If you’ve never been to Badlands National Park before, you are in for an experience like no other. The 240,000 acres of protected land are home to some of the…
If you’ve never been to Badlands National Park before, you are in for an experience like no other. The 240,000 acres of protected land are home to some of the country’s most stunning rock formations, sweeping grassland prairies, and the kind of wide-open spaces that can really put everything in perspective. Additionally, Badlands National Park is home to more than 300 archeological sites dating back thousands of years, and more recent sites from the regions’ current inhabitants, the Arikara and the Oglala Lakota tribes. From fascinating fossils to dramatic rock spires to wildlife viewing, there’s no shortage of things to see and do in Badlands National Park.
One of the best ways to enjoy all that Badlands National Park has to offer by exploring it on your own two feet. There are many incredible hikes in Badlands, ranging from beginner and family-friendly to longer, more strenuous outings. We’re confident that there’s a trail for everyone in Badlands National Park, and that hiking it will be a highlight of your visit.
In this post, we’ll share the best trails and everything you need to know to have your best possible adventure hiking in Badlands National Park.
In This Post:
- Badlands National Park Basics
- Hiking Trails in Badlands National Park
- Need to Know
Badlands National Park Basics
Before any trip to Badlands, it is a good idea to get familiar with some important information about the national park so you know what to expect when you visit. The next two sections will provide some essential background that you’ll need for planning your Badlands National Park hiking adventure.
Permits, Entrance Fees, and Opening Times
Permits are not required for any hikes in Badlands National Park, including overnight backpacking and off-trail hiking.
Entrance fees must be paid to access any part of the national park, including all of the hikes described in this post. There are a variety of passes available, depending on the length of your visit and your mode of entry. Details can be found on the NPS website.
Badlands National Park is open 24/7, although fee stations and visitor centers have limited hours. Opening times for the park’s visitor centers can be found here.
Additionally, some roads may be closed in wintery or other hazardous conditions. If traveling in the park during inclement weather, be sure to check current road conditions.
Badlands National Park Weather
Badlands is a land of extremes, and that certainly holds true when it comes to the weather. Temperatures can peak in the triple digits in the summer months and they can get down to -40 in the winter!
Be prepared for sudden and dramatic changes in the weather, as conditions can be variable and unpredictable. Dress in layers, pack sunscreen, and carry plenty of water. It’s always a good idea to check current conditions and talk to the ranger before setting out.
June is typically the rainiest month in Badlands National Park, while December and January are the driest. For monthly averages, including temperatures and precipitation, check out this webpage.
Hiking Trails in Badlands National Park
- Trails in the Cedar Pass Area of Badlands National Park (North Unit)
- Popular Back Roads Hikes (dog-friendly)
- Open Hiking (unofficial trails)
Trails in the Cedar Pass Area of Badlands National Park (North Unit)
The vast majority of hikers will spend their time in the NPS-operated North Unit of Badlands National Park, specifically in the Cedar Pass Area. This area has easy access from I-90 and includes the park headquarters, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Most of the park’s best hikes are in the Cedar Pass Area, and the well-marked trail network has something for every ability level. Since many of these hikes are quite short and close together, you can easily knock out a few in one day. Keep reading to find the perfect hike in the Cedar Pass Area.
Distance: 0.75 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Easy Trailhead: Door and Window Parking Area
This easy walk follows a boardwalk for the first 0.25 miles, making it a great option for wheelchairs, strollers, and anyone who enjoys less rugged surfaces. Despite its short distance, you’ll gain access to spectacular views through the Badlands Wall and to the unique badlands landscape beyond. This is a great place to watch the sunrise!
Distance: 0.25 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Easy Trailhead: Door and Window Parking Area
This family-friendly trail takes hikers to a spectacular natural window that has eroded into the Badlands Wall. The window provides a unique vantage point to view some of the Badlands’ most dramatic scenery, and it’s a photographer’s dream!
Distance: 1.5 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Moderate/Strenuous Trailhead: Door and Window Parking Area
This hike begins as a mellow canyon walk, but ends with a dramatic flourish. After traversing within the canyon, hikers will climb a ladder out of its depths. The trail then follows an exposed ledge to reach “the Notch,” an incredible viewpoint overlooking the White River Valley. Keep in mind that this hike involves some very exposed and steep sections, and it is dangerous during periods of heavy rain.
Distance: 10 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Easy/Moderate Trailhead: Door and Window Parking Area
Hikers looking for a longer outing will enjoy the Castle Trail. Not only does this 5-mile out-and-back trail boast great views of Badlands rock formations, but it ends at the Fossil Exhibit Trail, allowing hikers to explore the informative exhibits and replicas in that area. There are many options for customizing your hike on the Castle Trail. Those only wanting to hike one way can shuttle a vehicle to the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. Additionally, there are options for making a loop by connecting with the Medicine Root Trail or the Saddle Pass Trail.
Distance: 0.5 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Moderate Trailhead: Cliff Shelf Parking Area
Don’t be fooled by the short distance of this hike- it is quite a workout! The trail follows a series of boardwalks and stairs up along the Badlands Wall. The Cliff Shelf hike allows walkers to experience a rare oasis in the heart of the Badlands. The trail weaves through a Juniper forest and past a seasonal pond. This area is a great place to see wildlife, such as bighorn sheep.
Distance: 0.25 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Strenuous Trailhead: Saddle Pass Trailhead
This is another hike that packs a lot of climbing into a short distance. The Saddle Pass Trail steeply winds its way up the Badlands Wall before reaching a viewpoint overlooking the White River Valley. It ends at a junction with the Castle and Medicine Root Trails, providing lots of options for extending your hike. Use caution coming down the Saddle Pass Trail, as some sections are very steep and loose.
Distance: 4 miles (does not inlcude the distance required to access the trail) Difficulty: Moderate Trailhead: Saddle Pass Trailhead
This lovely trail can only be accessed via one of the other trails in the Cedar Pass network. The most direct (and also most strenuous) way to reach the Medicine Root Trail is by climbing up the Saddle Pass Trail, although it can also be accessed by starting on either end of the Castle Trail. Once you’re on the Medicine Root Trail, the terrain is mostly flat, winding its way through prairie grasslands. A nice loop can be made by connecting with the Castle Trail. There are some gorgeous wide-open views of the surrounding rock formations.
Distance: 0.25 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Easy Trailhead: Fossil Exhibit Parking Area
It is a bit of a stretch to call this a “hike,” as the trail follows a level boardwalk for its entirety. That being said, it is worth a visit to see the fascinating exhibits and replicas of the prehistoric creatures that once roamed the area. Additionally, the trail can be a nice starting point for accessing the Castle Trail and the rest of the Cedar Pass trail network.
Popular Back Roads Hikes (dog-friendly)
Distance: 5 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Easy Trailhead: Sheep Mountain Table Overlook
This hike offers a great way to explore this scenic area without having to navigate the very rugged road in your vehicle. Park at the Sheep Mountain Table Overlook and walk along the dirt road for about 2.5 miles. This is an easy, scenic walk that makes for a great pet-friendly option. It also provides a unique opportunity to explore the remote middle section of the Badlands, straddling the North and South Units of the park.
Distance: Varies Difficulty:Easy Trailhead: Parking area located 0.25 miles along the road after turning off Badlands Loop Road.
This quiet gravel road is a great option for hiking with your four-legged friend or for anyone seeking a mellow excursion. Old Northeast road is easily accessed from the Badlands Loop Road and you can customize the length of your trip to fit your preferences. The road passes through active ranchland, so keep in mind that you may encounter cattle grazing nearby. Hikers will enjoy sweeping Badlands scenery and some fascinating rock formations.
Open Hiking (Unofficial Trails)
Badlands is an “open hike” National Park, meaning that hikers are permitted to venture practically anywhere into the backcountry, regardless of if they’re on one of the designated trails. Beyond the well-marked paths, there are quite a few unofficial “social trials” in Badlands National Park. These vary from being frequently-trafficked and relatively easy to follow to being vague tracks that require advanced navigation skills. Given that these trails can lead to remote areas with little or no waymarking, it is essential that you come prepared with a navigational device and some backcountry experience. It’s a good idea to download gpx data for the trails into your phone or other device and bring a paper map as a backup.
Here are our two favorite unofficial trails in Badlands National Park:
Distance: 6-7 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Easy/Moderate Trailhead: Conata Picnic Area
This out-and-back hike is popular with backpackers, but it also makes a great day trip. The trail begins at the Conata Picnic Area, which is easily accessed from the Badlands Loop Road and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Hikers will follow a well worn social trail through quintessential Badlands scenery. Upon rounding a corner a couple of miles in, the grassy oasis of Deer Haven will come into view. This is a dramatic swath of green set amid endless miles of rocky, barren Badlands. The trail is generally easy to follow but becomes vague or nonexistent at points so it’s important to bring a map and GPS.
Distance: 23 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Very Strenuous Trailhead: Conata Picnic Area
This adventurous hike should only be attempted by hardy, experienced walkers who are confident in their navigational abilities. Most hikers complete the Sage Creek Loop in three days, allowing for a challenging but manageable pace. In addition to the somewhat strenuous physical exertion required to complete the Sage Creek Loop, hikers must also contend with route-finding (which is very unclear in places) and volatile weather conditions. It is essential that you bring enough water, as there is none available along the trail. In the summer heat, that means carrying a gallon per person, per day. The payoff for all of your hard work? Solitude, dynamic and beautiful landscapes, and abundant wildlife viewings, such as bison and pronghorn.
Hiking in Badlands National Park: Need to Know
What to Bring
There are a ton of variables that need to be taken into account when packing for a hike in Badlands National Park. You’ll need to consider the weather conditions (and forecast), length of your hike, and availability of nearby services.
That being said, there are a few universal items that are essential for all Badlands hikers:
- Water: 1 quart per person per hour is recommended. We like carrying water in a hydration bladder for better weight distribution and easy access.
- Sturdy Boots: The Badlands are very rugged, and it’s important to have supportive footwear that is up to the task and protects your feet and ankles. The terrain can also get extremely muddy, so waterproof footwear is a good idea.
- Layers & Sunscreen: The weather changes quickly in the Badlands. It’s important to dress in layers so you can quickly adapt to the elements. Additionally, the sun is strong in the Badlands, even in the winter, making it a good idea to pack sunscreen.
- Backpack: Most hikers will need a comfortable backpack for their outing in Badlands National Park. This is especially important for hikes like the Notch Trail and Saddle Pass Trail, where hikers will need their hands free to climb ladders and navigate steep terrain.
If you plan on backpacking in Badlands National Park, this gear list is a great starting point.
- As with any hike, notify someone of where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
- Be prepared with extra food, water, and layers.
- Talk to the ranger and check the weather forecast before you set out.
- Carry and map and GPS device with you.
- Don’t approach wildlife.
- Wear proper footwear to protect against rocks and cacti.
- Watch for rattlesnakes.
For safety and convenience, it’s important to be able to accurately estimate how long a given hike will take you. Everyone hikes at a different pace, and your pace can be greatly affected by the terrain, weather, your hiking companions, and navigational challenges. It’s a good idea to be generous in your time estimates so you can be properly prepared. Additionally, if you want to hike at sunrise or sunset, keep in mind that you’ll travel significantly slower in the dark.
Even some of the official hikes in Badlands National Park can be a little tricky to follow at times. The landscape lends itself to navigational challenges because trails can easily blend into the rocky, scrubby terrain, and the canyons and washes can feel like labyrinths. It’s a good idea to use your phone or another navigational device and carry a compass and a map.
Whether you’re looking for a quick family-friendly walk or a multi-day backcountry adventure, Badlands National Park has plenty of great options. The dramatic scenery, varied landscapes, and unique wildlife can be enjoyed from any of the trails in the park and there’s no better way to experience the magic of the Badlands than to get out for a hike.
Got questions or experiences you want to share? Let us know in the comments below.