tent looking over the Badlands

Camping with Kids Under the Stars at Badlands National Park

Stargazing in the badlands
Family sitting by badlands sign

Looking for an overnight family adventure? Pack your bags, grab the kids and head to Badlands National Park in western South Dakota. Located just one hour east of the Black Hills and minutes from I-90, the Badlands are 244,000 protected acres of stone formations and prairie grasses where you will experience epic hikes, incredible stargazing and have chances to encounter animals such as bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.

If there ever was the perfect location for tent camping, the Badlands is it. We booked a tent site at the Badlands Interior Campground, located just outside the east entrance of the park. It did not disappoint! The tent sites are located around the perimeter of the campground and offer the best views! Be sure to select a site on the north end, and then thank me later. Waking up to the sunrise over the prairie grasses and reflecting off of the stone formations is an experience you’ll never forget.

Mom and daughter posing at Yellow Mounds in Badlands NP
Mom and daughter at campsite in Badlands National Park
Yellow Mounds at Badlands National Park

After getting our camping site all set up, we headed into the park in search of the perfect location for our roadside dinner and sunset view. Taking the scenic byway that winds its way through and around the stone formations, you will come across many opportunities for hiking and scenic overlooks. Each view is breathtakingly unique and worth a stop.  Most are also wheelchair accessible.

One of the more unique portions of the Badlands are the Yellow Mounds — the most colorful portion of Badlands geology. Badlands National Park is an open hike park, so you have the freedom to explore in any direction you choose. However, there are many trails that you will come upon if you want to follow and see where they lead! After exploring Yellow Mounds, we headed to Conata Basin Overlook to enjoy the view, sunset and some roadside charcuterie. If you haven’t experienced a sunset over the Badlands, you are in for a treat. Have your camera ready!

Picnicking at conata basin
Sunset at Conata Basin

Once the sun set, we head back towards the Ben Reifel Visitor Center near the east entrance of the park for a free stargazing program at the amphitheater. This program is given by the park rangers and is offered every night during the spring, summer and fall months.  You will want to call ahead or stop by the visitor’s center when you arrive to know what time the program begins, as it changes depending on sunset times. On the night we arrived in September, the program was at 8 p.m.

With very little light pollution, Badlands National Park is theperfect basecampfor those looking to try some stargazing. The stargazing program is ideal for all ages, a highly interactive experience that I strongly suggest not missing. The program began with one of the rangers focusing on a topic of audience choice; we all chose “bats” that evening. Once the bat program was complete, the amphitheater lights went down, and another ranger came out to discuss all that we would be seeing in the sky that night.

The Moon and Jupiter rising over badlands national park at night
Stargazing presentation at badlands national park
Young girl stargazing at badlands national park

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but we did have a full moon that made it difficult to see the Milky Way. However, with the ranger’s extra strong laser pointer, they were able to point out where the Milky Way is typically viewed. We also saw many star formations and some planets! Once the program was complete, we all took a look through the park’s high-powered telescopes pointed directly at Jupiter and Saturn. Our 13-year-old daughter was in absolute heaven. It seemed so unreal how clear we could see Saturn’s rings!  As we headed back to our tent for the night, one of the park rangers handed our daughter a Junior Ranger badge that she now proudly displays in her bedroom. She couldn’t stop talking about how cool the stargazing experience was!

The next morning, we opened the tent door to a gorgeous golden sunrise. We had pointed our tent directly towards the Badlands, knowing we wanted to wake up to that view. We made some coffee, ate our breakfast, packed up the site and headed into the park for a morning of hiking.

Campsite at Badlands National Park

There is a parking lot near the park's east entrance that allows access to multiple hiking trails. We chose to hike the Notch Trail and the Door Trail. Each trailhead was located on opposite ends of the parking area. We chose these two trails because they are so uniquely different from one another, offering two very different hiking experiences and viewpoints of Badlands National Park. Make sure you wear shoes with good traction. Many of the formations can be slippery or have loose gravel. 

First, Notch Trail. This trail allows you to immerse yourself into the Badlands since it winds through and around the stone formations. You may have also likely seen the infamous “ladder” images online. That spot is found on the Notch Trail. My daughter and I are not a huge fan of heights, so we stayed at the bottom while my husband went to the top to check it out. He noted it was pretty easy to climb up to the top, but you wanted to take your time coming back down since you would be traveling backwards. After he safely made it back down the ladder, we decided to wind through the canyon which lead to a small cave at the end where we turned around and headed back to the parking lot.

Teen girl hiking Notch Trail
Man pointing to woman and daughter over his shoulder in Badlands National Park

Heading across to the other side, we found the trailhead for the Door Trail. This trail is a very different perspective, taking you across the top of the stone formations. It felt like we were walking on Mars! This trail starts on a wheelchair-accessible platform deck leading out to an overlook. Once there, if able, you can take the stairs down onto the Badlands surface and hike in any direction you choose! If you want, there are metal markers you can follow to keep you from getting disoriented.  These markers also lead you out to the furthest point for an incredible view of the canyon.

Mom and daughter posing for camera in Badlands NP
Teen girl hiking Door Trail

Once we got back to the car from our hiking adventures, we loaded up and headed back home. Our 24 hours at Badlands National Park had come to a close. Our daughter kept repeating over and over how amazing this trip was and that she wanted to live at the Badlands! And while that may not be possible, it did reassure us that kids need, and want, to disconnect from their devices. Even teenagers. Badlands National Park is the perfect overnight getaway for some much-needed family connection that everyone will enjoy.

Want to see more from our trip? You can head over to our YouTube channel for a two-part video series we put together from our time at Badlands National Park. Happy camping!

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Illustrated image of three bison grazing in Custer State Park. The Needles rock formation is visible in the background.
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