Driving Through Badlands National Park

If you’ve driven into Las Vegas heading west on Interstate 15, then you have a pretty good idea what it’s like driving into the Badlands.

The scenery, while not a desert, can seem deserted. These redundant landscapes continue for hundreds of miles until finally, our jaws dropped and we each audibly muttered “Whoa.”

We had arrived.

That’s not to say the rolling hills and oceans of grass that comprise much of the Great Plains aren’t beautiful and scenic in their own way, but when you reach the Badlands, it’s a whole new ball game.

Depending on which entrance you use, the scenery will vary as the park’s enormous size and diverse landscapes make it like two parks in one. We refer to the Northeast Entrance as the “Main Entrance” and the Pinnacles Entrance as the “Wildlife Entrance”.

The Main Entrance (or “Northeast Entrance”)

Driving into the park through this route is breathtaking, especially if you arrive in the early morning or late evening. The park changes colors during these times from a brilliant white to a deep orange in the evening or a bright yellow in the morning.

Switch off the radio and roll down the windows to pick up the sweet natural tunes of the Badlands. The songs of the yellow-breasted Western Meadowlark and the whispering winds through prairie grasses fill the air with a beautiful harmony.

White towers and golden grasses interspersed with coniferous juniper trees dominate the landscape. But don’t spend your entire time looking out a car window. Get out, stretch your legs and walk around, it’s beautiful! There are plenty of short trails to help acquaint you with your surroundings.

Drive a little farther and you’ll reach Cedar Pass, one of the first major overlooks in the park. The air is filled with the distinct smell of the juniper trees clustered about the landscape.

Continuing your drive from Cedar Pass takes you to a lower elevation where scale really comes into play. Looking back up at the massive towering mounds of earth really shows off the size and power of the park. Continue on to experience the many other wonders and overlooks, especially Yellow Mounds, which feels like another planet, and Pinnacles Overlook, where the next entrance road feeds into the park.

The Wildlife Entrance (or “Pinnacles Entrance”)

Driving into the park through this route is vastly different and exciting.

Just as you reach the entrance station, you’ll notice small mounds of dirt scattered throughout the landscape, and one doesn’t have to look too closely to see the furry little fellows scurrying between these mounds. These furry fellows are some of the park’s most famous mammals, the prairie dogs.

Learning the finer points of prairie dog culture is worth a trip to the Badlands alone. Drive by them with a car and they hardly pay any attention. Approach them on foot and receive an entirely different treatment.

As soon as the car stops, the first few dogs closest to the vehicle will stand at attention, and then the “chipping” starts. “CHIP! CHIP! CHIP! CHIP! CHIP!”

And on it goes as more and more of the dogs chime in until you finally leave. Your decision to walk away is typically celebrated by the natives, who leap up onto their hind legs, throw their arms in the air and scream “YEEE!”

Continuing down the road, visitors will likely to see grazing bison, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep. These majestic animals pay little attention to the casual park-goer and go on grazing or lounging.

A word to the wise: Make sure to heed the park warnings and signage to keep a respectful distance from these animals.

Eventually, you’ll reach an intersection where left (east) takes you to Pinnacles Overlook then back toward the Northeast Entrance, and right (west) takes you down a gravel road into the wilderness side of the park toward Sage Creek Campground. Turn right to experience more wildlife, stunning overlooks, larger prairie dog towns and a quieter part of the majestic park.

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