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South Dakota Road Trip: Denver to Badlands National Park Camping Trip

Denver to Badlands National Park

The alluring Badlands National Park is characterized by its towering spires, grasslands brimming with wildlife, and an astonishing, Mars-like landscape. It’s no wonder that this is one of South Dakota’s most treasured sites, bringing in approximately one million outdoor enthusiasts each year.

While the park itself is undoubtedly mesmerizing, the journey from Denver, Colorado is equally enticing. Explore one of the world’s longest caves in the Black Hills National Forest, dive deep into America’s pioneer history in Cheyenne, and fall asleep under a starry night sky in the Badlands. From the rugged landscape of the Rocky Mountains to the vast plains of South Dakota, this 5-day Denver to Badlands National Park road trip will prove to be an unforgettable adventure. Want to explore a little closer to home? Check out our Colorado National Parks Tour itinerary for the opportunity to experience the magic of all five of the National Parks in Colorado. 

Travel Time for a Denver to Badlands National Park Camping Trip

This roundtrip itinerary begins and ends at the Escape Camper Vans’ Denver location, and traverses through Colorado, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The total driving time would take about 13 hours and 50 minutes without stopping, spanning approximately 840 miles. South Dakota’s varied terrain and unique geological formations are truly astounding, so we recommend allotting at least five days to experience this natural wonderland.


Directions Tips:

Total Miles: 840 miles

Total Travel Time: 5 days, driving 13 hours, 50 minutes

Best Time of Year for a Denver to Badlands National Park Camping Trip

While South Dakota’s weather can be difficult to predict, the shoulder seasons are the best times to visit for comfortable temperatures, fewer crowds, and maximum wildlife sightings.

Fall

The early fall is definitely the best time for a Badlands National Park camping trip. The mild temperatures will be perfect for long days of exploring, you’ll have ample opportunities to spot wildlife, and all campgrounds and areas of the park will be open. 

Spring

In late spring, the weather in Badlands National Park can be very rainy, though this is still considered a great time of year to visit. The bursts of rain are typically short and won’t affect your entire day. Plus, there will be an abundance of wildlife, and campgrounds won’t be too crowded.

Summer

The summer is when the Black Hills and the Badlands receive the most visitors, though this also means campgrounds and popular trails will be the most crowded. Summer temperatures can also be scorching in July and August, making it difficult to enjoy many of the outdoor activities in the area. 

Winter

During the winter, the Badlands are covered in snow and temperatures are freezing, sometimes reaching -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Campgrounds and many nearby restaurants will be closed, and most wildlife will be less active. For a winter road trip alternative, consider heading down to Big Bend National Park in Texas instead.

Preparation for a Badlands National Park Camping Trip

Before setting off on your camper van road trip to the Badlands, take some time to plan ahead and gather all your necessary supplies. Since you’ll be driving through many remote areas, being prepared and having everything you need in your van will ensure that your trip runs smoothly.

Woman stadning at the back of an Escape Camper van cooking a meal on a camping trip.

Campgrounds

Many of the campsites on this route can fill up quickly, especially if you’re traveling during the high season. Book your sites ahead of time whenever possible, especially in Badlands National Park where there are fewer campground options. It’s also worth looking into dispersed, or free, camping in case you’re unable to secure a site before your visit.

Food

Restaurants around the Black Hills and Badlands are limited, particularly during the off season when many businesses close temporarily. Before leaving Denver, fill your kitchenette with ingredients that can be used for quick, easy to make meals at your campsites. Since not all campgrounds will have potable water, you should also make sure you have plenty before leaving the city. 

Supplies

Escape Camper Vans offers an extensive list of extra add ons, allowing you to fully customize your camper van rental with all the gear you’ll need during your adventure. For your road trip to South Dakota, add in a kitchen kit to make meal prepping seamless, along with an extra bedding kit for chilly evenings. If you do decide to travel during the winter, snow chains will also be essential.

Navigation

If you’re using your Smartphone as your GPS, make sure to download Offline Maps so that you don’t run into any trouble in areas with little to no reception. Along with extra portable chargers, we also recommend picking up a paper map of Badlands National Park. Not only will this make for a fun souvenir from the trip, but it will also be a big help when trying to navigate remote areas of the park.

Which Camper Van is Best for a Badlands National Park Road Trip?

Escape Camper Vans offers a suite of five different vehicle models, three of which can be found at our Denver hub. The Mavericks is slightly more compact than the Del Mar and Mesa, though all models contain queen sized beds, kitchenettes, and comfortably sleep up to five people with a rooftop sleeper. Compare the three available vehicles on our website to best determine which is the right fit for your travel needs!

Denver to Badlands National Park Itinerary

Day 1- Denver, CO to Black Hills National Forest, SD

Your morning begins bright and early at the Escape Camper Vans in Denver, Colorado. Pack up your camper van and then hit the road as you make your way from the Rocky Mountain region to the verdant prairies and vast plains of South Dakota. 

After nearly six hours on the road, stretch your legs in the Black Hills National Forest, a 1.2-million acre treasure trove of breathtaking woodlands, towering mountains, and abundant wildlife. While many travelers make the trek to the Black Hills for the sole purpose of snapping a photo with Mount Rushmore, we urge you to stick around a little longer and discover all the natural beauty this sprawling forest offers. 

Escape camper van driving around Badlands National Park.

Things to do in Black Hills National Forest

Hike to Black Elk PeakFor outstanding views of South Dakota’s striking terrain, head to the summit of Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the entire state. The 7.1-mile hike to the top is mildly strenuous, though the panoramic sights from Lookout Tower are absolutely worth the effort!

Wind Cave National ParkExplore one of the world’s longest and most complex caves at this fascinating national park, located within the Black Hills. Celebrated for its rare calcite formations, this dense cave can only be visited by joining a guided tour.

Spearfish CanyonDriving along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is jaw-dropping, and will lead you past several stunning overlooks and landscapes. The highlights of this drive are the spectacular waterfalls along the route, including Bridal Veil Falls, which plummets down 60-feet and is reached by an easy, half-mile hike.

Places to Eat near Black Hills National Forest

Mangiamo Wood Fired Pizza– 158 Museum Dr, Hill City, SD 57745: This popular eatery offers delicious wood-fired pizza, along with pasta and other Italian specialties. The inviting restaurant also features an outdoor space, as well as a bar stocked with Italian wines and craft beers.

Prairie Berry Winery– 23837 US-385, Hill City, SD 57745: Tucked away in the Black Hills, this family-run winery serves their own handcrafted wine in a picturesque outdoor setting. The scenic establishment also offers an extensive food menu of freshly made salads, sandwiches, and artisan plates.

Campgrounds near Black Hills National Forest

In the Black Hills National Forest, camping is easy thanks to 30 campgrounds scattered throughout the region. Even still, this is a popular area in the summer, so booking your site ahead of time is encouraged. 

Bismark Lake Campground– Custer, SD 57730: Situated in a scenic field of aspen groves, this site operates from May through September and reservations are highly recommended. The campground features lake access, vault toilets, picnic tables, and campfire rings.

Horsethief Lake Campground– Mount Rushmore Unorganized Territory, SD 57006: This tranquil campground is nestled in a lush forest, alongside a beautiful lake. The campsite operates from May through September, and can be reserved up to six months in advance. Facilities include vault toilets, fire rings, and drinking water.

Pro Tip- Break up the drive to the Black Hills with a stop in Hot Springs, South Dakota. As the name would imply, this serene town offers six thermal hot springs, all of which are perfect for a rejuvenating break after hours on the road. 

Day 2- Custer State Park, SD

Although Custer State Park is still part of the Black Hills, South Dakota’s largest and most frequented state park deserves its own dedicated day. This is a must-visit for any Badlands National Park camping trip. The massive park is celebrated for its captivating landscapes and enormous amount of wildlife- including bighorn sheep, coyotes, and the country’s largest concentration of free-roaming buffalo herds.

Spend your day driving down the 18-mile Wildlife Loop, relaxing by the park’s five stunning lakes, or hiking past towering, granite spires.

Escape camper van on a camping trip in South Dakota.

Things to Do in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake This enchanting, man-made lake is one of the most popular spots in Custer State Park. Lined by unique rock formations, this scenic lake is perfect for taking a dip, hopping on a kayak, or enjoying a relaxing picnic.

Needles HighwayThis narrow, 14-mile drive weaves through spectacular forests and droves of granite formations that resemble enormous needles. There are several key stops to check out along the route, including the Needles Eye and Needles Eye Tunnel.

Cathedral Spires TrailSituated along Needles Highway, this 3-mile hike is one of the best ways to admire Custer State Park’s captivating landscape, including the unique granite spires that the park is known for. At the summit of the hike you’ll find the Cathedral Spires, a towering cluster of granite pinnacles.

Places to Eat near Custer State Park

Dockside Grill– 12967 US-16A, Custer, SD 57730: This casual eatery offers filling meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with a gorgeous deck that overlooks the park. If you have a full day of exploring planned, you can also order to-go meals from their picnic menu.

Blue Bell Lodge– 25453 SD-87, Custer, SD 57730: Unique, hearty dishes that include bison and rattlesnake sausage are on the menu at this western style restaurant. To enjoy your meal with a view, sit out on their patio which overlooks the tranquil French Creek. 

Campgrounds in Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake Campground– 24581 SD-87, Custer, SD 57730: This scenic campground’s proximity to the beloved Sylvan Lake makes it a popular choice for campers. Open from May through September, reservations at this site are not required, though they are highly recommended. The campground features electric hookups, showers, fire rings, and many nearby trails.

Game Lodge Campground– 13399 US-16A, Custer, SD 57730: Although this is the only year-round campground inside the park, many facilities are only available seasonally. Reservations should be made ahead of time during the summer months, and amenities include showers, laundry facilities, a dump station, and partial hookups.

Day 3- Badlands National Park, SD

After breakfast at your campsite, make the quick drive over to the ethereal Badlands National Park. Located only a little over an hour away from Custer State Park, you’ll be roaming through the dramatic landscape of the Badlands in no time. 

Renowned for its mesmerizing geological formations and colossal spires, the trails and overlooks of the Badlands are unlike anywhere else. Coupled with the park’s expansive grasslands that are home to countless wildlife, this South Dakota national park is a haven for nature lovers. 

After spending the day immersed in the park’s rugged terrain, make sure you save some energy for the evening. Because Badlands National Park is so secluded and experiences very little light pollution, it allows for incredible stargazing opportunities.

Escape Camper van set up with rooftop sleeper on a Badlands National Park camping trip.

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Things to Do in Badlands National Park

Hike Castle Trail This 5-mile trail is the longest in the park, weaving through the backcountry of the Badlands and traversing through scenic prairies and past otherworldly geological formations. This is also a great opportunity for wildlife spotting, including big horn sheep and prairie dogs.

Notch TrailTrek past a stunning canyon, climb up a wooden ladder, and march along the trail of a jaw-dropping cliff on this easy, 1.5-mile hike. The views throughout the hike are phenomenal, providing unparalleled access to the Badlands’ unique terrain.

Badlands Loop Road This scenic drive is a perfect way to get a lay of the land when you first arrive in the park. Twelve stunning overlooks line the route, including the popular Yellow Mounds, Panorama Point, and Pinnacles Overlook.

Places to Eat near Badlands National Park

Salty Steer– 600 Main St, Wall, SD 57790: As one of the newer restaurants in town, this inviting eatery has proven to be a wonderful addition to the area. A variety of steaks and burgers are served in a lively atmosphere, along with a wide menu of craft beers and delicious desserts. 

Red Rock Restaurant– 506 Glenn St, Wall, SD 57790: Hearty, farm to table cuisine is served at this neighborhood eatery, which focuses on local beef, pork, and lamb dishes. While the laid-back restaurant boasts a cozy interior, there is an option to sit outside. 

Campgrounds Near Badlands National Park

Cedar Pass Campground– P3V2+WX, Interior, SD 57750: Located inside the park, this first come, first served campground operates year-round, although sites are limited in the winter. Facilities include pay showers, electric hookups, and picnic tables.

Sage Creek Campground– Wall, SD 57790: This first come, first served site is entirely free and operates all year. Pit toilets and picnic tables are available, but there is no drinking water. Keep in mind, you’ll need to rent the Mavericks camper van if you plan to camp here, as there is a strict size limit for vehicle camping.

Day 4- Cheyenne, Wyoming

After packing up your camper van and taking in one last view of the Badlands’ dramatic landscape, it’s time to begin making your way down south. After about 4 hours and 20 minutes on the road, you’ll arrive in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s bustling state capital. This vibrant city is steeped in America’s Old Wild West history, and houses numerous museums, historical landmarks, and is even home to the world’s biggest outdoor rodeo.

If you’re less of a history buff and more interested in outdoor recreation, Wyoming’s capital also boasts lush gardens and countless scenic trails to explore.

Things to do in Cheyenne, WY

Wyoming State Museum Dating back to 1895, this fascinating museum is perfect for learning more about Wyoming’s past and cultural heritage. Admission to the museum is free, and exhibits focus on the state’s wildlife, paleontology, landscapes, and local artists.

 

Big Boy Steam Engine Located in Holliday Park, a visit to the world’s biggest steam locomotive is a must when traveling through Cheyenne. While no longer running, this is one of only eight Big Boy’s left in the US, and is quite a powerful sight to witness up close.

 

Curt Gowdy State Park This stunning park is located just outside of Cheyenne, flanked by the towering Laramie Mountains in the distance. The park features three gorgeous reservoirs, along with numerous hiking trails, opportunities for wildlife spotting, and amazing stargazing. This is where you’ll likely camp while in Cheyenne, so you’ll be perfectly positioned for a magical night under the stars.

Places to Eat in Cheyenne, WY

2 Doors Down– 118 E 17th St, Cheyenne, WY 82001: Run by a couple from the area, this casual eatery serves up the best burgers in town- all of which come with bottomless fries! In addition to a wide selection of burgers, their menu also features several salads, soups, and platters.

 

Anong’s Thai Cuisine– 620 Central Ave, Cheyenne, WY 82007: Dine on authentic Thai cuisine in this charming, neighborhood restaurant. Along with classic Thai dishes, they also serve new specials every week and offer multiple vegan options.

Campgrounds near Cheyenne, WY

Located just twenty minutes outside of downtown Cheyenne, Curt Gowdy State Park is your best bet for finding a nearby spot to camp for the night. The scenic park houses 159 campsites spread over several campgrounds, all of which are open year-round.

 

Camp Russell Campground– Cheyenne, WY 82009: As one of the most frequented sites in Curt Gowdy, this campground offers partial hookups, a picnic area, and multiple hiking and biking trails. While the site is open year-round, reservations are only required from May until October.

 

Crystal Campground– Cheyenne, WY 82009: This lovely, waterfront campground inside the park features fishing and other water activities, vault restrooms, and picnic tables. Just like Camp Russel, reservations are only necessary from May until October at this year-round site.

Day 5- Drive from Cheyenne, WY to Denver, CO

Enjoy a relaxing breakfast at your campsite before hopping in your camper van one last time. From Cheyenne, the drive to the Escape Camper Vans in Denver spans 100 miles, and should only take about one and a half hours to complete. Just remember to bring your camper van back by your pre-scheduled drop off time.

Why Rent a Camper Van for a Denver to Badlands National Park Camping Trip?

A camper van is the ultimate way to travel through South Dakota’s awe-inspiring terrain with unlimited freedom. From more flexibility to added convenience, these are just a few of the reasons why we recommend choosing a camper van over a traditional RV for your Badlands road trip:

Mobility: Compared to an imposing RV, a compact camper van allows you to get off the beaten path, explore remote trailheads, or follow an intriguing mountain road on a whim. With so much natural beauty to discover between the Black Hills and the Badlands, this added freedom will make a world of difference during your trip. Not to mention, you’ll also have a much easier time fitting into tight parking spaces and smaller camping spots.

Ease of Use: It takes time to feel comfortable behind the wheel of a massive RV, which can make those long drives between destinations far less enjoyable. Because our camper vans are similar in size to a large SUV, you’ll immediately feel safe and secure when you hit the road. 

No Sewer or Electric Hookups: A traditional RV requires sewer and electric hookups, which aren’t available at many of the campsites you’ll encounter on this road trip. In contrast, our camper vans are designed to be self-contained, so you’ll never need to worry about any hookups. Not only will this make it easier for you to find suitable campgrounds, but you’ll also have the option to try out dispersed camping without any inconvenience.

Artwork: Every one of our vans is colorfully painted by a talented artist, which automatically adds a bit of extra fun to your adventure! The eye-catching vehicles are also great conversation starters, and a perfect way to meet fellow campers. Plus, the van’s vivid colors will look amazing against the rocky landscape of the Badlands.

Opting for a camper van rental from Denver will guarantee that your journey to the Badlands is a memorable, stress-free adventure!

Reserve with Escape Camper Vans for your Denver to Badlands National Park Road Trip

Get ready for herds of buffalo, towering spires, and impossibly beautiful hikes through otherworldly landscapes. From South Dakota’s jaw-dropping parks to Wyoming’s historic capital, your Denver to Badlands National Park camping trip will be one for the books. 

Explore the Badlands!

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