National Parks,  Attractions

The 5 National Parks in the Great Plains: What You Need to Know

In the United States, our national parks are one of the greatest heritages we have. Thanks to the foresight of previous generations, many natural wonders across the country have been protected so we can enjoy them today. This includes popular parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. While those national parks get a lot of glory, there are national parks across the country – including national parks in the Great Plains states!

There are five national parks in the Great Plains states; each offers a unique and awe-inspiring experience of the beauty in this part of the country. You might be surprised to note that Mount Rushmore is not on this list, but the five natural locations that are here have definitely earned their spots.

National Parks in the Great Plains Hero

Whether you call the Great Plains home or are passing through and want to marvel at these places, here’s a quick guide to each of the national parks in the Great Plains. Over the next few months, we’ll also add links to more in-depth guides to visit each one.

Note: This post lists the national parks in the Great Plains from north to south!

In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Hunkpapa, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, Michif Piyii (Métis), Cheyenne, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Mnicoujou, Ndé Kónitsąąíí Gokíyaa (Lipan Apache), and Mescalero Apache peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in March 2021, and was updated in April 2023.

1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota‘s only national park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named after the president who visited this part of the Dakota Territory in 1883. His experiences here, living on the frontier, helped inspire his personal passion for environmental preservation and the eventual National Park Service created by his successor, President Woodrow Wilson.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to rugged scenery – rolling grasslands, hills, and rock formations, cut through by the Little Missouri River.

One of the most popular things to do is drive one of the two scenic park roads (there’s one in each part of the park, north and south), but you can certainly strike out one of the park’s 19 designated trails. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for wildlife, especially the bison that drew young Teddy to this region almost 150 years ago.

Details of Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open year-round.
  • Admission is $30 per vehicle and is good for 7 days. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
  • There are two campgrounds inside the park: Cottonwood Campground & Juniper Campground. Half the sites in the southern unit campground (Cottonwood) are available for reservation; the rest are first-come, first-serve.
  • For hotels, there is an AmericInn in the town of Medora, ND, as well as the locally-owned Rough Riders Hotel and Badlands Motel, and a few others in town.

Read about the other national park units in North Dakota, too.

2. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is the most-visited national park in the Great Plains states. This is partly because of its proximity to Mount Rushmore, which receives 3 million visitors annually!

Badlands National Park, unlike Mount Rushmore, protects unaltered natural stone formations in South Dakota as well as surrounding grasslands and the wildlife that live in this area.

The rock formations in Badlands National Park – called buttes and spires – were formed by deposition and erosion. Rocks in Badlands National Park were deposited in the area as much as 75 million years ago. Through wind and water erosion, they began to wear away just 500,00 years ago. It only took half a million years to create the rocky spires and shapes we see today!

Obviously seeing these fantastic formations is the main attraction for visiting Badlands National Park. You can follow Badlands Loop Road (South Dakota Highway 240) to see fossil beds, try to spot wildlife, and admire the scenery. Be sure to stop at Big Badlands Overlook, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. If you decide to stay overnight inside the park, stargazing is another popular activity.

Details of Badlands National Park:

  • Badlands National Park is open year-round.
  • Admission is $30 per vehicle and is good for 7 days. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
  • There are two official campgrounds in Badlands, called Cedar Pass and Sage Creek campgrounds. You can also go backcountry camping.
  • Within the park, there is one hotel: the Cedar Pass Lodge. Just outside the park near Interior, South Dakota, you can also stay at the Badlands Inn or Badlands Motel.

3. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park

South Dakota is the only state in the Great Plains with two national parks: Badlands and Wind Cave National Park.

Located in the southwest corner of the state, Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest national parks in the country. It was originally established in 1903 – before the National Park Service! Above ground, Wind Cave National Park protects rolling grasslands and forested hills, but as the name suggests, it’s what’s underground that draws most visitors.

Wind Cave is home to one of the longest and most complex caves in the world; more interestingly, it has “barometric winds” at the cave entrance, caused by temperature differences between the air above ground and under it. Wind Cave is also home to a special type of crystal formation called boxwork. Wind Cave is a unique, fascinating cave to visit (as caves go!).

The best thing to do at Wind Cave National Park is to take a cave tour. These are guided by park rangers and teach you how to responsibly visit and appreciate the wonders of the cave.

Unfortunately, cave tours were suspended at Wind Cave in 2019, and haven’t re-opened due to the ongoing pandemic. Check back for updates once they’re offered again.

Details of Wind Cave National Park:

  • Wind Cave National Park is open year-round.
  • It’s free to explore the park above ground; when cave tours are running, they cost $10-$30 for adults and $5-$6 for children, depending on the tour.
  • There is one main campground at Wind Cave, called Elk Mountain Campground. The 62-site campground is first-come, first-served.
  • The two nearest towns are Hot Springs, SD (15 minutes south) and Custer, SD (25 minutes north), where you can find more amenities if you need a hotel or meal.

4. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Located on the far western edge of the Great Plains, Carlsbad Caverns National Park neighbors Guadeloupe Mountains National Park – the two straddle the New Mexico-Texas state line. Until late 2019, Carlsbad Caverns was the only national park in New Mexico. (This changed when White Sands was elevated from national monument to national park status.)

Like Wind Cave, Carlsbad Caverns is a national park that’s focused more on the natural wonders underground instead of those on top of it. The national park includes a system of 119 caves and caverns; the best thing to do in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is obviously to explore the caverns!

You can do a self-guided exploration of two main parts of the caverns (the Big Room and the Green Lake Room), with different formations and difficulty levels. Or, if you want to explore even more, ranger-led programs take you into other parts of the cave system. Ranger-led tours have restarted post-pandemic, which are fantastic and well worth the work to plan ahead and get a reservation.

Carlsbad Caverns also has great programs at sunset and sunrise – focused on the local bat populations – and for stargazing once the sun is gone each day.

Details of Carlsbad Caverns National Park:

  • The caverns are open from 8am to 5pm daily all year, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s days.
  • Admission to Carlsbad Caverns is $15 for adults (free for kids under 15), and the pass is good for three days. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
  • There are no formal campgrounds at Carlsbad Cavern National Park, but you can go backcountry camping with a free permit you can get at the visitor center.
  • The nearest hotel is White’s City Cavern Inn in White’s City, NM, seven miles from the caverns. There are numerous options in Carlsbad, NM which is 20 miles from the caverns.

5. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

The final national park in the Great Plains is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located at the southern end of the same Guadalupe Mountains that contain Carlsbad Caverns. Similarly, this national park is on the edge of the Great Plains; the landscape is somewhat different than you’ll find further north in the Great Plains region.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers a lot of diversity to explore: a Permian fossil reef that dates back over 250 million years, four of Texas’ tallest mountain peaks, and a combination of deserts, dunes, and canyons.

Hiking is the most popular activity in Guadalupe Mountains; be sure to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife (javelinas! tons of birds!). The park also draws lots of visitors each fall for the fantastic leaf colors you can see in the park. There are also a number of historic ranches in the park for those more interested in “modern” history (compared with fossils!).

Details of Guadalupe Mountains National Park:

  • Guadalupe Mountains National Park is open year-round.
  • The admission fee is $10 per person to enter the national park. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
  • There are two campgrounds in Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Pine Springs and Dog Canyon campgrounds. Both are first-come, first-served sites.
  • Accommodation is limited near the park; the nearest hotel is White’s City Cavern Inn in White’s City, NM. (This makes it logical to combine a trip to Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains and stay the whole time there!)

Which of these national parks do you want to visit – or are all five on your Great Plains bucket list? Let us know any questions in the comments!

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