Road Trip Through the Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Road Trip Through the Badlands National Park, South Dakota

With its otherworldly landscapes of eroded buttes, spires, and dramatic pinnacles, the Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one of the most popular adventure destinations in the United States. The park itself covers almost 250,000 acres of natural rock formations and mixed grass prairie—a picture-perfect landscape that offers opportunities for a wide variety of outdoor activities.

The Lakota settlers of the region have given the name to Badlands, which probably alludes to the harsh conditions of the area, which includes the rough and rugged terrain that is constantly exposed to the elements, the notorious lack of easily accessible water sources, and extreme temperatures that make living in the Badlands extremely difficult.

The Badlands, in the past, is one of the most important travel routes in the American West. In the late 1800’s, this region was the site of one of the most popular gold rushes in the country. Driving to and through this national park is such a pleasure, and your eyes will never run out of things to see and gawk at. You can start and end at Rapid City, and devote at least three days to explore the forbidding yet breathtaking landscape of the Badlands.

What to See

Badlands National Park

First of all there is the breathtakingly dramatic landscape of the badlands—geologic features that form when sedimentary rock (often of the soft variety) is eroded in dry climate over time. The buttes, gullies, ridges, and spires of the Badlands are naturally formed by the almost arid conditions of the area. South Dakota is also home to Mt. Rushmore, with the giant busts of four notable presidents of the United States carved right into the face of the mountain. In the period between 1927 and 1941 and in an effort to draw tourist traffic in the state, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum supervised the carving of the busts of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Washington into Mt. Rushmore.

Right at the beginning of your road trip, you will get to experience the beautiful scenery of the region at the Badlands State Scenic Byway. The rock formations in this area often change color depending on the light, and once you have chanced upon them during the “magic hour” (sometime during the twilight), be prepared with your camera. The national park is also home to serrated sandstone spires, which feature layers of different hues that indicate the age of these ancient rocks.

Other notable attractions include the Prairie Dog Town, which is like a city for these adorable wild rodents, the Custer State Park, and Needles Parkway. The latter is perfect for drivers who want to test their technical driving skills—drivers should deftly navigate the numerous sharp twists and turns around the road, which offers stunning views of the towering spires.

Final Tip

Embrace your inner cowboy in this route—the scenic roads will offer not only the most dramatic views of the South Dakota landscape, but also an exciting challenge with sharp twists and turns.

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Route Details
Start Point: Rapid City, South Dakota Distance: 18 miles (29 kilometers)
End Point: Rapid City, South Dakota Estimated Days: 1 to 3