Badlands Trails: Best Hikes in the Badlands National Park

In this post, discover the best Badlands trails for adventurers of all ilks and experience levels.

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Our Guide for the Top 8 Hikes in the Badlands National Park

Want to learn firsthand how the Badlands got their name?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • Defining the “mako sica”
    • Walks for all levels of hiker
    • Unique attractions at the park
    • The eight best hiking trails in Badlands National Park
    • Why hiking in Badlands National Park is a must!

Most people, including Americans, are unaware of the gems hidden throughout the American Midwest. To our mind, none of them are better than Badlands National Park near Rapid City in South Dakota. 

This park is filled with sites of geological and historical interest, and dozens of exciting hiking trails. It also happens to be among the best National Parks for families in America because many of the Badlands hikes are flat and shorter than those in other popular hiking areas.

If you like history, dinosaurs, wide-open plains, and one-of-a-kind landscapes, Badlands is the place to be. Below, we’ve compiled a list of eight awesome trails you can do in this unique and awe-inspiring National Park.

What are the Badlands?

The Badlands are nicknamed the “land of stone and light.” Why? The National Park comes alive during sunrise and sunset, when the sun’s yellow and red light seems to set the pinnacles and buttes of yellow and rosy-pastel clay on fire. 

This area originally received its name from the Lakota tribe when they called it “mako sica,” which roughly translates as “land bad.” They called it this due to the extreme temperatures and dryness of the rugged terrain.

This vast region in South Dakota is filled with soft sedimentary rock. Because the climate is so dry and the vegetation so sparse, when rains do come, it gets extensively eroded. Over many years, the area’s slightly harder rock has withstood the forces of erosion, leaving towering spires rising high above the valleys and channels below.

ProTip: Planning on camping? The park is home to two campgrounds—Cedar Pass and Sage Creek—and backcountry camping is permitted anywhere in the park if you pitch up at least half a mile from roads and trails. Just watch out for those rattlers!

Beyond being a unique geological marvel, the park is also the home to some of the world’s richest fossil beds, some of which once contained scores of prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs, rhinos, and the Mesohippus, a three-toed precursor to the modern horse. If interested, you can get more information on these sites from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Remember that much of this park is undisturbed due to ongoing excavation and restoration. Stay on the marked trails, even if something in the distance looks especially exciting. 

Another good reason to stay on the trails while hiking in the Badlands is the presence of rattlesnakes. They love to come out and sunbathe in the summer heat. Watch for their holes and listen for their rattles to stay safe.

The 8 Best Badlands Trails

#1. Castle Trail

Castle Trail

One of the longest, flattest trails in the park, this one attracts plenty of attention from incoming hikers.

  • Type: Lollipop or point-to-point
  • Length: 10 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate

The “moderate” ranking for the Castle Trail owes primarily to its length. At 10 miles, it is the longest marked path in the park. However, it is almost entirely flat, with only 320 feet of ascent in total. It is quite rocky, though, so you should bring proper hiking shoes to protect your ankles.

The Castle hike is excellent for viewing wildlife and bird watching. And the scenery ain’t bad, either. On one side are expansive views of the mixed-grass prairie, and on the other, the cavernous eroded valleys of the park. The trail itself meanders through an ever-changing landscape of spires, buttes, gulleys, and rock fins all rising up from the barren, flat prairie.

The trailhead is located on Highway 240 at a parking area between the Door and Notch trailheads. 

The route itself begins straight, then goes into a loop about a mile in. You can round the loop in either direction or choose to carry on on the other side, turning your hike into a 10.5-mile point-to-point, which is a good option if you have a second car in which you can travel back to the trailhead post-hike.

Longer trails are hard to come by in this National Park, so this path tends to be heavily trafficked by peeps seeking more of a challenge. The best times to explore it are between April to October. However, hiking here in summer can be incredibly hot, so make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen!

#2. Door Trail

Door Trail

This trek leads to a doorway through the Badlands’ famed sand dunes, promising more adventures on the other side.

  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 0.8 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy

The Door Trail is another short boardwalk-based walkway that is wheelchair accessible. It is almost a mile long one-way, but you can easily pair this path with the Window Trail if you want to extend your hike.

The Door Trail is so named because of the unique geographical formation at its end. The path leads to a break in the Badlands Wall that is, as the name suggests, reminiscent of a doorway. The doorway leads to the rugged hills on the other side of the wall, where there are plenty more opportunities for exploration if you feel like heading further afield.

Along the way, keep an eye out for prairie wildflowers and wild animals. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats seem to be especially fond of the area around the boardwalk. Due to the simply stunning views across the Badlands this one provides, however, it is heavily trafficked and not the best option for lovers of solitude or peace and quiet.

#3. Fossil Exhibit Trail

Fossil Exhibit Trail

Learn more about fossils found in the area and the animals that first strolled the Midwestern Plains.

  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 0.3 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy

The Fossil Exhibit Trail is the best of the Badlands National Park hiking trails for families with kids. There’s a parking lot with restrooms at the trailhead, so you can conveniently pile out of the car while on the Badlands Loop (the SD 240), answer nature’s calls, then set out on a stroll through history.

It’s not only the short length that makes this the best option for families with children. It also has demonstrative plaques that host cast molds of fossils of critters that lived on the plains many years ago, which is sure to keep the little ‘uns interested. 

The entire region is famed for fossil discoveries. The most famous here is a T-rex named Sue, the largest T-rex yet to be found. Although Sue has been relocated to the Field Museum in Chicago, you’ll still have the chance to glimpse unburied fossils in the sand and clay bordering the path while you walk. 

Even if you have no interest in fossils, the walk is an excellent way to stretch your legs while taking the road around the park. It is littered with beautiful wildflowers during the late spring and early summer, and serves up outstanding views of the surrounding area. 

#4. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

A fork in the trail lets you choose between a walk through a lovely juniper forest or up to see “The Notch.”

  • Type: Loop
  • Length: 0.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Easyish

The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is another shorter route that you follow along a boardwalk. The walk is ranked “moderate” by park authorities owing to its higher elevation gain compared to other hikes in the park. Given that this still doesn’t pip the 100-foot mark, however, we’re going to overrule them and call it an “easyish”.  

This route is technically a loop, but the track does split into two part of the way through. One option will take you up a gradual slope through an ancient, sparse juniper forest. The other direction will take you to a set of stairs leading to a viewing platform from which you can see “the Notch”, an intriguing U-shaped saddle in a nearby ridge.

The Cliff Shelf itself takes the shape of a bowl. Because it’s one of few places that can retain water in this arid landscape, it attracts all kinds of animals, including deer, birds, prairie dogs, and even the odd bighorn sheep. Keep quiet while you walk and you might just spot some! 

While on top of the nature trail, keep an eye out for the White River Valley and Eagle Butte, a historically famous site for local Native American tribes. 

#5. Saddle Pass Trail

Saddle Pass Trail

Go up and over the “saddle” of the Badlands to reach a stunning panorama above the White River Valley.

  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 0.25 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate

This short, steep track takes you right up to an airy saddle in the Badlands Wall, from where you’ll enjoy magnificent views over the ruggedly beautiful White River Valley.

Saddle Pass is another path that is close to other major trail networks in the park. It ends at the junction with the Medicine Root and Castle trails. This intersection makes it simple to combine with these other trails if you want to extend your hiking time, but also means it can get busy in peak season.

Saddle Pass does have some narrow, exposed sections that skirt above short drops. Although you won’t fall terribly far, it can still be quite unnerving if you don’t have a good head for heights. Also, be sure to watch your footing after rain because the mixture of clay and sand soil underfoot can make the going quite slippery.

#6. Notch Trail

A fun, adventurous route that winds through a rugged landscape on its way to a great viewpoint.

Notch Trail
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 1.5 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate

The Notch Trail is one of the more adventurous of the Badlands’ hiking trails. Although not very long and boasting a mere 125 feet of ascent, the scenery is always wild and reaching the trail’s terminus requires a little bit of light scrambling. 

You start the trail from the lot for the Door and Window Trails. After a few bends in the trail, you’ll run into a 50-rung log ladder that you’ll have to clamber up to reach the canyon ledge and then later descend to return to the trail. 

If you visit after heavy rainfall, we recommend exercising more caution than normal from this point on. On the ledge, there are a few steep drops and in places the path narrows to no more than a few feet wide as you scuttle onward to the trail’s end at the Notch, a U-shaped gap in the Badlands Wall from where you’ll enjoy stunning views of the White River.

#7. Window Trail

Window Trail

The Window through the Wall gives hikers a view into the heart of the Badlands.

  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Length: 0.25 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy

The Window Trail is also a boardwalk-based hike. The Window parking lot is the same as those for the Door and Notch trails, making it easy to access if you want to do multiple hikes in a day.

This walk leads you to a small opening that appears to be a natural window in the Badlands Wall. Unlike the Door, which you are allowed to walk through, this is a “viewing only” kinda feature, meaning you’re free to take a look and ogle at the scenery on the other side, but not allowed to clamber through it for kicks.  

Along the way, the route gives you remarkable views down into an eroded canyon below. And come sunset—the most popular time to do this walk—this canyon is often said to look like a bowl of fire owing to the fiery glow of the sun on the multi-hued rock.

#8. Medicine Root Loop Trail

Medicine Root Loop Trail

Combine this trail with another to create the longest trek through the Badlands or enjoy a moderate-length route with plenty of opportunities to catch a glimpse of wildlife.

  • Type: Loop
  • Length: 4 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate

The Medicine Root Loop is a 4-mile trail that begins just off Highway 240. Although it is longer than many others in the park and involves 340 feet of ascent, it is suitable for hikers of all experience and fitness levels. 

The path might be somewhat overgrown by the grasslands in some parts, but trail markers are always close enough to make your direction clear.

This route is great for viewing some of the park’s flora and fauna. It is littered with beautiful patches of wildflowers in the spring and summer. Throughout the year, you also have a good chance of seeing bison and antelope along the way.

The Medicine Root Trail can also be combined with the Castle and Saddle Pass trails if you’re keen for more of a challenge and an extended round trip. 

Bring on the Badlands!

Hiking in Badlands National Park is an entirely unique experience, serving up countless surprises for all of y’all who thought the best hiking areas in the US were to be found anywhere but in the good ol’ Midwest!

We hope our list has convinced you that the Badlands might be better termed the “Goodlands” for hiking lovers and that you’ll soon be on your way to explore all that this awesome area has to offer. 

So, how did you like our post? If you have any comments or questions about hiking in Badlands or plan to travel here in future, let us know in the comments box below. And if you’d like to share this post with your friends, share away!

Amanda Williams is a hiker, climber, writer, and forager. No matter where she is, she never stops longing for the Colorado Rockies, feeling the Muir-esque call of the mountains. 

Amanda lives to explore and has done incredible hikes and adventures in Asia, Central America, the European continent, and all across America. She believes that there is nothing better for the soul than spending nights out in the wilderness. In between adventuring, Amanda found time to obtain a Bachelor's degree in horticulture with a focus on sustainability. She has used this education to learn how to forage safely on her backpacking adventures and the ways that outdoor enthusiasts can protect our planet.

Amanda uses her writing and outdoor skills to help teach those with whom she adventures and a larger online audience. Currently living in the UK has given her the opportunity to learn a new plant-scape and discover magical new trails and mountains. She now works with a local university to teach others how to grow and thrive in the outdoors in between writing while continuing her never-ending quest of learning.

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