Lace up your hiking boots and explore Badlands National Park on foot to get an up-close view of the layered geologic formations that have allured stratigraphy geologists and tourists to southwest South Dakota since the park was established in 1978. Hike through mixed-grass prairies, enjoy grand sunset views from plateaus, marvel at eroding pinnacles that stretch as far as the eye can see, and try to spot the elusive Black-footed Ferret or a herd of bighorn sheep.
This national park has an Open Hike Policy, which means that you’re permitted to hike off-trail to explore the social trails—paths naturally created by the landscape and animals.
Pop in the visitor center to talk with a park ranger about the best trail to hike on the day of your visit, taking into account wildlife sightings or any hazards. Be sure to get a paper trail map. Keep in mind that cell phone service may be unavailable in certain sections of the park. And, of course, bring plenty of water with you and be prepared with proper sun protection before heading out on a trail.
The following hikes, which vary in length and difficulty, are your entryways to the beuaty of this park. You’ll find that it’s quite easy to explore multiple trails in one day, giving you a full perspective of the park’s diverse landscapes.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Safe and easy, this trail is fun for the whole family as it stretches a quarter mile roundtrip over a boardwalk with exhibits along the way positioned at wheelchair height. You can learn about the now extinct creatures that once lived in the area by seeing fossil replicas. The informative exhibits, outfitted with braille, are meant to be touched.
Kids can become Junior Rangers, using this trail as an educational entry point. Pick up an activity book at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, complete the activities inside, take the Junior Ranger Pledge, and then receive a coveted badge.
This is a great trail for multi-generational families as it’s short and easy at a quarter mile in length, roundtrip. You’ll see sections of the Badlands Wall that will take your breath away. This trail is fully maintained, with a boardwalk and railings, so it’s ideal for little kids or for wheelchairs. Read the historical and informational exhibits along the way to enrich your experience.
Walk for a quarter mile, roundtrip, on this challenging trail. It’s short, yet steep to the Badlands Wall. You’ll revel in the White River Valley views as you wind around to where the trail ends at the connection with Castle and Medicine Root Loop Trails. The social trails are fun to explore, so feel free to go off the designated path and touch the sandstone.
Backpackers will love this trail as a gateway to the backcountry, where you can camp and enjoy the night sky all to yourself. You’ll need to venture off on a social trail and make camp at least a half mile from the trail or road. Always carry enough water as there won’t be any available for your overnight adventure. September and early October are the best months to backpack as the weather isn’t favorable in other months.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
The first portion of this half-mile roundtrip loop trail has a boardwalk and is well maintained. You can expect this hike to be a bit more vigorous than the other shorter trails, yet the payoff includes the sights and smells of a vibrant green juniper forest oasis, the Badlands Wall, and a pond that when full draws deer and bighorn sheep as well as other little wild creatures. You’ll ascend 200 feet in elevation, and you’ll need to stay on the trail for safety reasons, but you’ll find that it’s well worth the effort.
For an easy well-marked trail that is great for kids or for those with disabilities, hike the Door Trail. The first quarter mile of the trail is a boardwalk, ideal for wheelchairs and families. You’ll walk until you see “The Door”, an opening in the Badlands Wall where you can see an incredible view of the park’s soft sandstone formations.
After the first section, the maintained boardwalk ends, and the trail continues—you’ll notice yellow post signs marking the primitive portion of the trail. As with all of the trails in the park, exert caution as there are drop offs, possible wildlife encounters, and full sun exposure.
Hiking 1.5 miles, roundtrip, on the Notch Trail will give you the opportunity to see spectacular views of the White River Valley. This path is considered moderate to strenuous, which means that a relatively high fitness level is required to enjoy the hike. Also, those afraid of heights may want to reconsider this route as portions of the trail follow a ledge to “the Notch.” Be aware of inclement weather and don’t attempt the hike during or after heavy rain.
Start your adventure at the south end of the Door and Window parking lot. Wear sturdy boots on this trail, the park’s most popular, and watch out for drop-offs and rattlesnakes.
Medicine Root Loop Trail
This 4-mile roundtrip hike is a fantastic option for those who want a moderate challenge that traverses grand mixed-prairie landscapes. You’ll see the badlands from a different perspective on this hike as you’ll be immersed in grassland. Medicine Root merges with Castle Trail near the Old Northeast Road and at the junction of Castle and Saddle Pass trails. Watch for spiky desert plants and cacti and bring sun protection as most of the trail is fully exposed.
The longest trail in the park is Castle Trail, which begins at the Door and Window parking area and continues for 5 miles in one direction to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This is a great option for those who want to spend a lot of time outside, exploring the diverse landscapes and soft cream-colored sandstone formations. While not strenuous, this trail is long, so be sure to bring enough water for the outing and have proper sun protection. Backcountry camping kiosks are available. Keep your peepers wide open for wildlife—bighorn sheep can be spotted on the rocky tops off in the distance.
If you have your pet along for the ride, pay your park admittance fee at the gate or stop in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at Cedar Pass. Just north of Cedar Pass is where you’ll find Old Northeast Road, where parking is available for trail users. You and your pet can explore on paved or gravel park roads, including backcountry dirt roads, as long as your dog is leashed. Keep in mind, however, that the backroads are mostly two-lane, gravel roads and are bit difficult to traverse for people with mobility challenges or wheelchairs. Dogs are not allowed on the hiking trails and undeveloped areas of the park.
Be aware of rabbits, snakes, and other wildlife that you may encounter, and be sure to have enough water on hand for you and your pet. Summer isn’t an advisable time for wandering with your pet in tow as the weather during the day is often favorable to rattlesnakes, which pose a threat to dogs.