This Tripped-Out National Park Is Probably the Closest You’ll Get to Mars
Where 'Jurassic Park' and 'Nomadland' collide with the Red Planet.
Elon Musk can save his billions: Earth has its own perfectly great Martian landscape, and visiting it doesn't come with the risk of fiery death or a $500,000 round-trip ticket.
Badlands National Park is home to an otherworldly terrain that looks more Star Wars than the wind-swept grasslands the words "South Dakota" typically conjur. Located in the western portion of this wildly underrated state—where the topography ranges dramatically from boulder-clad mountains to thick forests of ponderosa pines in the Black Hills—Badlands seems to erupt out of nowhere. Golden prairie suddenly gives way to craggy canyons, buttes, spires, and its namesake slopes of sedimentary rock and clay, steep and striated with subtle tints of orange and purple.
While mesmerizingly beautiful—especially at sunrise or sunset, pinnacles aglow—it’s easy to see why the Lakota named it Mako Sica, which translates to “bad lands.” For centuries, native tribes thrived in this hostile environment of scorching summers, arctic winters, sparse water sources, and clay terrain that turns into a gigantic muddy Slip ’N Slide with the slightest rain.
But harsh as it can be, Badlands is a misnomer. Teeming with a wide range of wildlife—from chirpy prairie dogs to bighorn sheep and roaming bison—and interwoven with immersive hiking trails, the National Park Service originally wanted to call it Wonderland National Park when it was designated in 1978. They wouldn't have been wrong, even if the name would have softened the rugged allure.
Here are the best ways to explore Badlands yourself.
When to visit Badlands National Park
This is like the Chicago of national parks: infamous for its drastic weather swings, from frostbitten winters to summers well into the triple digits, with wind gusts that feel like you’re stuck in a giant hair dryer. Thus, your best bet is to skip the peak summer season—when prairie dog-related traffic jams are frequent, RVs outnumber bison, and bikers headed to or from nearby Sturgis clog the lanes—and visit in the fall.
Come mid-September, after out-of-school travelers have dwindled, the park is not only much more open, but the weather doesn’t feel like it’s actively trying to kill you by alternating between oppressive heat and battering rain. With average temps in the low-80s, September is optimal hiking weather, followed by pleasant temps in the mid-60s most of October.
April and May are also comfortable and (mostly) crowd-free. This is the best time of year to see wildflowers abloom, illuminating the prairie like a sea of confetti, and bison are more active and prominent as they shed their hefty winter coats. But be prepared for more rain and slippery footing—one minute you’re enjoying a leisurely hike, the next you feel like you’re mud wrestling with Mother Nature.
Tackle the best hiking trails in Badlands
Despite how intimidating the rugged landscape looks, Badlands is truly a wonderland for hikers. Although the park only has some 15 miles of designated hiking trails, this is the rare national park where visitors are free to wander off-trail wherever they’d like — with proper precautions and maintained distance from wildlife, of course.
The most popular area for hiking is the eastern section of the park, where a single trailhead serves as the starting point for most of the mileage in the park: Notch Trail, Window Trail, Door Trail, and Castle Trail. Window and Door are easy jaunts to panoramic overlooks and some of the most scenic badlands views, while Notch is a fun 1.5-mile round tripper that zigzags through a canyon and up a log ladder before culminating with sweeping vistas of billowing prairie and the White River Valley.
Across the road from the trailhead parking lot, Castle is Badlands’ longest route at 10 miles round trip. It’s mostly flat and easy as it meanders through badlands and buttes. Keep your eyes peeled, because bighorn sheep like to graze here. No matter which trail (or non-trail), just remember to hike prepared with plenty of sunscreen, sunglasses, water, and sturdy hiking shoes.
Mind-blowing stars and dinosaurs await
Beyond the hiking trails and the simple beauty of driving the scenic Badlands Loop, the park is a hot spot for stargazing, cycling, horseback riding, and fossils.
After you’ve sufficiently gawked at the sunset views, the night sky erupts with twinkling stars that span to infinity. For a closer look, stop at the Cedar Pass Amphitheater for a glimpse through one of the telescopes available to use at night.
Especially if you’re a Jurassic Park fan, be sure and spend some time at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to peruse museum exhibits, watch a park film, and chat with paleontologists about the numerous fossils found in Badlands. Although it’s highly unlikely you’ll stumble across a velociraptor claw while hiking in the park, the museum highlights some of the prehistoric animals that once roamed (and swam?!) here. Among them are mosasaurs: bus-sized marine predators that terrorized the waters when the Badlands region was a shallow sea some 69 million years ago. It was also home to an ancient camel ancestor called oreodonts that grazed for plants during the Middle Eocene era, and nimravidae, a saber-toothed cat-like predator described as “hypercarnivorous,” which should make humans very grateful we weren’t alive 40 million years ago.
Venturing into nearby civilization is its own adventure
There’s plenty to see, do, and eat near Badlands as well, whether you’re craving a maple donut or some Cold War history.
With hundreds of hand-painted billboards pointing the way, Wall Drug is the iconic roadside stopover just outside the park, a smattering of kitschy gift shops, saloons, animatronic dinosaurs, and most famously, fresh cake donuts iced in flavors like chocolate and maple.
There’s also another national park site, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, mere minutes from the Badlands entrance. Originally used as a hidden bunker to house 1,000 missiles during the Cold War (ya know, in case the US government needed to destroy civilization at a moment’s notice), the site offers tours of its Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and the Delta-09 missile silo, where visitors can feel the adrenaline rush of being feet away from 1.2 megatons of armageddon.
For something a little more Laura Ingalls Wilder than Dr. Strangelove, Prairie Homestead offers Little House on the Prairie vibes with its historic, rickety house and old-timey pioneer attire that visitors can wear.
Badlands National Park is also only 63 miles east of Rapid City, the state’s western hub. With 75,000 residents, it's the second-largest city in the state and home to hallowed (and allegedly haunted) hotels, Native American stores, art-filled alleys, buffalo burgers, and statues of all the Presidents strewn around downtown street corners (there's also a very large and famous sculpture of four presidents blown into a mountain outside town… feel free to skip it).
Feeling extra touristy? The iconic sights in the Black Hills are only an hour and a half from Badlands. Filled with ponderosa pine trees — whose canopies are so broad and dark that they appeared black to the Lakota — the forests are so vast and lush that there are endless trails to hike, shimmering blue lakes to swim in, and mountains to climb, including the tallest point in South Dakota, the 7,242-foot Black Elk Peak.
Where to stay near Badlands National Park
If you’ve seen Nomadland, you know Badlands is indeed a popular park for camping and RV-ing. Cedar Pass Campground, located inside the park right next to Ben Reifel Visitor Center, has 96 sites split between RV and tent spots, with reservations available online. There’s also Sage Creek Campground, with 22 free sites on a first-come first-serve basis. For more amenities, Cedar Pass Lodge offers eco-friendly (and super cute) wood cabins, fully stocked with flat-screen TVs, coffee-makers, and mini fridges.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, off-trail back-country camping is permitted literally anywhere in the park, as long as you’re pitching your tent at least half a mile from the nearest road or trail.
Beyond the park, there are cabins and motels to be found in Wall Drug, and plenty of other lodging options in Rapid City, like the iconic Hotel Alex Johnson, complete with rooftop bar — another unexpected sight in this neck of the woods.
No matter where you rest your head at the end of the day, a trip to Badlands National Park will leave you awe-struck by its bedazzled night skies, its Jurassic-sized wildlife, and terrain so otherworldly you’d think you had beaten Elon Musk to Mars.