South Dakota’s Badlands is a hostile but remarkable landscape and the easiest way to get among its extraordinary buttes and spires is by taking on the best hikes in Badlands National Park.
It’s important to manage your hiking expectations at Badlands. You will not find any adrenaline pumping trails here. Badlands’ easy going and family friendly hikes are scenic and interesting but will not leave your heart bursting through your chest!
If you’re an avid hiker and want to hit every single trail at Badlands, we would recommend allowing either 1 full day or 2 half days inside the park.
However, if you’re only looking for the most popular 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.
We’re going to walk you through all of the popular Badlands hiking trails from easy to strenuous and from short to long.
So, let’s get right into those trails!
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7 Best Hikes In Badlands National Park
Here’s a brief summary of the 7 popular trails at Badlands, which all begin right along the loop road.
Remember you can backcountry hike in this park, which means you can get off the beaten path with barely another soul in sight.
- Door Trail – Easy
- Window Trail – Very Easy
- Notch Trail – Moderate
- Cliff Shelf – Very Easy
- Fossil Exhibit – Very Easy
- Castle Trail – Moderate / Strenuous
- Medicine Root – Easy / Moderate
1. Door Trail
Door trail is the only hike that allows you to go behind the Badlands Wall and look back from a unique perspective. It is probably the best all-around inclusive hike in Badlands National Park.
The trail isn’t too long or too short, it has an interpretive element, it’s not difficult but it keeps you interested and it offers some of the top viewing in the park.
Door is our top pick for a nice easy hike and getting right among the extra-terrestrial Badlands landscape with strangely shaped buttes and spires.
Follow the boardwalk path at the parking lot and cut through a gap in the Wall to open up 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.
- Distance: 0.8 miles roundtrip
- Time: 30m – 1h
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 35 ft
- Best For: Hiking behind Badlands Wall
2. Window Trail
Window is more of a short walk than a hike but it is perfect for those with mobility issues or strollers.
Follow a boardwalk from the parking lot to a ‘window’ gap in the Badlands Wall, which opens up excellent views of the Wall and Door Trail area.
This trail offers the most bang for your buck in the park. It will take no longer than 15 minutes to walk up, soak up the awesome view and walk back to your car.
- Distance: 0.2 miles roundtrip
- Time: 10m – 15m
- Difficulty: Very easy
- Elevation Gain: 10 ft
- Best For: Accessibility friendly, mobility issues, bad weather
3. Notch Trail (Best Hike At Badlands)
Notch Trail is the most popular and our personal favorite hike in Badlands National Park.
Adventure seekers won’t have many exciting hiking opportunities in Badlands, but Notch Trail does at least provide one fun trail.
A short walk cutting inside a canyon leads to a 50 ft tall steel rope – wooden step ladder. The ladder rungs are tightly packed against the cliff at the bottom but do become more ‘bouncy’ toward the top section.
Leave enough space between climbers for safety as you enjoy the most unique element to this hike. The path 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.
- Distance: 1.3 miles roundtrip
- Time: 1h 30m – 2h
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 130 ft
- Best For: Adventure, ladder climb, great view
4. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is arguably the most underrated hike in Badlands National Park. It isn’t really a hike as it is entirely along boardwalks with steps, but it is unlike all other trails in the park.
On Cliff Shelf you will walk through a wooded forest area, be surrounded by the most snake dens and have a good chance of spotting deer and bighorn sheep.
At the end you will find cliffs, views and information boards. This is not an exciting trail but it is a scenic one.
- Distance: 0.5 miles roundtrip
- Time: 45m – 1h
- Difficulty: Very easy
- Elevation Gain: 65 ft
- Best For: Wildlife, views, wooded area
5. Fossil Exhibit Trail
Another of Badlands boardwalk only hikes is Fossil Exhibit Trail. This is short, accessible and perfect for younger kids to explore around for replica fossils.
There are a number of unique rock formations in this area and you can join a ranger led educational talk. Plenty of information boards along the trail explain the fascinating geology of Badlands National Park.
Fossil exhibit trail is not an exciting hike so be sure to manage your expectations here!
- Distance: 0.4 miles roundtrip
- Time: 30m – 45m
- Difficulty: Very easy
- Elevation Gain: 10 ft
- Best For: Education, ranger programs, accessibility friendly
6. Castle Trail
So after a series of not-so-exciting hikes, we come to the longest trail in Badlands National Park – Castle Trail.
Castle is an out-and-back 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.
On Castle Trail you will begin either in the same parking lot as Door, Window and Notch – or Fossil Exhibit Trail. They are the two ends of the out and back trail, and 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 which means care should be taken in both bad weather and extreme heat.
Plenty of water, robust footwear and layers are required in both scenarios.
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 Badlands trails, this is not the most adrenaline pumping hike you will do but it’s a great way to see a huge portion of the park with fewer tourists than the likes of Door and Notch.
- Distance: 10.5 miles roundtrip loop / out and back
- Time: 3h – 5h
- Difficulty: Moderate / Strenuous
- Elevation Gain: 300 ft
- Best For: Long hike, backcountry, wildlife, views, wildflowers
7. 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.
This trail offers hikers the chance to see wildflowers if visiting in Summer and has a higher chance seeing wildlife away from the loop road and fewer tourists.
The hike begins at Saddle Pass trailhead parking lot and quickly turns into a short but very steep path to scramble up. Views at the top of the pass are fantastic, it almost feels as though you are in the center of the park.
The 4 mile loop is easy going but not particularly exciting. It’s another great one to blow the cobwebs off without breaking into too much of a sweat.
- Distance: 4.5 miles roundtrip loop
- Time: 1h 30m – 2h 30m
- Difficulty: Easy / Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 330 ft
- Best For: Medium length hike, wildflowers, prairies, views
Map of Best Hikes in Badlands National Park
The map above shows locations of each trailhead for the 7 best hikes in Badlands National Park.
Each trail is conveniently located right along Badlands loop road, which adds to the ease and simplicity of hiking in South Dakota’s underrated national park.
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We hope this guide to the best hikes in Badlands National Park helps you plan your visit to rural South Dakota!
Have you been to Badlands? Which hike was your favorite?
Please let us know if you have any questions or need any help planning your visit.