For being such an awesomely cool national park, Badlands actually doesn’t have a ton of hiking options. With three full days in the park you could easily hike every trail, as well as cruise the scenic drive. However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend hiking all of them…
Pressed for time? My top pick is to do the Door Trail, the Notch Trail, and the Window Trail. All three of those trails are close to each other, short, and offer really sweet views for minimum effort. And the Notch Trail is the undisputed best trail in the park. Period.
The trails are located along a spur road off of Badlands Loop Road (the main road through the park) just east of the visitor center on the right hand side of the road. The first trail you encounter is the Notch Trail, and I would recommend starting with that one anyways since it is the longest and requires the most effort.
THE NOTCH TRAIL, 1.5 miles round trip, moderate-strenuous
“After meandering through a canyon, this trail climbs a log ladder and follows a ledge to “the Notch” for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. Trail begins at the south end of the Door and Window parking area. Watch for drop-offs. Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. Treacherous during or after heavy rains”. (From NPS)
The reason why I (as well as many others) view this as the best trail in the park is because of this really cool ladder you have to climb towards the end of the hike. Hikes that involve a little something extra are my favorite! Plus they yield some badass photos…
And the views aren’t half bad either.
The Window Trail is up next, though we actually did this one the night before when we had a little extra time after arriving and setting up camp.
THE WINDOW TRAIL, 0.25 miles round trip, easy
“This short trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with a view of an intricately eroded canyon. Please stay on the trail”. (From NPS)
As we were pulling into the parking lot, we saw one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. The sky was turning a bright hot pink. So pretty!
This trail is super fast and easy. And the views are definitely worth it. The lighting wasn’t all that great when we did this trail, so my photos don’t do it justice.
And then last of all, the Door Trail.
THE DOOR TRAIL, 0.75 miles round trip, easy
“An accessible ¼ mile boardwalk leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands. From there, the maintained trail ends. Travel beyond this point is at your own risk. Watch for drop-offs”. (From NPS)
A nice, simple boardwalk trail with ah-mazing views. This is the type of scenery the Badlands is so well known for…if you can only do one trail during your visit, choose this one. The trail technically ends at the “door” at the end of the boardwalk, but you can continue forward at your own risk. Just be careful- take plenty of water and don’t get lost.
After these three smaller hikes, we attempted the Castle Trail, aka the longest trail in the park. At 10 miles round trip, this trail is no joke. So why we decided to start it later in the day during the hottest hours is beyond me.
THE CASTLE TRAIL, 10 miles round trip, moderate
“The longest trail in the park begins at the Door and Window parking area and travels five miles one way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Relatively level, the path passes along some badlands formations”. (From NPS)
This trail is graded moderate only due to its length and sun exposure. The trail itself is mostly flat and would actually be very pleasant if it weren’t for that damn sun. There is literally zero shade on this trail. And with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, it gets pretty brutal.
I am sad to report we didn’t finish this hike. I was taken by heat exhaustion and we had to cut it short. About midway through the Castle Trail, it connects with the Saddle Pass trail which is a strenuous 0.25 mile hike straight to the road. One of my friends helped me down that trail and found a place to keep me cool while the rest of the group back tracked on the Castle trail to retrieve our car. Super suck. Blog post on dealing with heat exhaustion coming soon.
While the Castle trail definitely offered some pretty views, I would say overall it isn’t worth the time or effort. If you have an extra day to dedicate to it, then I say for it, but seriously, start it first thing in the morning and bring more water than you think you’ll need.
As for our unintentional trek on the Saddle Pass trail, I can say the descriptions aren’t lying when they say it’s steep and strenuous. We hiked it going down, from the summit to the road, but I sure as hell wouldn’t recommend hiking it from the road and up. You can reach the same views from the easier (albeit longer) Castle trail.
My tips for hiking in the Badlands:
-Water water water water water water water. If you’re thirsty, you’re already becoming dehydrated. And dehydration leads to heat exhaustion, which leads to heat stroke.
-Bring plenty of sunblock and a hat of some kind to keep the sun off your face. Sunglasses are awesome to have too.
-Start the long hikes early in the day to beat the peak temperatures of the afternoon.
-Wear shoes with good tread if doing the Notch or exploring beyond the paved trails.
-If you start feeling dizzy, nauseous, faint, or have a headache, stop hiking. Get out of the sun, drink fluids, and try to lower your body temperature. Shirts or bandannas soaked in water to use as a cold compress on your head and neck work awesome. Finishing a hike isn’t worth risking your safety; know the signs and know when to turn back.
-Watch out for rattlesnakes.
For additional information on the hiking options in Badlands, check out the Badlands National Park website.
Have you done any hiking in the Badlands? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!