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Hiking in Badlands National Park

by Grant
Hiking in Badlands National Park

When you first drive in, you wouldn’t think this would be a great place to go for a hike. It seems desolate. But there is plenty of hiking in Badlands National Park and you will be surprised at what you find.

Aside from stunning views at some of the shorter trails, getting into the backcountry of the park will bring you into the midst of an unspoiled prairie landscape teeming with life. You just have to look a little closer than you might expect. 

We have been hiking in Badlands National Park on two separate trips and, each time, were blown away by the experience.

The view from the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.
The view from the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.

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Short Trails in Badlands National Park

Door Trail

.8 mile | 36 foot elevation gain

The Door Trail is about a 3/4 of a mile out and back trail leading through the “door,” a gap in the Badlands wall. The first 1/4 mile of the trail follows a boardwalk to an observation area. 

A boardwalk leading through a gap in the Badlands Wall.
The “door” through the Badlands Wall.

From there, you can get off the boardwalk and hike through the rugged terrain to a truly staggering viewpoint. The trail is marked with numbered yellow posts (there are 10 of them). Just keep an eye ahead of you and you won’t get lost.

This trail is pretty easy, even off the boardwalk. Just watch your step and you will be rewarded with amazing views.

The trail once you leave the boardwalk of the Door Trail is more just markers to navigate by.
The trail once you leave the boardwalk of the Door Trail is more just markers to navigate by.

Window Trail

.25 mile | 6 foot elevation gain

This quick trail takes you to a hole in the Badlands wall, hence the name “Window.” There’s not much to this trail. It is a quick, out and back trail on a boardwalk to an amazing view. It is totally worth it.

A stop at the Window "trail" is a must when visiting Badlands National Park.
The view from the “Window.”

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

.5 mile | 65 foot elevation gain

This brief loop trail leads through a low juniper forest with plenty of views of the Badlands wall and the White River Valley. The trail has quite a few stairs but is not hard at all. 

Stairs on the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park. This is one of the easier spots for hiking in  Badlands National Park.
Stairs on the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park. This is one of the easier spots for hiking in Badlands National Park.

We enjoyed this brief hike but if time were an issue, I would choose the two hikes above plus the Notch Trail over this hike. 

Fossil Exhibit Trail

.4 mile | 13 foot elevation gain

Sadly, this trail was closed while we were there. According to Alltrails and the park trail guide, this trail follows a boardwalk through various exhibits about the fossils found in Badlands National Park.

Saddle Pass Trail

.7 mile | 216 foot elevation gain

The Saddle Pass Trail is a brief but steep trail that climbs up the Badlands Wall to a plateau with excellent views of the White River Valley below.

Grant hiking in Badlands National Park
Grant hiking up the Saddle Pass Trail on our first time hiking in Badlands National Park.

While the Park Service lists this hike as strenuous, it is relatively short and as long as you are in somewhat decent shape, you should be able to handle it. Just know it can be a bit of a scramble but once you get to the top, it’s nice and flat.

The best part about this hike, other than the view, is you can use it as a link to the Medicine Root Loop Trail, a four-mile loop that gives you the highlights of the long Castle Trail as well (see below for more on these trails).

Notch Trail

1.3 miles | 131 foot elevation gain

The trailhead for this trail is located right next to the Window Trail. While the trail is a bit longer and a bit more strenuous, it is not difficult at all. For the most part, the trail winds through a small canyon until you get to a very steep section.

Grant climbing up a ladder made of logs on cable in Badlands National Park.
Grant climbing the ladder at the Notch Trail.

The Park Service has put in a ladder to help people climb the steep section up onto a large ledge. While the trail guide says to watch for drop-offs, the ledge is more than wide enough through most of the trail. Bonnie definitely hates heights but had no problems navigating this trail.

The reward is a gorgeous view of the White River Valley, overlooking the Cliff Shelf Trail. 

Pro tip: The Door, Window and Notch trails are easily done together and took us about 90 minutes with plenty of time to take pictures and totaling 2.7 miles. You could also add on the first part of the Castle Trail, which is right across the road. We really enjoyed the section leading to the Old Northeast Road and that would add a total of 2.8 miles. 

A wide view of green prairie and badlands stretching out to the horizon.
A view of the White River Valley from the Notch.

Moderate Trails in Badlands National Park

Medicine Root Loop Trail

4.5 miles | 337 foot elevation gain

There are two ways to access this trail: either hike the Saddle Pass Trail or drive down the unpaved Old Northeast Road until you get to the trailhead. The loop is created by merging the Medicine Root Trail and the middle section of the Castle Trail into a loop.

Bonnie on the Medicine Root Trail.
Bonnie on the Medicine Root Trail.

This trail leads you through the heart of this backcountry area and makes for a great medium-length hike. It’s mostly flat, with a little bit a rough terrain. It meanders through gorgeous prairie with stunning views of the rock formations everywhere you look. 

We really enjoyed hiking this trail from the Saddle Pass Trail on our first visit to the Badlands in 2012. It was the perfect hike for a cloudy (and thereby cooler) afternoon.

Long Trails in Badlands National Park

Castle Trail 

10.5 miles | 314 foot elevation gain

This out and back trail connects the Fossil Exhibit Trail area to the Door, Window and Notch trails area of the park. You can start the trail at either end or at the Saddle Pass Trail. If you choose to take the Medicine Root Trail for part of your trip, it will end up being about 11 miles total. We spent about 4.5 hours out on the trail, so plan accordingly.

We started off at the east end of the trail by the Door Trail. The trail wound through a rocky area to start but then found its way into the prairie. The trail, like the Medicine Root Loop Trail, is mostly flat with a little bit of scrambling here or there.

There were several bighorn rams along the Castle Trail.
There were several bighorn rams along the Castle Trail.

We did get to see quite a bit of wildlife, including some toads, a tarantula, quite a few birds and several bighorn rams. All in all, it was a great hike and we highly recommend it.

If you do want to trim any part of the hike, we recommend skipping the western leg, at least until the Fossil Exhibit Trail reopens. That said, that’s where we spotted the bighorn rams.

Bonnie leaping over a small crevice in the trail.
There was one spot along the trail that required a little bit of a leap to get across.

My one caveat about this trail is the markers. They are reddish-brown and can be hard to spot. This can be a little irritating since the trail is sometimes difficult to follow without them. That said, overall we found the trail relatively easy to follow and, at most, it only took us a few minutes to relocate the trail.

Other Hiking Opportunities

While the Park Service does not list it on their trails pamphlet, there is the 23-mile Sage Creek Loop listed on AllTrails. We did not hike it because 23 miles is a quite a bit over our limit for a day hike. 

Additionally, Badlands NP has an “open hike policy,” which means you are not restricted to maintained trails. Basically, you can hike anywhere you can do so safely. If you’re up for some exploring, there’s quite a bit for you to see and do. Just be sure you are prepared with enough water and other basic hiking supplies.

Grant hiking the Castle Trail. Note the trail marker on the right.
Grant hiking the Castle Trail. Note the trail marker on the right.

Preparing for Hiking in Badlands National Park

First and foremost, the Badlands gets hot in the summer, when most folks are visiting. Take that into account. There is no shade anywhere along these trails, other than a handful of small trees. You will be out in the sun the entire time and it will cook you if you are not prepared. We highly recommend watching the weather and hiking on cooler days or, if that’s not possible, getting on the trail first thing in the morning.

Bonnie signing in at the register for our backcountry hike.
We always make a point to sign in on long backcountry hikes. It’s a good safety precaution if things go bad on the hike.

What to Bring When Hiking in Badlands National Park

If there is one place to make sure you are bringing the 10 essentials, this is the place. We saw lots of folks out on the trails who were woefully unprepared. I can only hope they were only out on the trail for a very short period of time.

Read more about the 10 essentials for hiking and get our recommendations.

At the very least, you should have significant water with you. There is no water to be found out on the trails. And, no, a 20-oz bottle of water you got at the gas station will not do if you are hiking anything other than the short trails. We carried a full 3 liters of water each and drank most of it over the course of our hike on the Castle Trail. 

The Castle Trail winding through the grass with badlands in the distance.
Castle Trail

We also recommend wearing clothing designed to protect you from the sun, like a good hat and sunglasses. Bonnie is a lot fairer-complected than I am and took a sun shirt accordingly.

You'll take plenty of pictures when visiting Badlands National Park.
Bonnie taking a picture in the Badlands. Note she had put on her sun shirt.

On our first trip, we hiked in Vibram Five Fingers. While I would not dissuade anyone from hiking in those, I found that I banged my toes pretty often on the trail wearing those shoes. This time around, we both wore sturdy hiking shoes and were much more comfortable. 

Along those lines, be wary about walking off the trail into the grass. Not only are there plenty of cacti mixed in the grass, we found one area of taller grass had a couple of rattlesnakes. We didn’t see the snakes but we could hear them rattling from the rocky area where we were standing.  

Bonnie walking along the trail with a Beware Rattlesnakes sign to the right.
One thing you always have to watch (and listen!) for in Badlands National Park is rattlesnakes. They aren’t aggressive but will bite if you wander too close. That’s one reason to not wear headphones when you hike here… You can’t hear the buzz of their rattles.

Final Thoughts on Hiking in Badlands National Park

While it does take a little forethought to hike in Badlands National Park, the rewards are pretty spectacular. Getting out into the backcountry of the Badlands is like nothing you have ever experienced before. 

There are amazing views everywhere you look. We started to take pictures many times and groused each time we got out our cameras that the pictures just did not do the views justice. 

The Medicine Root Trail winding through the prairie. It's a perfect place to go hiking in Badlands National Park.
You just wont get views like this without getting out on the trails.

So, get out on those trails and enjoy! And be sure to check out Bonnie’s full guide to making the most of your visit to the Badlands.

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