Julie United States 2 Comments

The Castle Trail is a 5-mile, point-to-point trail that wanders through the “backcountry” of Badlands National Park.

There are several different ways to hike this trail, depending on your interests and the amount of time and energy you have. In this post, learn about your different options and pick out the route that is best for you.

Overview of the Castle Trail

The Castle Trail is 5 miles long. One trailhead is located at the Fossil Exhibit Area and the other trailhead is located at the parking lot for the Door, Window, and Notch Trails. You can do this hike in either direction.

The Castle Trail takes hikers into the “backcountry.” 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.

Castle Trail Map Badlands

 

Castle Trail Routes

There are five different ways to hike all or a portion of the Castle Trail. Here is a brief overview:

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, just 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 5 miles.

What We Did

We did not have a shuttle so we hiked the Castle Trail in sections, eventually covering the entire trail. Tim and I hiked the Saddle Pass + Castle Trail + Medicine Loop trail first, and then hiked the remainder of the trail from the Fossil Exhibit and Door Parking lots, over the course of two days. We ended up hiking over 10 miles, the round trip distance if we had just done it out-and-back, but it was kind of fun to break it up into sections.

Next, we describe the routes in more detail.

Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

How to Hike the Castle Trail

Castle Trail Point-to-Point

Distance: 5 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Total Ascent: 340 feet | Time: 2 to 3 hours

By hiking the Castle Trail point-to-point, you will start at the Fossil Exhibit Trail and end at the Notch Trail parking lot, or vice versa. Which direction is best depends on the time of day that you do this hike.

It’s best hike the Castle Trail in the morning, when temperatures are cool, especially if you visit the Badlands during the hotter months. In the morning, I recommend starting at the Notch parking lot and hiking west, so the sun is to your back.

If you start this hike in the afternoon, begin at the Fossil Exhibit Trail and head east, so the sun is to your back.

The Castle Trail is a mostly flat trail that wanders through the grasslands. There will be a few short sections where you hike through canyons of colorful hills and spires. These areas are located at either end of the Castle Trail.

The trail is very easy to follow and periodically marked with metal “Castle Trail” signs.

There is a second trail, the Medicine Root Trail, that connects to the Castle Trail in two places, forming a loop. If you are hiking the Castle Trail point-to-point, do not take the Medicine Root Trail. This will add a little more mileage and I think that the Castle Trail is more scenic (having hiked both of them). The two trail junctions will be well-marked with signs.

Medicine Root Trail

Medicine Root Trail

Castle Trail Out-and-Back

Distance: 10.5 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Total Ascent: 340 feet | Time: 4 to 6 hours

For this hike, you will park in one parking lot and hike the Castle Trail out-and-back from here.

Since this is a long hike, plan on starting in the morning. Park at the Notch Trail parking lot so the sun will be to your back for the first part of the hike. Once you turn around at the Fossil Exhibit Trail, the sun will be higher in the sky, so you won’t be walking directly towards it.

I recommend including the Medicine Root Trail into this hike. It only adds a half-mile of extra walking but gives you something different to look at on the return hike. You can do the Medicine Root Trail on the way out or the way back, the order really doesn’t matter.

Bighorn Sheep Badlands

Castle Trail from the Fossil Exhibit Trail

Distance: Up to 4 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Total Ascent: 200 feet | Time: Up to 2 hours

From the Fossil Exhibit Trail, hike the Castle Trail until you have seen enough, then turn around and return to your car. If you hike to the first trail junction with the Medicine Loop Trail, your hike will be 4 miles round trip with 200 feet of total ascent. Most of this elevation gain will be on the return hike.

In my opinion, this section of the Castle Trail was the least interesting. This section of trail is best at the end of the day, so you are hiking away from the sun, at least for the first half of the hike.

Here are photos from this section of the Castle Trail.

Hiking in Badlands National Park

Castle Trail

Near the Junction

Castle Trail from the Notch Trail Parking Lot

Distance: 2.8 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Total Ascent: 250 feet | Time: 1 to 2 hours

The trail stats listed above are for the hike from the Notch Trail parking lot to the first trail junction with the Medicine Root Trail. You can go farther, of course, but the views don’t change much once you cross National Park Road (the dirt road located near the Medicine Root Trail junction).

This is a beautiful section of the Castle Trail and I highly recommend it. We did this in the morning. The sun was to our back during the first part of the hike, creating perfect conditions for photography.

From this same parking lot, you can hike three more trails in the Badlands (the Door Trail, the Window Trail, and the Notch Trail). Don’t miss the Notch Trail, another short hike that is the most thrilling in the park.

Here are photos from this section of the Castle Trail.

Castle Trail Trailhead

How to Hike the Castle Trail

Tim on the Bridge

Castle Trail Bridge

Badlands Hike

Hike Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park Guide

Saddle Pass + Castle Trail Loop

Distance: 4.7 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Total Ascent: 400 feet | Time: 2 to 3 hours

This was the first section of the Castle Trail that we hiked, and it was also our first hike in the Badlands, and we loved it.

The hike up Saddle Pass is short and strenuous. The trail climbs up through the colorful hills of the badlands on a twisting, steep trail. The ground is made of dirt and clay and is very slippery, so I recommend wearing hiking shoes. This is the hardest part of the hike but from the top the view is beautiful.

Once on top of the plateau, continue on the Saddle Pass Trail for a very short distance, until you reach the trail junction with the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail. You will now hike these two trails as a loop and it really doesn’t matter which one you do first.

We hiked the Castle Trail first. We did this at the end of the day and there were very few people on the trail. Along the way, we spotted a small group of bighorn sheep grazing in the grass and relaxing in the shade of one of the spires.

If you hike the Castle Trail first, like we did, turn left on the Medicine Root Trail. This trail circles back to the main trail junction. Take the Saddle Pass trail back to your car.

Saddle Pass Trailhead

Saddle Pass Trailhead

 

Saddle Pass Hike

The Saddle Pass Trail climbs up these hills.

 Saddle Pass Trail Conditions

The Saddle Pass Trail

 

View from Saddle Pass

View from the top of the Saddle Pass Trail

 

Castle Trail Junction

The trail junctions are well-marked with signs like this one.

Our Recommendations

The best way to do this hike is point-to-point, but you need an extra car and/or driver.

For a fun hike that includes several different trails, hike the Saddle Pass + Castle Trail Loop.

If you only want to hike a short distance of the Castle Trail, the section near the Notch Trail parking lot is the most interesting, in our opinion.

Tips to Have the Best Experience

If you plan to visit the Badlands from June through September, be aware that it can get brutally hot. During the summer months, thunderstorms with hail can pop out of nowhere. Plan to hike first thing in the morning or at the very end of the day, when temperatures are at their coolest.

There are restrooms at the Fossil Exhibit Area and the Door, Window, and Notch parking lot. I don’t recall seeing a restroom at Saddle Pass.

Bring sunblock and water on this hike. If you plan on doing one of the longer versions of this hike (4+ miles), plan on bringing at least 1 to 2 liters of water per person.

Leave no trace. When you are in the park, practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace. This includes packing out what you bring into the park, be considerate of other hikers, stay on the trail, and do not remove anything from the park.

Hiking Gear Guide

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it better to hike the Castle Trail from the Notch Trail parking lot or the Fossil Exhibit parking lot?

One of the main things to consider is the time of day. In the morning, start at the Notch Trail parking lot, so the sun is behind you, and you aren’t hiking directly into the sun. In the afternoon, start at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Another thing to consider is parking. The Notch Trail parking lot is significantly larger than the Fossil Exhibit Trail parking lot, so it will be easier to get a parking space at the Notch Trail parking lot.

Which is better, the Castle Trail or the Notch Trail?

The Notch Trail is more thrilling than the Castle Trail, since you get to climb the ladder made of logs and hike along a cliff, all while enjoying great views of this part of Badlands National Park. The Castle Trail is good for those who are looking for a longer hike, like the idea of spotting wildlife from the trail (we saw Bighorn Sheep), and want to get away from the crowds. 

How long does it take to hike the Castle Trail?

If you hike the Castle Trail point-to-point, it is a 5-mile hike that takes 2 to 3 hours. To do this, you will need a second car or have a friend or family member pick you up. If you only hike a portion of the Castle Trail, doing this out-and-back, the hike can take anywhere from an hour to up to 5 hours, depending on how far you go until you turn around.

What is the best trail to hike in the Badlands?

The Notch Trail is our favorite trail in the Badlands, since it is short, it’s fun from start to finish, and you get to climb the ladder made of logs. Hiking the Saddle Pass Trail to the Castle Trail is another great hike in the Badlands, as is hiking into the backcountry from Sage Creek Rim Road.


If you have any questions about hiking the Castle Trail, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information for Your Trip to the Badlands

BEST OF THE BADLANDS: Learn about the best things to do in Badlands National Park, how to hike the Notch Trail, how to spend one perfect day in Badlands National Park, a get a list of the best hiking trails in the park. For more information about how to plan your trip, don’t miss our Badlands National Park Travel Guide.

WIND CAVE: Here are 6 great things to do in Wind Cave National Park and a guide to the Lookout Point and Centennial Trail Loop.

CUSTER STATE PARK: Plan your perfect visit with our big list of things to do in Custer State Park and how to hike to Cathedral Spires and Black Elk Peak.

NATIONAL PARKS BY SEASON: Badlands National Park appears in our Best US National Parks in April and Best National Parks in October articles. For more information about the best times to visit the national parks, check out our Best National Parks Month-by-Month Guide.

VISIT THE US NATIONAL PARKS: Looking for your next big adventure? Read our post Best National Parks, where we narrow down the long list into 15 must-see parks. You can also learn more about the national parks (and get the full list) in our Guide to the US National Parks.

MORE GREAT HIKES IN THE NATIONAL PARKS: From hikes to the tallest peaks to beautiful coast trails, read our Guide to the Best Day Hikes in the US National Parks. If you prefer to keep your hikes short and sweet, read our guide to the Best Short Hikes in the National Parks.

 

Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide.

 

Badlands National Park Castle Trail Hike

 

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Comments 2

  1. Avatar for Markus
    Markus

    Hi there! Quick question about the first photo in this article (entitled “Medicine Root Trail”): Can you tell me which date you took the shot? I’m asking because I’m eager to know when the fall foliage was the way it looked in the image. I’ll be visiting Badlands NP end of October this year, probably a bit late for fall colors… :/

    Thanks!
    Markus

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author
      Julie

      We were in the Badlands from October 7 to October 9 2020. The end of October will be late for the fall colors in the Badlands. They were peak or just past peak the second week of October. It doesn’t matter so much for the Badlands, because there are very few trees, but if you go to the Black Hills, the trees will most likely be bare by the end of October. Cheers, Julie

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