The best hikes in Badlands National Park & planning guide

When you are a cat visiting Badlands National Park, it’s like catching a glimpse into how your ancestors lived. Known for its unique landscape and high density of fossils, Badlands National Park was once a hotbed of ancient mammals, including my distant cousin, the saber tooth tiger! Looking around it’s easy to tell why ancient cats chose to settle on this land. With plenty of tall grass to hide in and rodents to chase, Badlands National Park is a paradise for cats. Aside from cat-centric activities, you’ll find plenty to keep your human busy as well. This article features the best hikes in Badlands National Park and a planning guide for visiting this special land.

Planning your trip to Badlands National Park

Planning your trip to Badlands National Park is an exciting endeavor! While the park itself is relatively small, the surrounding area, known as the Black Hills, is full of natural beauty and plenty of adventure. To get the most out of your trip you’ll need to think about how to get there, where to stay, and when to go.

Getting there

Best hikes in Badlands National Park - Cliff Shelf
Cliff Shelf trail

Located close to the middle of the country, Badlands National Park is out of driving distance for most travelers. The good news is that the Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) is only an hour away from the park. With direct flights from Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Pheonix, getting to this park is not too difficult. Additionally, Rapid City boasts a host of other activities including visiting Mount Rushmore.

While flying into Rapid City is the best way to get to Badlands National Park, you may also want to consider the Pierre Regional Airport (PIR), which is located about 2 hours away. Going this route allows you to explore Pierre, the state’s capital, and enjoy a scenic drive through the Great Plains. 

Unfortunately, this part of the country is lacking in public transportation. There is no public transit into the park and no shuttle service within the park itself. If you are able to drive, it’s highly recommended to rent a car for the duration of your trip. If you own a car, you can also consider taking an extended road trip from your home base. Your other option is to look into private tour companies that will handle your transfers to and from the airport and your transportation within the park. 

Where to stay

Staying in Rapid City – Given the relatively small size of Badlands National Park, using Rapid City as a home base for a few day trips into the park is a great option for optimizing your vacation. Aside from Mount Rushmore, there are many other areas to explore like Custer State Park and the old western town of Deadwood

The other benefit of staying in Rapid City is access to a ton of hotels and amenities. As the second largest city in South Dakota, you’ll find a plethora of restaurants and bars, along with a vibrant downtown area. Just use any travel booking platform (like to find the best places to stay that meet your unique preferences.  

Staying in or around the park – If you are looking to stay closer to nature, you have a few options for lodging in the park. Cedar Pass Lodge is a group of cabins located within the park. Each cabin is equipped with all of the typical hotel amenities, including large-screen TVs, coffee makers, private bathrooms, hot water, heat, and air conditioning. This is a great place to stay if you want all the creature comforts in addition to a stunning view. 

Camping is also available within the park at Cedar Pass Campground, which accepts reservations, and Sage Creek Campground, which is first come, first served. 

Options for lodging that are just outside of the park include Badlands Inn and Circle View Ranch. Camping options include Whispering Pines and White River KOA.

Your final option for staying near the park is to look into hotels in the charming town of Wall, South Dakota. Located 8 miles from the park’s entrance, Wall provides a great mix of amenities and proximity to nature.

When to go

Best hikes in Badlands National Park - Door Trail
Door Trail

Like most national parks, Badlands has a high season and a low season. While the park gates remain open year-round, the roads through the park may be closed during winter due to poor conditions. The best time to visit Badlands is definitely in the shoulder seasons, which are spring (May through mid-June) and fall (September through mid-October). During these times you’ll find fewer crowds and temperatures in the upper 60s, Fahrenheit. 

The advantage of visiting in the spring is increased wildlife spottings and greener foliage. Springtime is your best shot at appreciating the mixed prairie grass for which this region is known. Just after the winter melt and before the extreme heat of summer sets in, you’ll find budding grass, wildflowers, and plenty of hungry bighorn sheep and bison roaming the prairie. 

With that said, visiting in the fall also has advantages. First of all, it’s the drier of the shoulder seasons. While the temperatures can drop quickly this time of year, you are less likely to experience storms. This is also mating season for the region’s bison, so you can expect an uptick in wildlife activity. And finally, fall is the best season for iconic views of the golden prairie grass.

9 best hikes in Badlands National Park

So, you finally made it! Now it’s time to plan for the best hikes in Badlands National Park. You can think of the layout as one long road from Wall, SD to Interior, SD.

No matter which entrance you use, make sure to take some time to get out of the car and enjoy some (or all!) of the best hikes in Badlands National Park. Starting from the Interior, SD entrance, you’ll find the following opportunities to get out and explore.

#1 Cliff Shelf

Located close to the Interior, SD entrance of the park, a lot of park visitors start their exploration here. This trail is a loop, clocking in at .5 miles, round trip. 

This short hike mostly takes place on a boardwalk, with a healthy amount of steps. Throughout the hike, you’ll enjoy stunning views of the prairie below. You’ll also see some examples of the area’s most prominent geological features: buttes, pinnacles, and spires. These rock formations are over 75 million years old and have been eroding for the past 500,00 years. That is to say, you are looking at a hotbed of ancient fossils!

#2 Door – best hike for seeing the Badlands Wall

One of the most iconic of the Badlands hikes, the Door Trail is a can’t-miss in my book. It’s a hike out and back trail, running about .75 miles, round trip. This unique hike traverses right into the middle of the famous Badlands Wall. 

Given the unique terrain, this is not a standard trail. Instead, you’ll follow a series of posts, staked into the rocks by the park rangers. While visibility is high, this open area is rugged and is deceptively easy to get lost in. Each time you reach your intended hiking post, make sure to locate your next pole before moving ahead. Eventually, you’ll reach a post that says “end of trail”. Here, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing view of the canyon before turning back and leaving the way you came.

#3 Window 

Next, you’ll find the Window trail, which is really more of a lookout point, running at just .25 miles, round trip. This short trail is definitely worth 10 minutes of your time, however. At the end, you’ll get a stunning view of the Badlands Wall (a series of canyons and rock formations, which separates the lower and upper prairies). This hike is also wheelchair-accessible.

log ladder on Notch Trail in Badlands National Park
Log ladder on Notch Trail

Also located near the Window parking area, Notch Trail is an out-and-back hike, running 1.5 miles, round trip. Here you’ll find the Park’s best-known trail. Meandering through stunning rock formations, this trail requires a near-vertical climb up a log ladder and ends with a view of the White River Valley. For brave hikers, this is a great day hike and will result in amazing photos and an unforgettable experience. 

#5 Castle Trail – the longest hike 

The next trail on this side of the park is Castle Trail. The longest trail in the park, this 5-mile route runs parallel to the Badlands Loop Rd., connecting the parking lot for the Door trail with the Fossil Exhibit trail. 

Given the absence of public transit in this park, you’ll either need to be equipped with 2 cars to leave in either parking lot or plan to hike back to your starting point, making the roundtrip distance 10 miles. With that said, it’s a relatively flat trail with moderate to easy terrain. Just make sure to bring plenty of water, especially if you are hiking in the heat of summer. This unforgiving landscape offers little to no shade.  

Castle Trail is part of a small trail system that transverses the center of the park, which also includes Medicine Root Trail and Saddle Pass Trail.

#6 Medicine Root Trail – best hike for exploring mixed grass prairies 

The official trailhead for Medicine Root Trail is located off Old Northeast Road, a gravel road that intersects Badlands Loop. You can also access this trail from the main road by following the Castle or Saddlepass trails. Running 2 miles in length (one way) through the middle of the park, this trail can be used as an add-on to Castle or to create a loop with the Saddle Pass Trail. 

This is the best trail for appreciating the mixed grass prairie. As a bonus, you’ll also be treated to views of the Badlands Wall in the distance. 

#7 Saddle Pass Trail – the shortest and steepest hike

Located closer to the center of the park, Saddle Pass Trail is a hike-in, hike-out trail that connects with Medicine Root and Castle Trail. While this is the shortest trail, it is also the steepest in the entire park. If you are looking for a quick and challenging climb to see the Badlands Wall, this is your best bet. You can also utilize the Medicine Root and Castle Trails to complete a loop through the middle of the park, experiencing both the famous grasslands and Badlands Canyon in one fell swoop.  

Just make sure to stay off this trail during heavy rain or when ice or snow is present. Even in the absence of these elements, this trail requires good hiking boots to keep from sliding down the hill.

#8 Fossil Exhibit Trail – the best hike for kids 

The Fossil Exhibit Trail is an easy hike that’s jam-packed with history. Along a well-maintained boardwalk, you’ll find fossil replicas of the area’s past residents. This a great way to learn about the history of the land alongside a light hiking experience. The fossil replicas are all tactile, so kids (and adults!) can interact with them directly.

Aside from being wheelchair accessible this trail also features braille for those with low or no vision.

#9 Deer Haven

Best hikes in Badlands National Park - sunset on the prairie
Sunset on the prairie

The final hike that you’ll encounter on your drive through Badlands National Park is Deer Haven. Located closer to the northern end of the park, the entry point is located off Conata Basin Road. While Deer Haven is widely considered one of the park’s trails, it is technically a group of unmaintained game trails that lead into a juniper grove, called Deer Haven. 

Far from the rest of the park’s trails, this is a good area to spot wildlife and find solitude.

Other activities in and around Badlands National Park

Now that you know the best hikes in Badlands National Park, it’s time to learn about other activities in the area. Visiting Badlands is about more than just hiking, it’s appreciating the landscape, spotting wildlife, and learning about the local culture.

Scenic drive through Badlands National Park 

Driving the Badlands Loop Road is one of the most popular activities in the park. Running between the Interior and Wall entrances, the entire drive is roughly 30 miles, one way. It features 18 overlook points and the park’s exceptionally stylish, Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Despite its name, Badlands Loop Road is not technically a loop, as you’ll either have to backtrack or get on I90 to return to your starting point. 

Sunset is the perfect time for this drive as the temperature will drop and the wildlife springs to life. Common wildlife spottings include herds of bighorn sheep, mule deer, bison, and prairie dogs. Make sure to take plenty of pictures; the big sky and wide-open prairie make a perfect backdrop.

Wildlife watching & photography 

Another popular activity in the area is wildlife watching and photography. Both shoulder seasons are great for these activities. In the spring you’ll find younger wildlife and fall is mating season. Keep a lookout for herds of bighorn sheep, which are abundant and make stunning photography subjects. 

Wildlife viewing at Badlands National Park
Wildlife viewing at Badlands National Park

Wildlife aside, sunset on the mixed-grass prairie is a sight to behold. The Badlands Loop Road has many opportunities to pull over and appreciate the park’s amazing views. For some great pictures of the Badlands Wall, make sure to stop at the Big Badlands Overlook, on the far eastern side of the park.

Downtown Wall, South Dakota

Finally, no discussion of Badlands National Park is complete without mention of the charming town of Wall, the terminus of Badlands Loop Rd. One quirky roadside attraction you should not miss is Wall Drug, an old-timey drug store that has grown into a mish-mash of nick-nacks, odd sculptures, and a water show in the “backyard”. 

Downtown Wall is also a great place to stop for a hearty meal or a cold beer. With an old Western vibe, you’ll feel right at home after a long day out on the trails. 

Conclusion on trip planning and the best hikes in Badlands National Park

A trip to Badlands National Park is will create memories that last a lifetime. The unique landscape, active wildlife, and amazing views are just a few reasons to start planning your trip now.

As far as hiking is concerned, Badlands is a great park for those who are seeking a diverse set of short, simple hikes. If you are looking for something more substantial then you can build your ideal route using the three trails that intersect in the middle of the park (Castle, Medicine Root, and Saddle Pass).

Whether you camp in the park or take a day trip from Rapid City, you will have an amazing experience at this uniquely wonderful national park.

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