One of the best ways to see Badlands National Park is from a hiking trail. And one of the great things about this park is that most of the hikes are short and sweet, perfect for all ages and ability levels. In this guide, we cover the 10 best hikes in Badlands National Park.
The hikes on this list range from a fraction of a mile to up to 10 miles. These trails range from boardwalk trails, to flat, easy walks through the mixed prairie grass, to backcountry experiences where you are allowed to wander “off trail.”
I organized these hikes by geographical area, starting in the eastern section of the park and ending in the west. All hiking distances are round trip unless otherwise specified. You can see the locations of the hiking trailheads on the map at the end of this guide.
1. Door Trail
Distance: 0.75 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Elevation Gain: Minimal | Time: 30 minutes
If you want to get up close with the amazing rock formations of the Badlands without a full-on hike, this is a great option.
The trail starts off as a boardwalk (100 meters of the hike is on a boardwalk).
Once off the boardwalk, you will hike 800 meters into the Badlands, on rough, uneven terrain. The national park service lists this part of the trail as strenuous but I think that’s a bit of a stretch. If you plan to do this hike midday in July, yes, it would be quite strenuous, because of the heat. But this trail is relatively flat and most people will find it to be easy but fun.
Over the 800 meters, the trail makes a slight descent down into a field of fossil beds and the entire way you have views of the pinnacles and spires of the Badlands.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: The Notch Trail, Door Trail, and Window Trail all start from the same parking lot. The Castle Trail also starts here and heads west through the park, ending at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This parking lot is enormous and there are restrooms here.
2. Window Trail
Distance: 0.25 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation Gain: None | Time: 10 minutes
This boardwalk trail ends at the Window, a viewpoint of “the Wall” and the pinnacles and spires that make the Badlands so famous.
View from the end of the Window Trail
3. The Notch Trail: The Badland’s Most Thrilling Hike
Distance: 1.5 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Elevation Gain: 180 feet | Time: 1 hour
If you do one hike in the park, this is the one you should do. The Notch Trail is our favorite of the bunch and it is one of the best hikes in Badlands National Park.
This hike is pure fun. It features a walk through a scenic canyon, a climb up a wooden ladder, and a brief walk along a cliff trail. The Notch Trail ends with a beautiful view of the Badlands.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the Notch Trail
4. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Distance: 0.5 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Elevation Gain: 200 feet | Time: 30 minutes
The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is located near the base of the final viewpoint from the Notch Trail. This trail offers great views along “the Wall” and up to the Notch. It is 0.5 miles round trip with 300 feet of elevation gain and takes most people about 15 minutes.
This is the only trail on this list that we did not do since access to the trail was closed during our visit.
5. The Castle Trail
Distance: 5 miles point-to-point | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Elevation Gain: 340 feet | Time: 2 to 3 hours
The Castle Trail is a 5-mile, point-to-point trail that wanders through the “backcountry” of the Badlands. This is another one of the best hikes in Badlands National Park.
You’ll hike through fields of prairie grass, around pinnacles of rock and stone, with the chance to spot bighorn sheep and pronghorn. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes too as they sometimes make an appearance.
There are several different ways to hike this trail, depending on your interests and the amount of time and energy you have. You can either hike the Castle Trail point-to-point (but this requires someone in your group to be a shuttle), out-and-back, or combine the trail with the Medicine Root Trail and/or Saddle Pass Trail to turn the hike into a loop.
There are five different ways to hike the Castle Trail. Here is a brief overview. For more information, read our Guide to the Castle Trail.
Castle Trail Point-to-Point: This is the best way to hike the Castle Trail since you are never repeating any of the trail. However, since it is point-to-point, you will need a shuttle or an extra car. Note: there is no shuttle system in Badlands National Park. So, if someone in your group does not want to do the hike, that person can drop you off and pick you up. Or, if you have two cars, drop one at the end of the hike to get you back to your starting point.
Castle Trail Out-and-Back: If you want to hike the entire trail but don’t have an extra car, hike the Castle Trail out-and-back. It’s mostly flat and easy to hike, so the 10 miles will tick by quickly.
Castle Trail from the Fossil Exhibit Area: Park at the Fossil Exhibit area and hike one to two miles of the Castle Trail, for a 2 to 4-mile round trip hike.
Castle Trail from the Notch Trail Parking Lot: Park at the Door Parking Lot and hike one to two miles of the Castle Trail, for a 2 to 4-mile round trip hike.
Saddle Pass + Castle Trail Loop: Combine all three hiking trails into one loop. Park at Saddle Pass parking lot. Hike up Saddle Pass and then hike a portion of the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail. Return to your car on the Saddle Pass Trail. This hike is 4.7 miles.
Castle Trail trailhead east (near the Notch, Door and Window Trailheads).
On the beginning of the trail starting the east trailhead.
Part of the hike takes you through these chalky, colorful hills.
Bighorn sheep along the trail.
The western end of the trail, near the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the Castle Trail
6. Saddle Pass Trail
Distance: 0.7 miles | Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous | Elevation Gain: 300 feet | Time: 30 minutes
The Saddle Pass Trail is a short, strenuous hike in Badlands National Park. On the steep, somewhat slippery trail, you climb up into the colorful hills of the Badlands.
From the top of the Saddle Pass, turn around for an awesome view of Badlands National Park. Return to your car or continue to the Castle Trail, if you want to explore more of this awesome place (and maybe even spot bighorn sheep).
The view from the start of the hike. The trail takes you up into these hills. At the top, you can turn around and retrace your steps back to the parking lot or continue on the Castle Trail.
View of the trail.
View from the top of Saddle Pass.
7. Medicine Root Trail
Distance: 4 miles | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Elevation Gain: 100 feet | Time: 1.5 hours
The Medicine Root Trail connects the Castle Trail in the east with the Saddle Pass Trail and the mid-portion of the Castle Trail (see our map in the section for the Castle Trail).
The views along the Medicine Root Trail are similar to, but honestly not quite as good, as those from the nearby Castle Trail. The only reason to hike the Medicine Root Trail is to turn the Castle Trail hike into a loop.
Medicine Root Trail
Saddle Pass + Castle Trail Loop
This hike combines Saddle Pass, Medicine Root, and a portion of the Castle Trail. It is 4.7 miles round-trip, moderately difficult, has a total elevation gain of 400 feet, and takes 2 to 3 hours.
Start at the Saddle Pass trailhead. Hike up the Saddle Pass Trail, continue to the trail junction and turn right to hike the Castle Trail. At the next trail junction, turn left to hike the Medicine Root Trail. The Medicine Root Trail will end at the first trail junction with Saddle Pass and the Castle Trail. Take the Saddle Pass Trail back to the parking lot. For more information, read our Guide to the Castle Trail.
8. Fossil Exhibit Trail
Distance: 0.25 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Elevation Gain: Minimal | Time: 15 minutes
This boardwalk trail takes you past 75 million years of history and the animals that once inhabited this land.
The Badlands has one of the most concentrated mammal fossil beds in the world. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is the best place to learn about these discoveries.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
9. Deer Haven Wilderness Area
If you want to explore the backcountry of the Badlands with very few people, this is one of the best hikes in Badlands National Park.
Deer Haven Wilderness is an area of the Badlands where you can hike unmaintained trails into the backcountry.
The hike to Deer Haven starts at the Conata Picnic Area. Drive the road to the very end and park in the parking lot. Fill out the Backcountry Register before starting your hike.
If you follow the trail for 3 miles, you will reach Deer Haven, where you have great views of the park and an excellent chance to spot wildlife.
We did not go that far. Instead, about a half mile into the hike, we took a faint side trail and followed it into the Badlands. For much of the time, we hiked through a wash as the striped walls and rock formations grew up around us. It was tons of fun and the real enjoyment is just being out here, exploring on your own.
There are many fainter trails that lead away from the main trail. The best part about hiking in Deer Haven is the fact that you can wander this network of trails, without following exact point-to-point directions. This is a much different experience than the other hiking trails in the Badlands.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: Even though the main trail is unmaintained, it is very easy to follow. However, we were only on the main trail for a half mile before following a different trail into the Badlands. I recommend taking photos of the trail as you hike, just to make sure you know how to get back to your car. We also hike with a Garmin GPS and Garmin Fenix watches, which track our route. If we ever get lost, we can follow our route back to our starting point.
10. Sage Creek Wilderness Area
Explore the backcountry of the Badlands by hiking the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. The Badlands are one of the few national parks where visitors are permitted to hike off trail. There are no maintained trails in the Sage Creek Wilderness but you are permitted to hike the area on your own.
The Sage Creek Wilderness Area can be accessed from several points. The Sage Creek Campground is a popular access point but if you don’t want to drive that far down Sage Creek Rim Road, you can also start at the Sage Creek Basin Overlook. This is what we did.
Before you go, register your name and vehicle information details in the Backcountry Register. From here, you can hike out into the Sage Creek wilderness, following the faint hiking trails and bison trails that weave their way through the tall grass.
We saw bison grazing off in the distance, but the real thrill was just being out here on our own. Tim and I hiked just about a mile round trip, nothing too far or too time intensive, but it was still a very nice experience. But it would be very easy to wander through this wilderness all day.
In the Sage Creek Wilderness, you will hike through the grasslands with a good chance of spotting bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn. However, this area lacks the rugged, rocky scenery that makes the Badlands so photogenic. But if you want to escape the crowds, this is a good place to do it.
Best Hikes in Badlands National Park: On a Map
How to Use This Map: Click the icons on the map to get more information about each hiking trail. Click the star next to the title of the map to add this map to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Best Hikes in Badlands National Park: Our Recommendations
Our favorite hikes are the Notch Trail (this hike is pure fun), the Sage Creek Wilderness Area (we loved hiking in the wilderness with no one else in sight…just a herd of bison, beautiful views, and the two of us), and the Saddle Pass + Castle Trail Loop (great views and the chance to see bighorn sheep).
The classic hikes for first-timers are the Notch Trail, the Window and Door Trails, and Saddle Pass.
If you want a short, easy hike, you have LOTS of options. The Window, Door, and Fossil Exhibit Trails are all extremely short and easy to hike. You can also hike part of the Castle Trail or hike the Notch Trail.
If you want to leave the crowds behind, venture into the Deer Haven Wilderness or the Sage Creek Wilderness.
As you plan your trip and before your visit, get updates on the National Park Service website.
If you are new to hiking or are curious about what you should bring on a hike, check out our Hiking Gear Guide. Find out what we carry in our day packs and what we wear on the trails.
More Information about Badlands National Park & South Dakota
BEST OF THE BADLANDS: 15 Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
ONE DAY IN THE BADLANDS: One Perfect Day in Badlands National Park
NOTCH TRAIL: How to Hike the Notch Trail
CASTLE TRAIL: How to Hike the Castle Trail
SOUTH DAKOTA: One Week in South Dakota: Black Hills & the Badlands
MOUNT RUSHMORE: How to Visit Mount Rushmore: 10 Things to Know Before You Go
CUSTER STATE PARK: 8 Great Things to Do in Custer State Park
WIND CAVE: Lookout Point Trail & Centennial Trail Loop Hike in Wind Cave National Park
DEVILS TOWER: The Perfect Devils Tower Day Trip from South Dakota
What do you think are the best hikes in Badlands National Park? Let us know in the comment section below.
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Planning a visit to the US national parks? Visit our Guide to the National Parks to learn more about the parks, with important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.
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