloths and fine crystal for dinner. The lounge is a great place to grab a nightcap before tucking into a bed or sleeping bag.

  • Red Rock Restaurant

    This farm-to-table steakhouse in Wall, South Dakota is known for tasty chops, burgers and prime rib in a casual atmosphere for very reasonable prices. 

  • Que Pasa Cantina

    Traveling between Badlands and Wind Cave? Craving Mexican food? Rapid City's Que Pasa Cantina dishes modern spins on Mexican classics. The bar offers more than 50 different types of tequila. In the summer, the rooftop cantina offers views of the surrounding city.

  • Tally's Silver Spoon

    Another Rapid City option, Tally's offers Dakota-inspired dishes like bison marsala and elk tenderloin. If your table can't decide what to order, go for the "Indecision Menu"—choose from two to five courses and let the chef do the rest.

Why I Love This Park

Sun shining through the trees in Wind Cave National Park
Credit: Getty Images