Best Hiking in The Badlands

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Welcome to the Badlands! There are several things to do in Badlands National Park, but mostly you’ll visit the overlooks and take relatively short hikes. Hiking in the Badlands is perfect for families and the casual hiker because nothing is overly strenuous or time consuming. Go through our top rated trails below but we recommend, at a minimum, doing the Notch, Door, and Window trails. This will give you a good mix of leisure, adventure and scenery to make the trip worth it.

Landwinder’s 5 Best Hikes In Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park has 8 official trails and also allows for off-trail hiking. Here’s our 5 highest rated trails in the Badlands based on accessibility, scenery, difficulty, crowds, and adventure rating.

Note: These ratings are based on comparisons between trails within the Badlands, not all national parks trails.

1. The Notch Trail- Best Overall Hike

Overall Rating: 19/25

  • Accessibility: 5/5
  • Scenery: 4/5
  • Difficulty: 3/5
  • Crowds: 3/5
  • Adventurous: 4/5

Distance: 1.5 miles round trip

Time: 1-2 hours

Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)

Elevation Gain: 127 ft

Highlights: Wooden Ladder Climb and Great View at the end

The Notch Trail is by far the best hike in Badlands National Park. We gave it a 19/25 overall rating for several reasons.

It’s a very accessible trail within the park. The trailhead shares a parking lot with the Window and Door Trails so you won’t have to go far for these three.

The scenery is above average and the hike ends with a great view of the Badlands. We docked it a point here because it looks pretty similar to many other overlooks in the park, but it’s still a memorable sight at the end.

The Notch Trail is a moderate difficulty trail that consists of 130 feet of elevation gain with some steep drop offs along the way. The trail can be completed in 1 to 2 hours depending on the crowds and how quickly you move. A hiker with any experience shouldn’t have much trouble with this trail.

Speaking of crowds, Badlands is not a very busy park and scored high because you don’t encounter many people. However, if there’s one place to find them, it’s the Notch Trail. It’s probably the busiest area of Badlands National Park. You’ll most likely deal with a bottle neck at the ladder climb, so be safe and give other hikers space on it. Despite this, the trail is still very enjoyable.

When it comes to adventure and thrill, Badlands doesn’t offer too many places to find it. However, the Notch Trail will give you a good dose of it. If you can get on the trail with minimal crowds, the ladder climb and steep drop offs make for a fun, exciting hike. Easily the best hike in Badlands National Park.

2. Door Trail- Best Easy Hike

Overall Rating: 17/25

  • Accessibility: 5/5
  • Scenery: 2/5
  • Difficulty: 5/5
  • Crowds: 4/5
  • Adventurous: 1/5

Distance: 0.75 miles

Time: 30 mins-1 hour

Difficulty: Easy

Elevation Gain: About 30 feet

Highlight: The unique view from behind the Badlands Wall

Compared to other hikes in Badlands National Park, the Door Trail ranks pretty high. It’s the best easy trail in the Badlands because it’s very accessible and offers one of the most unique views in the park. It’s the only trail that takes you behind the Badlands Wall, which gives a special panoramic view of the park.

This trail should be combined with Notch Trail and Window trail since they share the same parking lot. When leaving the parking lot, you’ll start on a quarter mile boardwalk that turns into an unmaintained trail the rest of the way. It’s an easy stroll that leads to a beautiful view at the end.

3. Saddle Pass Trail- Most Strenuous Hike In Badlands National Park

Overall Rating: 16/25

  • Accessibility: 5/5
  • Scenery: 3/5
  • Difficulty: 2/5
  • Crowds: 4/5
  • Adventurous: 2/5

Distance: 0.7 miles

Time: 30 mins

Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous

Elevation Gain: 300 ft

Highlight: Hike up the Badlands Wall, the view at the top

Saddle Pass Trail is a short strenuous, uphill hike along the Badlands Wall. There’s a trailhead along Badlands Loop Road, so it’s easy to get started. Once you reach the top, turn around and catch an incredible view of the Badlands.

You can also continue on from there along the Castle Trail or Medicine Root Trail. We think the Saddle Pass Trail is the best of these three, so if we had to redo it, we would have climbed back down and spent our time elsewhere in the park.

We place Saddle Pass ahead of the Window Trail because it’s a little more exciting and the view from the top was better.

4. Window Trail- Most Accessible Trail

Overall Rating: 16/25

  • Accessibility: 5/5
  • Scenery: 1/5
  • Difficulty: 5/5
  • Crowds: 4/5
  • Adventurous: 1/5

Distance: 0.25 miles

Time: 15 mins

Difficulty: Very easy

Elevation Gain: Minimal

Highlight: The view of the Badlands through the “window”

The Window Trail is the easiest, most accessible trail in Badlands National Park. It’s a quarter mile boardwalk to the view that overlooks the Door Trail area.

It feels very similar to the Door Trail, but we rank it slightly lower because we think the view isn’t as good. Since you’ll already be at the trailhead when you do the Notch Trail and Door Trail, hike this one real quick as it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes.

5. Castle Trail- Longest Hike in Badlands National Park

Overall Rating: 15/25

  • Accessibility: 5/5
  • Scenery: 1/5
  • Difficulty: 3/5
  • Crowds: 5/5
  • Adventurous: 1/5

Distance: 10 miles round trip, can vary depending on your route

Time: 1-4 hours

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Elevation Gain: 340 ft

Highlight: Possibility of seeing wildlife, no crowds, connections to several other trails

The Castle Trail is the longest in Badlands National Park. The best thing about this trail is the number of ways it can be experienced.

  • Point to point- 5 mile hike from Castle Trailhead (near notch, window, door trailhead) to Fossil Exhibit Trailhead
  • 10 miles round trip
  • Catch the Medicine Root Trail along the way
  • Pick up the Saddle Pass Trail intersection in the Badlands backcountry

We didn’t do the entire trail, instead we started at Saddle Pass to Medicine Root Trail, to Castle Trail back to the Saddle Pass Trailhead. This route was about 4.5 miles and took a few hours. Overall it’s an easy hike (excluding the Saddle Pass Trail)

This trail is nice because you won’t encounter many people and will be able to experience some backcountry hiking while being on a maintained trail. It’s one of your best opportunities to see wildlife outside of the wilderness areas as well.

The downside to the trail is it takes awhile if you plan to do a large portion of it and the scenery is better in other spots of the park. We recommend doing a portion of the Castle Trail but don’t see a need to hike the entire thing.

The Other Trails

There are three more official trails in Badlands National Park, but we felt they didn’t quite compare to the top 5. Here’s a quick rundown of the others if you’d like to add them to your itinerary.

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is the only trail we haven’t done on either visit to the Badlands. The trail begins near the end of the Notch Trail and is about a half mile long. There’s about a 300ft elevation gain.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

The Fossil Exhibit Trail was a fun one. It doesn’t rank very high because it’s more of a leisurely walk. However, it’s the most educational walk in the Badlands.

You’ll take a 0.25 mile walk along the boardwalk and look at fossil exhibits that detail the archaeological findings within the park. It doesn’t take long to complete and is well worth the stop.

Medicine Root Trail

The Medicine Root Trail is a little harder to access than most because you have to pick it up along the Castle Trail or Saddle Pass Trail. We used it to loop us around the Castle Trail back to Saddle Pass. It’s a nice backcountry hike with limited people, but doesn’t offer much else compared to other trails in the Badlands.

We wouldn’t consider this trail a necessity if you’re on limited time.

Wilderness Area Hiking

Badlands National Park also has two wilderness areas for backcountry hiking and camping. They are a little tougher to get to but offer the best chances of seeing wildlife and getting away from all crowds.

Deer Haven Wilderness Area is a green oasis that gives you the best chance to see the wildlife in the Badlands. You can also set up camp here when you find a spot worth staying.

The other area, Sage Creek Wilderness Area, isn’t near as green or scenic, but it is by far the best place to get away from people.

The wilderness areas are fun, adventurous areas that get you away from the busy parts of the park. You won’t find any maintained trails here, but it’s been pretty well traveled so it’s not hard to follow where others have went before. Still, be sure to have the necessary gear to make sure you find your way back.

Tips for Hiking in the Badlands

Prepare for the day hikes

The hikes in Badlands National Park aren’t very long. You’ll find it very easy to knock out several in a day visit and still have time for the overlooks. Even the longest trail. Castle Trail, should only take you a few hours.

Because of this, you should only need to be packed for a day hike unless you plan to overnight in the wilderness areas.

Keep an eye on the weather forecast

The weather can be outright wild in South Dakota. We had several beautiful, sunny days turn into severe thunderstorms very quickly. None of the hikes are long, but keep an eye on the forecast to make sure you don’t get stuck in one of these intense, pop-up thunderstorms.

GPS can be spotty, have the right equipment

You’ll see several signs alerting you to spotty GPS and wifi coverage within the park. We had pretty good service and GPS most of the visit. Just make sure to be prepared and have backup gear, especially if going into the wilderness areas.

Plan efficiently

It’s really easy to maximize your time in the Badlands because 1) most of the hikes will take less than an hour and 2) they’re located very close to each other.

The Notch, Door and Window trail all share the same lot so it’s easy to go from one to the next. Make an efficient plan so you can see everything you want to. Badlands is an easy park to accomplish in a day if you plan well.

Summer, plan for max sun exposure

The summer time can be extremely hot in the Badlands. And good luck finding any shade. There is very limited vegetation or anything to provide some cover from the sun. Therefore, prepare for the hot weather, and bring plenty of sunscreen and breathable clothing to cover your skin.

Winter, plan for extreme cold

Going to the Badlands in winter? Plan for it to be very cold and snowy. They receive a good amount of snowfall and temps can drop well below freezing. Prepare for everything and pack plenty of warm gear.

We still really want to see the Badlands in the winter. The view of the rock buttes covered in snow would be incredible.

Park Info

Park Entrance Fee: $30 per car

Operating Hours: Open 24/7, 365 days a year (exception of weather closures)

Ben Reifel Visitor Center: Open 8am-5pm, 7 days a week

Badlands National Park FAQs

Where is Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park is located in western South Dakota. The closest town is Wall which is about 15 minutes north of the park.

Where to stay in Badlands National Park?

The only place to stay within the park is the Cedar Pass Lodge near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. You’re other option is to camp in the two campgrounds (Cedar Pass Campground or Sage Creek Campground) or the wilderness areas (Deer Haven Wilderness Area and Sage Creek Wilderness Area).

What kind of wildlife is there to see in Badlands National Park?

You’ll have the chance to see American bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs just to name a few. Also, watch out for rattlesnakes. We didn’t see any, but there’s signs everywhere for them.

Where do you fly into for Badlands National Park?

If you’re traveling to Badlands by air, the closest airport to Badlands National Park is Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). From there, its about an hour drive east to the park.

When was Badlands National Park established?

It was established as January 25, 1939 as a national monument, but was later reclassified as a national park on November 10, 1978.

Other Places To Hike Near Badlands National Park

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is about 2 hours from Badlands and offers some less exciting hikes but more opportunity to see wildlife. There’s a couple hikes that are worth it, but the big sell is the cave itself. If you’re going to Wind Cave, take one of the cave tours. It’s no different than hiking, you’re just underground! The Wild Cave Tour offers a more adventurous visit to the cave as you’ll be crawling around a bit.

Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest offers some of the best hiking in all of South Dakota. There’s a ton of trails, lakes and other sites to explore in the area so be sure to make your way here if you plan to visit South Dakota. It’s about 2 hours west of Badlands National Park and has a lot of towns to stay in along with some great camping spots.

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is further northwest in the state and offers more great hiking options. It’s a 19 mile long canyon where you can take trails to beautiful waterfalls and other scenic views. This was one of our favorite spots to hike in South Dakota. It’s not as good as the Black Hills, but the waterfalls are amazing.

Hiking in Badlands National Park Round Up

Badlands National Park hiking is great for families and people who aren’t hardcore hikers. The majority of hiking trails in Badlands National Park are pretty short and easy to finish under an hour. Maximize your time and do the Notch, Door and Window trails. Do the Saddle Pass if you can and maybe a small section of the Castle Trail. There’s your hiking day in the Badlands. If you’re more adventurous, get to the wilderness areas to hike off trail.

We hope this guide helps plan your visit so you get to experience the best hikes in Badlands National Park. Stay tuned for more on this South Dakota national park!