Our kids had so much fun at Badlands National Park. I was pleasantly surprised at how many hiking options there were. We also loved playing in the sand and searching for animals. We stayed for two days, and I thought that was the perfect amount of time for our family. Here are our recommendations for activities for kids at Badlands National Park.
Check out the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
With kids or without, I always like to stop at the visitor center first thing when seeing a new National Park, and the Badlands is no different. There are two visitor centers for the park. I recommend the Ben Reifel one because it is closest to the hiking and the highway, and it is open year-round.
Grab the main park map in addition to the smaller, black-and-white hiking map pictured above. If you prefer, you can also use this time to get recommendations and education from the rangers. They should be able to tell you the locations of the most recent animal sitings as well as give personalized recommendations for your time in the park. Grab your Junior Ranger booklets while you are there.
The Ben Reifel Center hosts a fossil center where you can see recovered fossils and, depending on the time of year, see workers actively working on fossils. The workers were engaging and ready to answer questions. There is also an education center with some information about the park. At 4 and 5, my kids zoomed through this pretty quickly, but they did learn a few things.
There are restrooms, picnic tables, and a gift shop here.
Hiking with Kids at Badlands National Park
One of our favorite ways to explore and learn about a park is to hike. Badlands National Park has several options that are perfect for kids and families. Most of the hikes are near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Keep a close eye on kids because there are frequent drop-offs throughout the park.
You can get to Door Trail, Window Trail, and Notch Trail from a single parking area. This parking area is just northeast of the Ben Reifel Center.
Window Trail is the shortest at 0.25 miles round trip. Most of it is a boardwalk.
The kids loved Door Trail. It is 0.75 miles round trip. There is no clearly defined trail, but you can see the next post at each signpost. The kids scrambled and ran from post to post. We didn’t tackle the Notch trail, but I hope to return one day soon for that. It is a 1.5-mile round trip and includes a ladder which our youngest wasn’t quite ready for. The park does not recommend this trail for anyone with a fear of heights.
The Cliff Shelf trail is between the parking area for those three trails and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. This is a 0.5-mile round trip and follows a boardwalk that winds through a Juniper forest.
My favorite trail was a few minutes Northwest of the Ben Reifel Center. It is only 0.25 miles round trip but is super steep and windy. Sometimes, my kids want freedom on a trail; even if they find it “boring,” they are happy. Saddle Pass is the kind of trail that offers less independence for kids but will certainly keep their attention. It is steep, and you will want them to stick close. Once at the top, there is a large, flat space to grab a snack and enjoy the view. It also provides access to the Castle and Medicine Root Trails, which are 10 miles and 4 miles long.
The final trail in the Badlands is the Fossil Exhibit Trail, which is only 0.25 miles long and has all sorts of information about the fossils, including replicas.
Help your Kids become Junior Rangers at Badlands National Park
My kids and I love the Junior Ranger programs at the parks. Badlands National Park has a great program with booklets and activities for a variety of ages. My kids are on the young side at four and five, but they can do some of the worksheets, and they love getting the badges.
As with most National Parks, the booklet provides fun activities and information. You pick the booklets up at the visitor centers, and once they are complete, you bring them back so the rangers can “swear” the kids in as rangers. Then they get a Badlands Ranger badge.
Look for the Animals
Looking for animals is always on my list of top kids’ activities at parks. Badlands features a herd of Bison. These huge animals are fun to search for and usually reasonably easy to find.
Prairie Dogs are all over the park, and we enjoyed watching their playful antics. Keep an eye out for their mounds along the road. They are not difficult to find. When you find a prairie dog town, park the car to enjoy watching these guys pop in and out of their mounds. We loved hearing them “bark,” warning other prairie dogs of danger.
Alternatively, a place called the Badlands Ranch Store 10-15 minutes northeast of the Bed Reifel Center, sells peanuts for you to feed their local prairie dog town. I am not a zoologist, but the prairie dogs at the Ranch store appear a lot fatter than the others we saw, making me wonder how healthy this practice is.
There are also big horn sheep in the park. We were not lucky enough to see them, but the rangers keep an updated record of where the animals were last seen at the visitor center, so a motivated visitor may have more luck finding them. We did find one a week later at Custer State Park!
Other critters in the park include rattlesnakes, which everyone hopes to avoid, pronghorns, and ferrets.
Find a Fossil
There are tons of fossils in the Badlands! If you want a surefire way to see them, go to the Bend Reifel Center or see replicas at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. If you are up for an adventure, keep your eyes out everywhere in the park! We found a bony fossil in a rock right along the Saddle Pass Trail. If you find a fossil, take a picture and record the GPS location. Then, you can fill out a report at the visitor center so real paleontologists can investigate. You also get a badge that says, “I did the right thing” (by reporting the fossil instead of taking it).
Star Gaze with the kids at Badlands National Park.
The Badlands is a designated dark sky park. This means that if the sky is clear, you will get a great showing of the night sky! If you are there in the summer, it may get dark too late for your family to enjoy this, but if they are night owls or you are there during shoulder season or the off-season, exploring the night sky can be a real treat. The best night for seeing stars is when there is a new moon, meaning no visible moon. Even if you are there with a full moon, you can see some awesome stars.
My kids love the Skyview App. While I hate to introduce screens when there is such beautiful nature to enjoy, they like seeing the artistic renditions of the constellations. They also love being able to name the planets that are visible at various times. We like the book “Sophie’s Night Sky Adventure” for learning more about constellations.
Concluding Thoughts with Kids at Badlands National Park
For some reason, I had low expectations for Badlands, but I shouldn’t have! It was a beautiful park that had so much to offer. In addition to the short hikes, there were several longer ones for the more adventurous. If you have more limited mobility, the scenic drive between Ben Reifel and Wall, SD, was beautiful, with lots of scenic vistas. The bison were beautiful, and the prairie dogs were fun to watch. What are you waiting for? Have fun with the kids at Badlands National Park!