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.
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.
Now, here are the routes described in more detail.
Castle Trail Routes
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The Saddle Pass Trail climbs up these hills.
The Saddle Pass Trail
View from the top of the Saddle Pass Trail
The trail junctions are well-marked with signs like this one.
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.
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.
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 South Dakota:
- BADLANDS: 15 Best Things to do in Badlands National Park
- BADLANDS: How to Hike the Notch Trail
- MOUNT RUSHMORE: Mount Rushmore: 10 Things to Know Before You Go
- CUSTER STATE PARK: Custer State Park: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go
- WIND CAVE: How to Hike the Lookout Point and Centennial Loop Trail
- BEST OF SOUTH DAKOTA: 15 Things to Do in South Dakota near Rapid City
Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide.
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