They call it flyover country – the Great Plains. For the most part, they’re sweeping, rolling plains of agricultural land with little beyond rivers and roads to punctuate them. But in the heart of South Dakota, there’s a special geologic area that has drawn travelers for thousands of years. It’s called the Badlands, for the harshness of the landscape – but they’re definitely not bad. And a portion of this area is protected as Badlands National Park, one of the best national parks for stargazing in the U.S.
Badlands National Park is a special stargazing destination for a number of reasons, including its remote location far from light pollution and major cities. You can actually go stargazing throughout Badlands National Park – including the backcountry, if you really want to escape the crowds.
If you’re planning a trip that will take you to Badlands National Park and you want to try stargazing in Badlands, this is the resource you’ve been looking for. In this post you’ll find stargazing spots in Badlands National Park, where to stay the night, and what to do during the day in Badlands too. Read on to plan an unforgettable stargazing trip to Badlands where you can see roughly 7,500 stars on any given night!
Note: Due to the novel coronavirus, National Parks vary in opening hours and access. Be sure to check if the park you want to visit is open before planning a trip.
Featured photo credit: tsaiproject via Flickr
How to Get to Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is in the (roughly) middle of South Dakota. It’s 276 miles west of Sioux Falls or 62 miles east of Rapid City along I-90. Interstate 90 is actually great access to Badlands, one of the best national parks in the Great Plains. From I-90, you take one of two exits for Highway 240 (Exit 110 or 131), which is also called Badlands Loop Road. It takes you to most sights in the north unit of the park.
You can visit the south unit of the park, also called the Stronghold Unit, at points along Highway 27 south of Scenic, South Dakota.
Where to Go Stargazing in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park might not seem like it has much – just a few roads and pull outs – but it’s this lack of development that make it great for stargazing. And there are fantastic spots throughout the north unit where you can stargaze easily.
Big Badlands Overlook
If you enter Badlands National Park at the Northeast Entrance (coming from Sioux Falls), the first major overlook after the ranger station is a great spot for stargazing. It’s called Big Badlands Overlook, and a short boardwalk takes you to a point with truly epic views in almost 360°.
Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater
The National Park Service hosts nightly Night Sky Viewing events at Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater throughout the summer (between Memorial and Labor Days) – so this is a great place to go stargazing in Badlands if you want a more structured experience. You can swing by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the day of your visit to see what programming is planned.
As its name suggests, Panorama Point is a scenic spot during the day; it’s also a great option at night as it looks south toward the White River across the Badlands. Again, a short boardwalk takes you to a point where you can look around and enjoy the wonder of the night sky in every direction.
Pinnacles Overlook is the final spot to stop before the junction of Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road. It has a fascinating view out over a series of pinnacle formations within the Badlands, which can work great as foreground for your night sky photography shots. You do need to descend steps to reach the viewing area, but this helps protect your eyes from car headlights at the parking area.
Along Badlands Loop Road
In addition to the above mentioned stops along Badlands Loop Road, there are other pull outs and parking areas where you might want to stop and stargaze too. Yellow Mounds Overlook might be good for photographers who want a fascinating foreground; Burns Basin Overlook gives an entirely different view too. As you drive the Loop Road, you can just choose your own spot that night depending on your mood and the other people at each area.
Along Sage Creek Rim Road
Sage Creek Rim Road is an unpaved road (meaning it can get dicey when the road is wet) but if you’re visiting during a dry time, this is a great area to escape the “crowds” of other stargazers along Badlands Loop Road. There are some designated pull outs, like Hay Butte Overlook and Sage Creek Basin Overlook, but you can also just find a spot along the road and make your own stargazing area. (This is a less-traversed road, so you’re less likely to have issues with passing cars.)
Finally, you can always opt for the most adventurous route and set out into the backcountry for your Badlands stargazing experience. Badlands National Park has an “open” backcountry – this means you can hike out into it anywhere you want, and you can set up camp anywhere that’s greater than one half-mile from roads and trails and not visible by those passing. Once you’re out in the Badlands backcountry, you’ll have the place to yourself to enjoy the night sky as Indigenous peoples did for millennia.
Where to Stay Near Badlands National Park
Hotels near Badlands
Within Badlands National Park, there is only one hotel to stay at – and again, it’s within the north unit of the park. Cedar Pass Lodge is open seasonally (usually mid/late April to mid/late October) and has a number of accommodation options including cabins and more camping/RV spots.
Camping in Badlands National Park
If camping is your quintessential way to stay in a national park, you’ve got options in Badlands. There are two formal campgrounds, both located in the north unit of the park:
- Cedar Pass Campground – A paid campground near Cedar Pass Lodge (more on that below), with 96 spots that can be reserved online.
- Sage Creek Campground – A free, first-come, first-reserved campground with 22 spots.
Backcountry camping is also allowed in Badlands National Park, as long as you are greater than a half-mile from any road or trail and your campsite is not visible from any roads or trails. The National Park Service has a backcountry camping resource page if this sounds interesting.
What to See & Do During the Day in Badlands
If you’re planning a trip to Badlands National Park that includes a day or two to explore the park under the shining sun, here are some ideas for what to do during that time:
- Autotour the North Unit of Badlands National Park – Driving around the North Unit will show you incredible formations and get you oriented in the park.
- Visit the Visitor Centers – This is a great place to learn what’s going on in the park and what astronomy programming might be scheduled.
- Go Hiking – There are a few set trails in the park, but Badlands also has an “open backcountry,” meaning you can hike out on your own.
- Spot Wildlife – Badlands is home to wildlife, including Bison, Bighorn Sheep, and the omnipresent Prairie Dog.
- Try Fossil Hunting – Badlands also used to be home to other animals, which left their fossils record behind. You can see fossils and learn about paleontology in the park.
- Sunrise & Sunset Photography – A popular activity to pair with stargazing, this is great if you’re a photographer!
- Circuit the South Unit of Badlands National Park – There’s a whole other area of Badlands National Park most people never visit. This is a great option if you have two days to visit the park with stargazing in between.
Other FAQ About Stargazing in Badlands National Park
Have other questions about stargazing in the Badlands? Hopefully these FAQ will answer them!
When is the best time to go stargazing in Badlands?
Badlands National Park is far from light pollution, which is what make it a great stargazing destination year-round. However, the weather does change dramatically in South Dakota, so it helps to consider how cold you’re willing to be while stargazing! Nightly lows range from below freezing (in the winter) to the high double-digits (in the summer). Additionally, June, July, and August are typically the clearest months for cloud cover – but it also gets muggy with humidity in the late summer.
All this to say, the best times to visit Badlands for stargazing are early summer (May to June) and autumn (September).
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Badlands? When?
Absolutely, yes, you can see the Milky Way while stargazing in Badlands National Park. The Milky Way is visible in part throughout the year, though the best time to see the Milky Way is during the summer months. If you need extra help planning your trip in an attempt to see the Milky Way, I’ve got a guide to help!
Can you see the northern lights in Badlands?
While it’s possible to see the northern lights in Badlands National Park, just as it’s possible to see the northern lights in other parts of South Dakota – it’s very unlikely except in the event of exceptionally strong aurora conditions during the right time of year (winter) and good weather (clear skies). So yes, it’s possible to see the northern lights in Badlands, but I wouldn’t plan your trip around it.
Is Badlands National Park open at night?
Badlands National Park is open 24/7 every day of the year for vehicles; the Visitor Centers is open daylight hours that vary by season. You can drive into Badlands at any time, on any day, if you want to go stargazing there.
Are there guided night tours in Badlands?
The National Park Service doesn’t offer any tours, but they do offer night sky viewing programs, as mentioned above. These happen from Memorial Day to Labor Day at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater (note: this may differ in 2021).
As far as I can tell, there are no guided night tours in Badlands National Park other than those offered by the NPS.
Is there a dark sky festival in Badlands?
Yes, there is a dark sky festival at Badlands National Park. The Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival brings together space science professionals, amateur astronomers, and visitors for an out-of-this-world experience. It’s a three-day event with tons of opportunities to learn about and view/appreciate the night sky. The festival schedule and activities vary year-to-year; the 2021 schedule hasn’t been announced yet.
Have other questions about stargazing in Badlands National Park? Let me know in the comments!