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The 10 Hikes In Badlands National Park Explained

The 10 Hikes In Badlands National Park Explained

Badlands National Park has 8 official hiking trails and 2 wilderness hikes where you’re almost guaranteed isolation. The trails are mostly short, easy and flat so you can get through them quickly. Is it your first visit to Badlands? We recommend Door Trail and Notch Trail for the best views and most adventure.

In this guide we walk you through your 10 hiking trail options in Badlands National Park, based on our experiences.

Our Badlands Hiking Experience

Two people hiking a trail in Badlands National Park
Here we are at the end of Door Trail

We’ve hiked the trails in Badlands on two separate trips to South Dakota. First with beautiful weather in September 2019 and again with cold snowy weather in April 2021. We didn’t expect much from the hikes in Badlands (it’s not Zion or Mt Rainier after all!), but we were pleasantly surprised.

It’s not always about summiting a dramatic horizon-reaching vista or climbing an adrenaline pumping formation. What we like about hiking in Badlands is simplicity and inclusivity. In just half a day you can easily tick off the major trails, and you don’t have to be a super-fit veteran hiker either. Read more about us.

Further Reading: South Dakota road trip itinerary

Summary

Here are the 10 hiking trails you can enjoy in Badlands National Park (from east to west on the loop road):

  1. Door Trail – Easy
  2. Window Trail – Easy
  3. Notch Trail – Moderate
  4. Medicine Root Loop – Moderate
  5. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail – Easy
  6. Saddle Pass – Moderate to strenuous
  7. Fossil Exhibit Trail – Easy
  8. Castle Trail – Moderate
  9. Deer Haven – Moderate wilderness
  10. Sage Creek Loop – Strenuous wilderness

Badlands is one of the only US national parks that allows you to hike anywhere in the park. Almost all visitors will only hike the short and easy trails in the Cedar Pass area, with trailheads mostly beginning on Badlands Loop Road. But with more time and effort, you can go completely off the beaten path in Sage Creek Wilderness.

Further Reading: The best things to do in Badlands National Park

Badlands Trailheads Map

Click or touch the map below to activate. Zoom in and out, move around the map and see the trailhead locations for each hike listed in this guide.

Map key:

  • Red – Easy trails
  • Blue – Moderate trails
  • Purple – Hard trails

Now, let’s get into the trail descriptions. We’re ordering by trailhead location from east to west.

1. Door Trail

Woman walking through a section of sand formations
Kristen hiking along a section of the Door Trail
  • Distance: 0.75 miles round trip
  • Time: 1 hour
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 35 ft
  • Best For: Hiking behind Badlands Wall
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Door Trail is the only hike that takes you behind the Badlands Wall. The first part of the trail is an accessible quarter-mile boardwalk which leads through a gap in the Wall (hence the name Door Trail) and arrives at a viewing area with information boards. This viewing area provides a wide open panorama over jagged ravines and rugged rock formations, but it’s also the end of the maintained trail.

From here, you’ll hike across the extra-terrestrial landscape, following short yellow poles with numbers to guide your route until reaching an end of trail sign. We think Door Trail is the best hike in Badlands to really appreciate the strange buttes and spires up close, take photos and have a bit of fun with pathfinding. It’s a great one for energetic kids to enjoy, but be mindful of drop-offs.

 

2. Window Trail

Brown wooden trailhead sign
Trailhead for the Window Trail at Badlands
  • Distance: 0.25 miles round trip
  • Time: 10-15 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 10 ft
  • Best For: Easy views
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Window Trail follows a wooden boardwalk to a fantastic viewing area overlooking a scenic portion of the Badlands Wall. It’s more of a short walk than a hike, but it’s a perfect trail if you want great views without making too much effort. You can easily access the viewing area with a stroller or a wheelchair and there’s two benches to sit on if you want to relax.

We’d say Window Trail is probably the best bang for your buck hike in the park because it’ll take you no longer than 15 minutes and it leads to pretty awesome views. From experience, we can tell you that the worst time to try taking photos from the window is mid-morning because you’ll be directly facing the sun.

3. Notch Trail

Man walking up a wooden ladder during a hike in South Dakota
Mark climbing up the ladder on Notch Trail
  • Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
  • Time: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 130 ft
  • Best For: Adventure
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Notch Trail is the best and most popular hike in Badlands National Park. It’s our favorite because it’s the only trail with any real adventure elements but it’s also rated as the number one hike according to thousands of reviews on All Trails. The trail cuts through a scenic canyon, climbs a 50-foot tall ladder with steel rope and wooden rungs, skirts the edge of a cliff and ends at a great viewpoint with far reaching 180-degree views.

After hiking Notch Trail twice (and not seeing a single hiker either time), we included it in our guide to the 50 best hikes in the US. It’s by far the most exciting trail in the park, so Notch Trail is where you should begin if you’re craving an adrenaline rush. Take care on the wooden ladder, those steps get steeper and more springy close to the top!

Further Reading: How to hike Notch Trail

4. Medicine Root Loop Trail

A Juniper forest and the badlands Wall
Rare wooded area on the Medicine Root Trail
  • Distance: 4 miles round trip
  • Time: 1.5-2.5 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 330 ft
  • Best For: Prairies and wildflowers
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Medicine Root Trail is a 4-mile loop leading away from the popular Badlands Wall and into prairie, which has a radiant wildflower display in the summer months. Half the hike is on Medicine Root and the other half of the loop is back to the trailhead following Castle Trail (see #8).

You stand a better chance of seeing wildlife on Medicine Root because it has vegetation and it’s away from the more crowded areas around Notch and Door. We enjoyed hiking Medicine Root because of its photogenic mixed grass prairie contrasting against the rest of the Badlands landscape. It’s easy to access and it gives you a bit of a lost world feel despite being so close to the main road.

5. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

A section of the boardwalk and unique sand formations in South Dakota
The boardwalk along Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
  • Distance: 0.5 miles round trip
  • Time: 20-30 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 200 ft
  • Best For: Wildlife
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is arguably the most underrated Badlands hike. Well, it’s not really a hike because it’s entirely on boardwalks with around 100 steps, but Cliff Shelf is a unique walk through wooded juniper forest with educational boards. You also stand a good chance at seeing wildlife like bighorn sheep or spotting deer near a small pond that sometimes forms along the route.

The boardwalk and steps lead to a fantastic viewpoint overlooking White River Valley. It’s almost exactly the same view as what you’ll get from the end of Notch Trail but from a lower elevation, so Cliff Shelf is the perfect backup option if you don’t feel up to the adventure elements on Notch.

6. Saddle Pass

Hiker walking to the Saddle Pass trailhead in Badlands
Kristen at the beginning of Saddle Pass Trail
  • Distance: 0.25 miles round trip
  • Time: 30 mins
  • Difficulty: Moderate to streneous
  • Elevation Gain: 300 ft
  • Best For: Leg-burner
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Saddle Pass Trail is an amazing hike if you’re feeling ready for a major calf-burner. It’s essentially a really short but steep hill cutting directly up Badlands rock formations and ending at a superb viewpoint overlooking White River Valley. From the summit it feels like you’re standing bang smack in the center of the park.

The Saddle Pass hike ends at the point it joins with Castle and Medicine Root, but it also serves as start or end point for hiking Medicine Root loop and Castle Trail. We actually found the climb up Saddle Pass to be one of our favorite experiences during our first visit to Badlands. It was cold out, but that didn’t last long once we got on the steep trail!

7. Fossil Exhibit Trail

Ranger leading a program along the Fossil Nature Trail at Badlands
Visitors enjoying a ranger led program on the Fossil Exhibit Trail
  • Distance: 0.25 miles round trip
  • Time: 20 mins
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Elevation Gain: 10 ft
  • Best For: Education
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Fossil Exhibit Trail is another boardwalk only hike in Badlands. It’s a short, self-guided and fully accessible trail perfect if you’re traveling with younger kids or less mobile family members to learn about the park through educational boards. You can read about the fascinating geology and animals that once roamed the area through exhibits and replica fossils.

We recommend joining a ranger-led talk at Fossil Exhibit because you’ll learn a lot more than by simply reading the information boards. It begins at 10:30am daily. Check the ranger program for more information. It didn’t take us long to explore this area the first time we visited Badlands and we didn’t stop on our second visit but it’s worth seeing once.

Further Reading: What is a National Parks Passport?

8. Castle Trail

Wooden stairway leading down to a hiking trail
Wooden steps leading down to Castle Trail
  • Distance: 10 miles round trip
  • Time: 3-4 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 340 ft
  • Best For: Longer hike
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Castle Trail is Badlands National Park’s longest maintained hiking trail at 10 miles round trip. It’s an out-and-back hike stretching between Fossil Exhibit and Notch Trail, with a small loop in the middle (Medicine Root). You’ll walk through wide open plains with wildflowers, pass by buttes, spires and colorful formations, and more than likely see bighorn sheep, deer or even snakes.

The trail isn’t the most well marked we’ve ever seen. You can follow dark red trail markers, but they’re often not easy to see or faded, so keep your eyes peeled. Alternatively, use one of the best hiking apps so you can track your hike with an offline map. We use Gaia GPS but others prefer All Trails. Lastly, Castle Trail is completely open and exposed so you must carry plenty of water in summer.

Further Reading: Day hike packing essentials

9. Deer Haven Trail

Road weaving through Badlands National Park
A section of road in Badlands National Park
  • Distance: 6 miles round trip
  • Time: 3 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation Gain: 150 ft
  • Best For: Short wilderness
  • Recent Comments: N/A

Deer Haven Trail is an unmarked off-trail hike that breezes through the flat and wide open Badlands backcountry for 3 miles until reaching an alcove of trees. This forested area is regarded as the best place in the park to see deer. The hike begins and ends at Conata Picnic Area, which isn’t far from Yellow Mounds Overlook.

If you want to avoid the crowds and get into the Badlands backcountry without having to carry camping gear, this could be the perfect hike for you. Just remember, the trail isn’t marked so you have to use a compass, map or gps navigation tool. We haven’t actually hiked this trail ourselves, but we definitely will the next time we’re in the Black Hills.

10. Sage Creek Loop Trail

A campground in South Dakota with cars and picnic tables
Our Campsite at Sage Creek Campground
  • Distance: 21 miles round trip
  • Time: 8-12 hours
  • Difficulty: Very strenuous
  • Elevation Gain: 1,000 ft
  • Best For: Long wilderness
  • Recent Comments: All Trails

Sage Creek Loop Trail is a serious challenge and it should only be attempted by strong, experienced and well prepared hikers. It follows Deer Haven Trail for a portion, then transitions into completely unmarked terrain with lots of wildlife and overgrown vegetation. The water is also un-filterable, so you must carry enough water to sustain your hike.

We haven’t hiked Sage Creek Loop, but from what we can see it’s not the distance and elevation causing issues, it’s the fact the trail is almost entirely unmarked so you end up totally reliant upon a gps navigation tool. On the other hand, we have slept in a tent at Sage Creek campground and the coyotes were howling all night. So, we wouldn’t be too quick to sleep out in the backcountry!

Badlands Hiking Tips

Hiker standing on unique rock formations in South Dakota
Mark enjoying his time in Badlands National Park
  • Check current conditions on the official NPS website prior to hitting the trails. You’ll find important updates on weather and 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 unique landscape for future generations to enjoy.
  • Wear sturdy hiking boots to protect your feet from snake bites and cacti.
  • Stay at least 100 ft from any wildlife you come across. Please do not attempt to take a selfie with animals because it can be harmful to both you and them. Always respect the wildlife!

Further Reading: What you should take on a day hike

The Morgan Conclusion

Woman sitting on a rock looking at formations and grass prairies
Kristen taking in the panoramic views from Notch Trail summit

Badlands has many short, easy and flat hikes for visitors to enjoy. Notch, Door and Window Trails are all located in the same area, and they’re the three best hikes in Badlands National Park for first time visitors. To get off the beaten path, try hiking Castle, Medicine Root or even Deer Haven.

Our favorite hikes in Badlands are Notch Trail and Door Trail. Notch has the most fun elements with a ladder climb and Door is the only trail going behind the Badlands Wall, so it’s great for photos.

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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 Badlands hiking guide helps with planning your visit to South Dakota!

Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

Happy Hiking,

Mark and Kristen

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