the badlands: south dakota's hidden gem
Updated: Mar 27
The Badlands are barely talked about, and I don't understand why. When mapping out my US road trip, South Dakota wasn't initially on my list, and I'm so glad I ended up researching about what to see in this great state, because boy I would've missed out.
We drove to the Badlands via Rapid City, and came in through their northern entrance, which is optimal for those who want to hike. Only a few miles past the entrance are most of the park's trailheads. Our first day there we did the Notch trail. It took us around 1.5 hours, but we spent most of the time taking pictures, and just enjoying the views. If you don't stop for every photo op - you'll probably be done much sooner.
People refer to the Badlands as almost sand castle like structures, and I completely agree. Out of all the trails, by the end of our 2 days in the park, my boyfriend and I both agreed that the Notch trail was the prettiest. I will say, when they say it's a moderate to difficult hike, it really is.
At the very beginning of the trail, you have to climb a pretty steep ladder. Going up isn't too difficult, it's when you have to go down. I'm only 5'2, and since the ladder isn't very even, some steps felt farther than others, so just take your time.
Our second day, we started on the Castle trail, but overall, we weren't as impressed by the views. If you want to get a good workout, I recommend the Castle and Medicine Root trail combination, but in terms of better views, definitely opt for Notch! The Door trail is also beautiful and very easy.
After all that hiking, you're going to want to make sure you rest. Night one, we stayed at the Badlands KOA, and the second night we stayed on BLM territory outside of Wall, SD. There's pros and cons to both. First, BLM land is free to stay at, while the KOA was $27. The KOA had showers, bathrooms, a small grocery store, fire pits, and 24 hour laundry, but no view. Our campsite was on the White River, but it wasn't anything spectacular when compared to the view from "The Wall" campground pictured below. The area is also nicknamed "The Edge" because your campsite is basically on the edge of a small cliff overlooking the Badlands.
For one night, I didn't mind the no bathroom/shower situation because we were immediately checking into a hotel the following morning, but I don't know how you could do multiple nights unless you have an RV/van with a bathroom and shower. Another con is, the wind here is insane. We camped stayed in the car versus pitching our tent just because even the car was shaking from the wind, I couldn't imagine being inside of a tent over a cliff. If you're set on pitching a tent, just make sure to check the forecast before and make sure your stakes are driven in well. People were in tents when we were there, but I wouldn't advise it.
In terms of food, your options are slim, so be prepared. Either stop at a grocery store before heading closers to the Badlands, or be prepared to eat at the same place more than once. When we stayed at the KOA near Interior, SD, we ate at the Wagon Wheel for lunch and dinner. Their menu is limited to chicken tenders, hamburgers, and pizza, so if you're looking for a salad, be prepared. That being said, it's a town of 54 people and I'm not complaining. I enjoyed my food and our servers for both meals were both very kind locals. A one restaurant town just adds to the experience of it all! If you need groceries and are already in the Badlands, the woman who runs Badland's Grocery is super sweet and we got our s'mores supplies and coffee from her! The store isn't huge, but you'll be able to get ingredients for a basic meal there. The KOA also has a small grocery store, but their prices were much higher than Badland's Grocery, and I'd rather give locally owned businesses my money than a chain!
If you're camping near Wall, SD then you have a few more options when it comes to food. When you're driving to the Badlands you'll see multiple billboards for Wall Drug, even when you're 40+ miles out. The mall is located in Wall, and is definitely worth stopping for. I didn't really know what to expect, but really enjoyed walking around Wall Drug and seeing what it was all about. Picture a huge cafeteria/musuem/drug store/bookstore/apparel store/church all wrapped in one. It's quite a sight to see, I've truly never seen anything like it. The food in their cafe also isn't half bad. I got a vegan burger (who knew I'd find that there) and the prices were fair, and the burger was good. They also seem to be famous for their doughnuts. We didn't get one, maybe next time!
We absolutely loved our couple of days in the Badlands, and definitely will be back one day.
Till next time,