11 Awesome South Dakota Badlands Hikes
One of South Dakota’s Great 8, Badlands National Park is paradise on Earth for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. A rugged, beautiful-in-its-own-way paradise, yes, but paradise nonetheless.
The park is full of the colorful namesake badlands formations, vast prairies, and tons of unique wildlife — bison and bighorn sheep, in particular. To best explore this otherworldly landscape, embark on a few Badlands hikes.
Unique among most other national parks, trails here are mostly short and sweet, allowing visitors to tackle more than one, even with just a single day in the park. In fact, some of the best hikes in Badlands National Park are under one mile!
Also unique to Badlands hikes is that they’re incredibly accessible, with many of them including at least a portion of boardwalk. This means there are trails in the Badlands suitable for literally everyone, regardless of hiking experience, skill, or ability.
From the most popular to little-known, these 11 hikes in Badlands National Park will make your time here even more memorable.
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Badlands National Park Open Hike Policy
A far cry from ultra-popular national parks that require permits to access certain hiking trails (looking at you, Angels Landing in Zion), Badlands has a unique “Open Hike Policy.” Visitors are allowed to hike anywhere in the park, on the trail or off.
Of course, there are still some rules and precautions to be aware of. According to the National Park Service, visitors are free to explore any “part of the park you can visit safely.”
Many of these areas don’t have developed trails at all, so you’ll need to rely heavily on basic survival skills and instincts — as a general rule, if something doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t.
Keep in mind that the Badlands is home to some of the most unforgiving terrain in the country. There is very literally no shade almost anywhere in the park and you’ll be lucky to get a single bar of cell service. Pack plenty of extra water and snacks (even more than you think you’ll need)!
Especially in the Badlands’ wilderness areas, there often won’t be an established trail to follow. And even where there is a trail, it’s really easy to lose in an instant. Use a GPS watch or tracker if you have one, and if you’re exploring solo, use the buddy system to tell someone your plans and whereabouts.
You’re also highly likely to encounter wildlife when you get away from heavily trafficked trails. NPS warns visitors to give plenty of distance if you do encounter wildlife. The rule of thumb is that if an animal notices you noticing them, you’re too close.
11 Best Badlands Hikes
While hikes in Badlands National Park won’t kick your booty quite like those in, say, the Montana mountains, they hold their own very distinct allure.
Here are 11 of the best Badlands hikes, ranging from boardwalk trails just a fraction of a mile long to rugged backcountry treks very literally well off the beaten path.
Popular Hikes in Badlands National Park
Distance: 0.25 miles
Elevation gain: None
Highlights: The natural “window,” with one of the best and most iconic views in the park
While it’s arguably one of the most popular Badlands hikes, the Window Trail is really more of a short, leisurely stroll with an impressive bang for your buck at the end. It’s perfect for wheelchairs, strollers, and anyone with limited mobility.
Follow the boardwalk path from the parking lot to the obvious (and natural!) “window” gap in the rock formation, which affords spectacular views of the famed Badlands “Wall.” From here, you’ll also be looking out onto a section of the Door Trail, another favorite among Badlands hikes.
Note: several other popular hikes in Badlands National Park start from this same trailhead: Door, Notch, and Fossil Exhibit, in addition to the Window Trail.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Distance: 0.4 miles
Elevation gain: 9 feet
Highlights: Replica fossils and a fully-accessible boardwalk path
Admittedly not one of the most thrilling Badlands hikes, Fossil Exhibit Trail features a fully-accessible boardwalk. Replica fossils and educational exhibits line the trail, offering a great opportunity for little ones to learn and explore 75 million years of history.
If timing lines up, consider joining a ranger-led discussion to hear more about the park’s fascinating history and geology.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Distance: 0.5-mile loop
Elevation gain: 200 feet
Highlights: A stair climb in shade with excellent views along the Wall right up to the Notch.
Despite being just a half-mile long, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is easily one of the most underrated Badlands hikes. The “hike” actually follows a series of boardwalks and stairs, climbing a substantial 200 feet in elevation in this short distance.
The trail takes hikers through a unique Juniper forest on the Wall, providing a decent amount of shade — a rarity for hikes in Badlands National Park. After rain, there’s also sometimes a small pool of water along the trail, which attracts bighorns and deer.
While Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is short and doesn’t have a true summit, it’s incredibly scenic and unique, plus you have a great chance of spotting wildlife.
Saddle Pass Trail
Distance: 0.7 miles
Elevation gain: 300 feet
Highlights: A steep climb over the Wall directly through colorful Badlands formations
Although it’s short, Saddle Pass Trail is also one of the more exciting Badlands hikes. You’ll climb up and over the Wall to reach a sweeping view of the White River Valley. This is a popular spot for bighorn sheep to graze, so keep your eyes peeled!
Saddle Pass’ steepness and colorful Badlands formations are what makes it so challenging. The trail is covered in loose (i.e., slick!) gravel, which is tricky wet or dry. I highly recommend bringing trekking poles on Saddle Pass for added stability!
At the summit, two junctions connect to Medicine Root Loop and the Castle Trail (both fantastic Badlands hikes listed later on this list). Take either of these hikes in Badlands National Park to extend your trail time or simply return on Saddle Pass the way you came in.
Distance: 0.9 miles
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation gain: 22 feet
Highlights: Some of the best views of the badlands through the Wall, packing a big punch in a short distance
Like many other hikes in Badlands National Park, the Door Trail is not very well-defined in places and can be somewhat hard to follow. This one is so tricky that there’s actually an “end of trail” sign and numbered yellow poles to help you find your way. All part of the fun of hiking in the Badlands!
Also like other Badlands trails, the Door Trail is more of a short walk than a hike. However, this trail offers the unique opportunity to hike right in between the park’s unique, rugged spires and craggy pinnacles — without working up much of a sweat.
After the initial boardwalk path ends, the trail becomes a bit rough and uneven, but nothing at all technical. Go through the “door,” a fairly obvious gap in the Badlands Wall, where the trail opens up to a sweeping panorama of the badlands.
If you look back toward where you just came from, you’ll be looking right through the Wall. This is the only Badlands hike where you can do that!
Remember, the Door Trail shares a parking lot and trailhead with the Notch and Window Trails, and they’re each short enough to combine and hike all three.
Distance: 1.5 miles
Elevation gain: 180 feet
Highlights: Climbing a rustic wooden ladder and briefly walking along an exposed ridgeline
By far one of the best hikes in the Badlands (and certainly one of the most unique!), this is actually our personal favorite trail in the park.
One-third of a mile in, you’ll come to the iconic wooden step ladder. It has about 50 steps and is bolted securely right into the canyon wall, so while some scrambling is required, it’s perfectly safe — and a ton of fun!
At the top of the ladder, take a sharp left. You’re now hiking on top of the Badlands Wall, a narrow ridgeline that’s exposed on one side. There’s nothing technical here, but anyone afraid of heights may find this section challenging. You can always walk closer to the wall for more security.
You’ll know when you’ve reached the “Notch” at the end because the trail suddenly drops off and you’ll see an obvious, well, notch in the canyon walls.
From this viewpoint, it’s easy to see why this is one of the best hikes in the Badlands. The sweeping 180-degree panoramic view stretches as far as the eye can see, showing off badlands formations, prairie and grasslands, and even the park visitor center and campgrounds.
Medicine Root Loop
Distance: 4.5-mile loop
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Elevation gain: 337 feet
Highlights: Wildflowers during the summer months and minimal crowds
Medicine Root Loop connects Castle Trail and Saddle Pass Trail near Old Northeast Road. Instead of heading to the popular “Wall” area, though, Medicine Root routes hikers through mixed-grass prairie and offers sweeping views of badlands formations – well away from any crowds.
While this may seem less than exciting, the positive is that you have a substantially higher chance of encountering wildlife. Keep your eyes open and don’t forget to look down!
Start from the Saddle Pass Trailhead parking lot and take the short-but-steep path straight up. At the top, take in the views of the badlands that seem to stretch on for miles (they do). Although you’re only a mile or so from the parking lot here, it feels like you’re far removed from civilization.
Distance: 5 miles point-to-point
Elevation gain: 340 feet
Highlights: One of the longest Badlands hikes, with a variety of terrain and multiple approaches
The Castle Trail is the closest thing to a backcountry hike in Badlands National Park, and it’s also the longest (longest maintained trail, anyway). It’s almost entirely flat, though, so even as a 10-mile out-and-back hike, it’s not particularly challenging.
While the two main trailheads are at Fossil Exhibit Trail and the parking lot shared by the Door, Notch, and Window trails, Castle Trail has multiple access points. It’s also uniquely shaped with Medicine Root Loop in the center, so there are several ways to hike the trail.
- Point-to-point: If you have a second vehicle or someone willing to act as your shuttle, this is the best way to hike Castle Trail. Start at either trailhead, then have someone pick you up at the other one or leave a vehicle at your endpoint.
- Saddle Pass to Medicine Root to Castle Trail: Combine three popular Badlands hikes into a five-mile loop. Park at the Saddle Pass trailhead.
- Either end: Starting at either Fossil Exhibit Trail or the Door/Notch/Window Trail parking lot, hike 1.5-2 miles until you reach Medicine Root Loop, then return the way you came. The section closer to the Notch Trail is by far the most scenic and interesting!
- Out-and-back: If you don’t have someone to help you shuttle vehicles or you’re up for a longer Badlands hike, you can do Castle Trail as a relatively laid-back 10-mile out-and-back.
Backcountry Hikes in the Badlands
Deer Haven Wilderness
Distance: 3 miles
Elevation gain: 225 feet
Highlights: The only wooded section of the Badlands and hiking along one of the park’s unmaintained trail networks
This is one of those Badlands hikes without any officially maintained trails. Start at the Conata Picnic Area and fill out the Backcountry Register, even if you only plan to hike a short distance.
Deer Haven itself is three miles in, an unusually green area of the park comprised of lush grass and Juniper trees. As its name implies, the likelihood of seeing wildlife here including mule deer and bison is high.
Along the route, there are numerous barely-discernible game trails leading off into badlands formations. You’re free to explore any one of them, but keep in mind that it’s extremely easy to lose your way here. GPS is a must, whether on a phone app like AllTrails or a dedicated tracker.
Sage Creek Wilderness
Distance: 23-mile loop
Elevation gain: 836 feet
Highlights: The rare opportunity to enjoy true solitude in a national park
For a literal change of scenery and a chance to venture into Badlands backcountry, head to Sage Creek Wilderness. This quiet section of the park is frequented by bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns.
You’ll start this journey, one of the best hikes in the Badlands, by hiking to Deer Haven. Instead of turning back, though, you’ll continue onto the unofficial Sage Creek Wilderness loop. The wilderness area doesn’t have any maintained trails; instead, you’ll be navigating several game trails.
If you’re doing the entire loop, 2-3 days is recommended. If you want to hike just a small section of the Sage Creek Wilderness, you can access it from Sage Creek Campground or Sage Creek Basin Overlook. Treat it as an out-and-back Badlands hike and do only as much as you’d like.
Distance: 2.9-mile loop
Difficulty: moderately challenging
Elevation gain: 242 feet
Highlights: Hiking through the remote, rugged South Unit in a known bighorn breeding area
In the park’s much-less-frequented South Unit, Cedar Butte is hands-down one of the most remote Badlands hikes. There are no developed trails in the South Unit, although there is the White River Visitor Center, open only in the summer.
Before you even attempt getting to the South Unit, you should probably have an SUV or another vehicle with decent ground clearance.
Start from the visitor center and follow a faint bighorn sheep trail up prominent Cedar Butte. The climb is short but steep and slippery, due to sand. Trekking poles and GPS are tremendous assets here.
At the top of Cedar Butte, look for the single ancient namesake tree. It’s long-deceased, but still stands, and its distinct, gnarled shape is unmistakable.
Note: Cedar Butte is particularly sacred to the native Lakota tribe. Be extra quiet and respectful as you hike here, and tread lightly.
Map of Hikes in the Badlands
What to Pack for Hiking in Badlands National Park
While most of the hikes in Badlands National Park are short and sweet, you should still be prepared with some essentials in your hiking pack.
- Sturdy hiking shoes. I love my hiking sandals, but Badlands trails are not the place for ‘em. You want solid foot and ankle support as you climb the badlands, plus protection against spikes, thorns, and critters.
- Sun protection. I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s almost zero shade in the park, especially on Badlands hikes. That sun exposure is relentless, even in mild weather. I tackled several of the best hikes in the Badlands in beautiful weather in late September, but the lack of shade made it feel substantially hotter. Put on sunscreen, wear a hat and sunglasses, and dress in layers.
- GPS. A watch, a dedicated tracker, an app on your phone…pick your poison.
- Tripod and Bluetooth remote. The dramatic landscapes in Badlands National Park provide some seriously epic photo ops. Whether you use a camera or cell phone, you’re going to want to frame some shots with a tripod. I love this one, because you can use it for both a phone and camera.
- Binoculars. Wildlife watching opportunities in the Badlands are insane. Even an inexpensive, fairly basic pair of binos can really enhance your trip.
So there you have it — 11 of the best Badlands hikes, along with some tips on how to best explore the trails.
Have you done any hiking in Badlands National Park, or are you planning to soon and looking for some advice? Either way, we’d love to hear from you! And finally, be sure to pin this post for later!