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10 Best Hikes In Badlands National Park: 2023 Hiking Guide

10 Best Hikes In Badlands National Park: 2023 Hiking Guide

South Dakota’s Badlands is a hostile yet remarkable landscape. The easiest way to get among its extraordinary buttes or spires is by taking on the best hikes in Badlands National Park.

However, it’s important to manage your hiking expectations. Badlands’ easy going and family friendly hikes are extremely interesting but they will not leave your heart bursting through your chest on adrenaline pumping trails.

If you’re an avid hiker and want to hit every single trail at Badlands, we recommend allowing either 1 full day or 2 half days inside the park. 

But if you’re only looking for the most popular Badlands trails to soak up the very best scenery, you can easily get through the best hikes in Badlands National Park in just a few hours.

So let’s find the best day hikes in Badlands National Park!

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Our Badlands National Park Experience

Two people hiking a trail in Badlands National Park
Mark and Kristen at the end of Door Trail in Badlands National Park

We first visited Badlands in September 2019 as part of a three month US road trip. But we loved the park so much, we visited again in April 2021 when we moved from New York City to Seattle.

Visiting Badlands in both the spring and fall season, gave us a great perspective about the best time to visit and what you can expect during different seasons.

Unfortunately, we experienced snow and grey skies during our April visit, but this only added to the intrigue of the national park, especially if you are planning to hike many of the trails.

In this South Dakota guide, we are going to walk you through all of the popular Badlands hiking trails including easy, moderate and strenuous hikes.

On a South Dakota road trip? You might like to read our epic South Dakota road trip itinerary.

10 Best Hikes In Badlands National Park

After hiking in Badlands on two separate occasions, we think it is one of the best USA national parks to visit for anyone looking to relax and soak up unique views but without the crowds.

We like hiking in the Badlands because you can find very short easy hikes as well as longer strenuous hikes if you are looking to challenge yourself when visiting the park.

Visitors can follow an open hike policy in Badlands because you are allowed to hike off-trail, which is not always the case in US National Parks.

There are 8 official hiking trails in Badlands National Park:

  1. Door Trail – Easy
  2. Window Trail – Easy
  3. Notch Trail – Moderate
  4. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail – Easy
  5. Fossil Exhibit Trail – Easy
  6. Castle Trail – Moderate
  7. Medicine Root Loop – Moderate
  8. Saddle Pass – Moderate to strenuous

Backcountry hiking is also permitted in Badlands, so you can truly get off the beaten path with barely another soul in sight when exploring both Deer Haven and the Sage Creek Winderness.

However, most visitors will stick to the easy access trails which all begin on the Badlands Loop Road.

This Badlands National Park hiking guide only includes hiking trails so if you want to see additional activities in the area, read our popular guide featuring the 32 best things to do in Badlands next.

Now, let’s find the best hikes in Badlands, South Dakota.

1. Door Trail – An Easy Badlands Hike

Woman walking through a section of sand formations
Kristen hiking along a section of the Door Trail

This is the only hike that allows you to go behind the Badlands Wall and look back from a unique perspective. Door Trail is probably the best all-around inclusive hike in Badlands National Park.

  • Distance: 0.75 miles round trip
  • Time: 30m – 1hr
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 35 ft
  • Best For: Hiking behind Badlands Wall
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

This trail is not very long and it has an interpretive element. So while this hike is not difficult, the trail keeps you interested and offers some of the best Badlands formation viewing opportunities in the park.

Door is our top pick for a nice easy hike. This is a great choice if you want to get right among the extra-terrestrial Badlands landscape with strangely shaped buttes and spires.

Follow the 0.25 mile boardwalk path from the parking lot and cut through a gap in the Wall. This will bring you to an expansive panorama of jagged ravines and unique rock formations.

Short yellow poles with numbers mark a rough guided path, which you can loosely stick to until you reach the ‘end of trail‘ sign.

Hiking Tip: After the boardwalk section, the maintained trail ends. Watch for large holes and drop offs as you continue along Door Trail.

2. Window Trail – A Short Hike With A View

Brown wooden trailhead sign
Trailhead for the Window Trail at Badlands

Window Trail at Badlands is more of a short walk than a hike, but this trail is perfect for those with mobility issues or families with strollers.

  • Distance: 0.25 miles round trip
  • Time: 10 – 15 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 10 ft
  • Best For: Accessibility friendly, mobility issues, inclement weather
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

If you chose to hike Window, you will follow a boardwalk from the parking lot to a window gap in the eroded Badlands Wall, which opens up excellent views of the Wall and Door Trail area.

We think Window Trail offers the most bang for your buck in the park because it will take no longer than 15 minutes to walk up, soak up the awesome view and walk back to your car.

3. Notch Trail – The Best Hike At Badlands

Man walking up a wooden ladder during a hike in South Dakota
Mark hiking up the ladder section on Notch Trail

Notch Trail is the most popular hike in Badlands National Park. This trail is unique and we have included Notch Trail in our popular guide to the 50 best hikes in the US.

  • Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
  • Time: 1 – 2 hrs
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 130 ft
  • Best For: Adventure, ladder climb, great view
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

Adventure seekers won’t have many exciting hiking opportunities in Badlands, but Notch Trail does provide on exhilarating hike for those who love to explore.

A short walk cutting inside a canyon leads to a 50 ft tall steel rope wooden step ladder, which is the highlight of the Notch Trail.

The ladder rungs are tightly packed against the cliff at the bottom but hikers should be careful because these rungs become more bouncy toward the top section.

Be sure to leave enough space between climbers as you enjoy the most unique element to this hike. The trail then curves around a steep ledge before opening up as you walk on top of the Badlands Wall.

A right turn leads you to the Notch Trail crescendo, a stunning 180 degree panorama with views stretching as far as the horizon.

Want to know more about the this trail? Read our complete guide to the Notch Trail for everything you need to know.

4. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail – A Fun Boardwalk Experience

A section of the boardwalk and unique sand formations in South Dakota
The boardwalk along Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is arguably the most underrated hike in Badlands National Park. This isn’t really a hike as it is entirely along boardwalks with steps, but it is unlike all other trails in the park.

  • Distance: 0.5 miles round trip
  • Time: 30 – 45 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 65 ft
  • Best For: Wildlife, views, wooded area
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

On the Cliff Shelf Trail, you will walk along a boardwalk through a wooded juniper forest area along a section of the Badlands Wall.

You might have a good chance of spotting deer or bighorn sheep because sometimes you will find a small pond on this hike which occasionally attracts wildlife.

At the end of the trail, hikers are rewarded with cliffs, views and information boards. This is not an exciting Badlands trail but it sure is a scenic one.

5. Fossil Exhibit Trail – Best Badlands Hike For Kids

Ranger leading a program along the Fossil Nature Trail at Badlands
Visitors enjoying a ranger led program on the Fossil Exhibit Trail

Another of Badlands boardwalk only hikes is Fossil Exhibit Trail. This is short self-guided, fully accessible trail perfect for younger kids to explore around for replica fossils.

  • Distance: 0.25 miles round trip
  • Time: 20 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 10 ft
  • Best For: Education, ranger programs, accessibility friendly
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

Numerous interactive boards along the Fossil Exhibit Trail explain the fascinating geology of Badlands National Park. This is a great place for kids to learn about animals that once roamed this area.

There are a number of unique rock formations and hikers can even join a ranger led educational talk along this trail. Be sure to enquire about the ranger led programs at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Love learning about the US National Parks? You might want a National Parks Passport to document your adventures.

6. Castle Trail – The Longest Trail In Badlands

Wooden stairway leading down to a hiking trail
Wooden stairway to the Castle Trailhead

Castle Trail is the longest hike in Badlands National Park. This is an out-and-back trail with a loop in the middle, so you will walk around one half of the loop on the way out and the other half of the loop on the way back.

  • Distance: 10.0 miles round trip
  • Time: 3 – 4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 340 ft
  • Best For: Backcountry, longer hike, wildlife, views, wildflowers
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

On Castle Trail, you will begin either in the same parking lot as Door, Window and Notch or Fossil Exhibit Trail. These are the two ends of the out and back trail. The central loop is known as Medicine Root Trail which we will cover next.

At over 10 miles roundtrip, Castle is by far the longest maintained hike you can take on inside Badlands. It is a very open and exposed trail. So you need to be cautious in both bad weather and extreme heat.

Plenty of water, robust footwear and layers are required in both scenarios. Read our guide featuring the most important things to bring on a day hike for more in depth information about packing for longer trails.

Castle Trail combines Badlands famous rock formations with open prairie over mostly flat ground. Use red marker poles to guide the way if in doubt of the trail markings.

As with most hiking trails in Badlands, this is not an adrenaline pumping hike like the Narrows in Zion but it’s a great way to see a huge portion of the park with fewer tourists than the likes of Door and Notch.

You might want to track your hike with an offline map using one of the best hiking apps so you can see where you are at all times along the hike.

7. Medicine Root Trail – A Grassy Hike In Badlands

A Juniper forest and the badlands Wall
Forested section on the Medicine Root Trail

As mentioned above, Medicine Root Trail is the loop section within the Castle Trail which takes hikers onto Badlands prairies away from the popular Wall section.

  • Distance: 4.0 miles round trip
  • Time: 1hr 30 mins – 2 hrs 30 mins
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 330 ft
  • Best For: Medium length hike, prairies, wildflowers, views
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

The Medicine Root Trail offers hikers the chance to see wildflowers if visiting in summer. This trail also has a higher chance of seeing wildlife because it’s away from the loop road with fewer tourists.

Medicine Root Trail connects with Castle Trail near the Old Northeast Road at the intersection of both the Castle and Saddle Pass Trails.

We like this trail because you can see the mixed grass prairies while observing the unique Badlands formations in the distance. This hike is very different to the other Badlands hikes we have previously listed.

Hiking Tip: Bring bug spray if hiking in summer because Medicine Root Trail can be very buggy.

8. Saddle Pass – A Short Strenuous Climb

Hiker walking to the Saddle Pass trailhead in Badlands
Kristen hiking to the beginning of Saddle Pass Trail

To experience the short climb up the Badlands Wall, hikers should begin at the Saddle Pass trailhead parking lot. This trail quickly turns into a short but very steep path to scramble up.

  • Distance: 0.25 miles round trip
  • Time: 30 mins
  • Difficulty: Moderate to streneous
  • Elevation Gain: 300 ft
  • Best For: Short climb, wildflowers, views
  • Recent Comments: AllTrails

Views overlooking the White River Valley at the top of the pass are fantastic. It almost feels as though you are in the center of the park.

Saddle Pass trails ends almost abruptly as it starts when it connects with Castle and Medicine Root Loop Trails at the top of the pass.

9. Deer Haven Trailhead – A Backcountry Adventure

Road weaving through Badlands National Park
A section of road in Badlands National Park

The Deer Haven Trail is an unmaintained hike that traverses an extreme landscape through the Badlands Backcountry known as the Deer Haven Wilderness.

You will find the trailhead for Deer Haven at the Conata Picnic Area. After hiking for about 3 miles, you will reach a small alcove of trees. As you can imagine, this small alcove is a great place to find wildlife.

If you want to avoid the crowds, the Deer haven Wilderness is one of the best trails to hike in the Badlands. This network of trails will lead you past stunning rock formations and striped Badlands walls.

Hiking Tip: Badlands has an open hike policy so you will be able to use the lesser marked trails without following a specific path if you wanted a different experience in Badlands.

10. Sage Creek Wilderness – Best Chance For Solitude

A campground in South Dakota with cars and picnic tables
Our Campsite at Sage Creek Campground

If you like the idea of hiking the Deer Haven Trail, you should also consider hiking through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area which can be accessed by two main sections depending on your Badlands itinerary.

The Sage Creek Wilderness does not have any maintained trails and hikers are able to explore the trails in their own.

One of the most popular places to access the Sage Creek Wilderness is to drive down Sage Creek Rim Road and begin your hike at Sage Creek Campground. This is what we did during our visit.

But if you do not want to drive down Sage Creek Rim Road, you can begin at Sage Creek Basin Overlook. You can follow this 4.1 mile Sage Creek Wilderness Loop from AllTrails if you want a guided hike instead.

Hiking Tip: Be sure to add your name and vehicle information into the Backcountry Register prior to hiking into the Sage Creek Wilderness.

Best Hikes In Badlands National Park Interactive Map

The interactive map above shows trailhead locations for each of the 10 best hikes in Badlands National Park. You can also access our Badlands hiking map via this link here.

Most trails are conveniently located right along Badlands Loop Road, which further adds to the ease and simplicity of hiking in South Dakota’s underrated national park.

South Dakota’s Black Hills are one of the best places to visit in the USA and a hiking trip to Badlands is one of the highlights. We hope you enjoy your time in this unique and unusual landscape!

Hiker standing on unique rock formations in South Dakota
Mark enjoying his time in Badlands National Park

Tips For Hiking In The Badlands

While many of the best trails to hike in Badlands are relatively short, we have a few hiking tips to help keep you safe on the trails.

  • Check current conditions on the official NPS website prior to hitting the trails. This is where you will find important updates on weather or road closures.
  • Don’t forget sun protection such as hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. You may also need warm layers if rain or snow is forecasted. Keep in mind the weather can change quickly in Badlands.
  • Be sure to carry at least 2 quarts of water as recommended by the NPS.
  • Leave all fossils, plants, artifacts and rocks as you find them. It’s important we preserve this stunning landscape for future generations to come.
  • Wear a sturdy hiking boot to protect your feet from snake bites and cactuses.
  • Stay at least 100 ft from any wildlife you come across in Badlands. Please do not attempt to take a selfie with wildlife because this can be harmful to both you and them. Always respect wildlife!

Need to pack for hiking in Badlands? Read our popular day hiking essentials guide.

Woman sitting on a rock looking at formations and grass prairies
Kristen taking in the panoramic views from a badlands hiking trail

Conclusion For Best Hikes To Do In The Badlands

Now that you have a better idea about the trails you can explore in Badlands National Park, here are few of our recommendations if you only have few hours to visit the park.

The best hikes for first time visitors in Badlands are the Notch, Door and Window Trails. These three trails are located close together and offer amazing viewing opportunities of the Badlands formations.

If you want to avoid the crowds, you should hike Deer Haven Trail or through the Sage Creek Wilderness. Less crowds means you have a higher probability of spotting wildlife.

The best hikes for kids in the Badlands are the Window, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and Fossil Exhibit Trail. Don’t miss the ranger led programs along the Fossil Trail so kids can learn about animals of the Badlands.

Badlands Hiking FAQ’s

Let’s take a look at the some of the most frequently asked questions about best family hikes in the Badlands.

What are the best hikes to do in badlands?

The Notch Trail is the most popular trail in Badlands National Park. But the Window and Fossil Exhibit Trail are the best hikes for kids because they are easy and short.

Are there any strenuous hiking trails at Badlands?

Hikers looking for a challenge should hike the Castle Trail because it’s a longer trail that can be hiked in multiple ways through sections of the Badlands Backcountry.

Are there any dangers to consider when hiking in the Badlands?

Hiker should keep an eye out for rattlesnakes when hiking Badlands trails. Wear study boots and be cautious of holes when hiking in this national park.

Can you hike with dogs at Badlands?

Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails or backcountry areas in Badlands National Park. But you can bring dogs to the campgrounds and picnic areas. Dogs must also be kept on a 6ft leash.

Our South Dakota Travel Guides
More Hiking Guides

Want more South Dakota content? Head over to our South Dakota Travel Guides to explore Mount Rushmore, Badlands, the Black Hills and beyond. 

We hope our guide to the best hikes in Badlands National Park helps with planning your visit to rural South Dakota!

Please let us know if you have any questions about Badlands National Park hiking trails or South Dakota in the comments below.

Happy Hiking,

Mark and Kristen

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