Badlands National Park Trail Guide

Badlands National Park Trail Guide
The Castle Trail cuts through the prairie grass in Badlands National Park.

Badlands National Park protects a beautiful eroded landscape of white, yellow, and red hues covering 244,000 acres. It is a massive sprawling park that is broken into three sections known as the North Unit, Stronghold Unit, and Palmer Creek Unit. Despite its gargantuan size, there are only about 11-miles of maintained trails and every single one of them is worthy of exploration. This Badlands National Park trail guide will help you prepare for your own trip to this amazing park’s established trails as well as a few that aren’t maintained.

Badlands National Park Trail Guide

Badlands National Park Trail Guide
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All of the maintained hiking trails in Badlands National Park are found in the North Unit. In fact, all the trailheads are found within a 7.5-mile stretch of the park’s main thoroughfare, Highway 240 (Badlands Loop Road). Four out of the park’s eight maintained hiking trails begin from the same massive parking lot. It is rather nice to be able to park once and explore so many of the trails. Just be aware that the parking lot stretches out for nearly 3/8ths of a mile and it gets very busy.

Door+ Trail

  • Trailhead: Door/Window/Notch Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,630′
  • Total Distance: 0.2 to 0.9 miles
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 15′ to 50′
  • Rating: Moderately Easy
Badlands Door Trail End
The Door Trail ends in the middle of this eroded landscape at the foot of the Badlands Wall.

The Door Trail is a two-part path. The first section is a very easy, short out-n-back stroll from the north corner of the parking lot along a well-maintained boardwalk. It is suitable for all ages and skill levels. The path rounds the corner of the Badlands Wall and passes through a V-shaped “door.” This gives access to the east side of the wall where the eroded moon-like landscape stretches out as far as the eye can see.

Just beyond the “door” the boardwalk and the first section ends and the “+” side of the trail continues to venture across the eroded landscape. While the path is marked and relatively easy to follow the footing is uneven and could be a challenge for some. That being said, the “+” side of the door trail is a lot of fun to hike. It has great views of the Badlands Wall and the small canyons that scar the earth.

Window Trail

Doors and Windows in Badlands Wall
Three hikers stand in the Window of the Badlands Wall. This image was taken from the Door Trail.
  • Trailhead: Door/Window/Notch Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,630′
  • Total Distance: 0.25-mile
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 10′
  • Rating: Very Easy

A window is typically a term used for a thin archway through the badlands strata. But in this case, it is a U-shaped opening in the Badlands Wall with a sheer drop off on the opposite side. Honestly, the Window Trail barely even constitutes a path. It is simply a short stroll along a boardwalk to the Badlands Wall where the overlook through the formation is found. The view is a good one as the badlands moonscape stretches out to the east. From this vantage point you are looking down on the landscape you have a chance of exploring on the Door+ Trail. While this is the shortest trail in the park it is worth checking out the view.

Badlands Window View
The view from the Badlands Window.

Notch Trail

  • Trailhead: Door/Window/Notch Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,630′
  • Total Distance: 1.5 miles
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 140′
  • Rating: Moderately Difficult
Notch Trail Rope Ladder - Badlands National Park Trail Guide
Jennifer descends the rope ladder found on the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park.

The Notch Trail isn’t for everyone but it is a lot of fun if you are able to take on the steel rope ladder and hiking the cliff edge. The destination is a notch in the Badlands Wall. But this time the overlook is to the southwest rather than the east. However, the real reason to hike the Notch Trail is the path itself. The trail leads up a canyon scaling an eroded cliff via a steel rope ladder. Once atop hikers follow the top of the cliff edge as it rounds to the south and then continues along the canyon floor.

The Notch Trail seemingly splits near the end with the path leading to the right and climbing suddenly to the main overlook. From this vantage point, hikers look down on the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. We recommend continuing the hike to the left at the junction as well. It follows the floor of the canyon, winding its way to the end to a second overlook. The vantage point allows for an amazing view as the Badlands Wall stretches out to the southeast.

Badlands Wall
The view of the Badlands Wall from the second overlook on the Notch Trail (left branch).

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

  • Trailhead: Cliff Shelf Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,635′
  • Total Distance: 0.5 mile
  • Type: Loop
  • Elevation Gain: 88′
  • Rating: Easy
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail - Badlands National Park Trail Guide
The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail boardwalk in Badlands National Park.

The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a boardwalk loop that climbs through a shelf basin to overlooks of the Badlands Wall. From the pinnacle of the boardwalk, you can look up at hikers standing at the Notch Trail Overlook. The Cliff Shelf is an oasis amongst the Badlands formations. The basin collects small amounts of water that allows plants to thrive in this area. A juniper forest shades much of the loop trail and surrounding shelf. It is a popular hike on a hot day as it is the only trail in the Badlands with consistent shade. It is equally popular with the wildlife and very common to see deer lying under the trees during the heat of the day.

Castle & Medicine Root Trails – Badlands National Park Trail Guide

  • Recommended Trailhead: Door/Window/Notch Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,630′
  • Total Distance: 6.75 miles
  • Type: Lollypop Loop
  • Elevation Gain: 165′
  • Rating: Moderate
Badlands Castle Erosion
The Castle Formation rises above the eroded landscape of Badlands National Park.

At 5.5 miles straight through the Castle Trail is the longest maintained trail in Badlands National Park. Technically it is a thru-hike that connects the door/window/notch area to the fossil area of the park. Whereas the main road traverses the valley on the south side of the Badlands Wall the Castle Trail hikes along the north side following the twists and turns of the formation. It is a beautiful trail from start to finish. It climbs through the washes with stunning views of the spires, towers, and the eroded cliffs of the Badlands Wall.

The two main trailheads are 7.5-miles apart from one another along the road. If you have the ability to shuttle hike do so but if not you can loop back via the Medicine Root Trail. The Medicine Root isn’t as scenic as the Castle Trail. Although it does give a different perspective as it traverses the prairie grass north of the Badlands Wall.

The Castle Trail west of the junction with Medicine Root isn’t as scenic as the parts to the east. (Except the last 1/4 of a mile which can be taken in from the Fossil Exhibit Area). This is why we recommend the trailhead at thedoor/window/notch parking lot as a starting point. Also, make sure that you take a left at the Medicine Root Trail junction for a short stroll to the Saddle Pass Overlook. It is a great view and much easier to take in from the junction than climbing up the Saddle Pass Trail.

Saddle Pass Trail – Badlands National Park Trail Guide

  • Trailhead: Saddle Pass Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,416′
  • Total Distance: 0.5 mile
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 220′
  • Rating: Difficult
  • Trailhead: Saddle Pass Parking Lot
Saddle Pass Overlook
The view from atop the Saddle Pass pinnacle looking back down at the steep trail. You can see a few people coming up the ridge located on the center-left part of the image.

The Saddle Pass Trail is arguably the most difficult maintained trail in Badlands National Park. It starts at the base of the Badlands Wall and scales the eroded formation. While it is a short hike, the path climbs 220′ steeply up loose terrain. It is also a very popular trail so you will have to contend with other visitors sliding their way back down as you climb up. Please do your best not to slide down the path as it causes more erosion, making the path unmaintainable for future generations. The views from the pass are worth the climb but are easier as a short side journey from the much longer Castle Trail.

Climbing Beyond the Saddle

There are two higher viewpoints above the Saddle that are often climbed for even better views. The most obvious one to the left (west) as you climb up the pass. It is a sharp pinnacle whose 2,671′ summit (45′ higher than the pass) is only large enough for one or two people. A lot of people climb to the peak.

The less obvious, higher, and less often climbed is the wider peak to the east which rises 114′ over the pass. I found the view from the top of the 2,740′ precipice to be far superior but it does take a bit more effort. The social trail to the summit is in the prairie grass near the Castle and Saddle Pass Trails junction. It is fairly well established as it climbs up the high peak. There are areas where hand and foot scrambling is necessary. The top of the formation is a favorite for bighorn sheep. Keep an eye out for the creatures and try not to spook them on your way up.

Badlands Castle Overlook
Overlooking the Castle Area of the Badlands from the 2,740′ precipice above Saddle Pass. I think the white formation looks like a dragon’s head.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

  • Trailhead: Fossil Exhbit Parking Lot
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,662′
  • Total Distance: 0.25 miles
  • Type: Loop
  • Elevation Gain: 8′
  • Rating: Very Easy
Fossil Exhibit - Badlands National Park Trail Guide
The Fossil Exhibit Trail is short, informative, and beautiful.

The Fossil Exhibit Trail is an extremely short loop near Norbeck Pass. The nearly flat boardwalk traverses an area of the park where jagged spires tower overhead and the erosive ravines stretch out below. It is an area where the historic, colorful layers of the Badlands Wall are easily seen. The boardwalk has several information boards that discuss the fossil records. Including the many changes with the land going from shallow sea, to Florida-like swamp lowlands, to present-day badlands. The boards highlight the now extinct creatures unearthed in the park, those that evolved, and those that are still present today but have migrated.

While these boards are informative, the information is repetitive of theBen Reifel Visitor Center info. Granted, the displays in the visitor center are better. They even have afossil preparation lab where you can see archeologists working on the bones.

The Fossil Exhibit Parking Lot is where the western portion of the Castle Rock Trail terminates. The first quarter-mile of this side of the trail is worth a bit of exploration as it traverses a washbasin full of deep ravines. You can even use this trail as an easier, comparatively flat 4.5-mile total out-n-back hike to the top of Saddle Pass.

Deer Haven – Secluded (Unmaintained)

  • Trailhead: Conata Picnic Area
  • Trailhead Elevation: 2,615′
  • Recommended Distance: 5 miles (2.5 each way)
  • Type: Out-n-Back
  • Elevation Gain: 240′
  • Rating: Moderately Difficult
Deer Haven Badlands Formation
One of the colorful formations found on the remote Deer Haven Wilderness Trail in Badlands National Park.

The Deer Haven Trail is unmaintained so you should have some basic route-finding skills and a good map/compass or GPS. This is a popular trail for backpackers seeking shade and seclusion in the backcountry of Badlands National Park. Although narrow and overgrown in a few spots, the social trail is well established. The trail leaves the west side of the Conata Picnic Area (with a wilderness sign in register) and immediately crosses over several washes as it heads mostly south and then turns west, following the valley floor along the base of the Badlands Wall. Eventually, the path rounds the Badlands formation and heads northwest climbing into an uplifted basin full of Juniper Trees. This oasis of green is a popular spot to find deer and other wildlife, thus the name Deer Haven.

Sage Creek Wilderness Area (Mostly Prairie Land and Unmaintained)

  • Trailhead: Sage Creek Basin Overlook or Sage Creek Campground
  • Distance: Unlimited
  • Type: Meandor
  • Rating: Terrain is Moderately Difficult
Badlands Pronghorn
The Sage Creek Wilderness is a great place to spot all kinds of creatures including North America’s fastest, the Pronghorn.

The second most popular place to get off the maintained paths in Badlands National Park is the expansive Sage Creek Wilderness. Rolling prairie grass, small washes, and a lack of reliable water are the primary obstacles you’ll find on the west side of the North Unit. Here game trails are the only pathways and they often lead to herds of bison or pronghorns. This is an area of the park best traversed by experienced wilderness hikers or backpackers with topo maps and GPS devices. However, for those willing to risk getting lost, this seemingly endless landscape holds beauty and solitude rarely found in our crowded world.

Sage Creek Campground Atlernative

If the idea of getting lost in the sea of grass doesn’t pique your interest make the drive along the Sage Creek Rim Road to the Sage Creek Campground. Spend a night in this eerily quiet part of the park. Many animals can be found out here away from the more crowded sections of the North Unit. The road is gravel but typically well maintained. If it has recently rained hard check with a ranger for current road conditions before making the journey.

Badlands Bighorn Sheep Family
A family of three Bighorn Sheep walking the rim on our drive down Sage Creek Rim Road.

Badlands National Park Trail Guide

Badlands Erosion at Nomad View
The Badlands formations run north of the park through one of the best-dispersed camping areas in the country known as the Nomad View.

Badlands National Park is an amazing place with beautifully colored erosive cliffs, spires, buttes, and towers. Hiking the park’s few amazing trails is one of the best ways to fully immerse yourself in this amazing landscape and discover many of the park’s resident creatures. There is a lot to discover in the World’s largest badlands both on the trails and along the roadways. Check out our post about the Best of Badlands National Park to make sure you see and do everything that this amazing park has to offer during your visit. We give you tips on the best time to visit and where to stay including two amazing free camping areas: theSage Creek Campground and theNomad View Dispersed.

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