On our first vacation together, Lucas and I cruised through Badlands National Park in one afternoon. We could only afford such a small amount of time because we had a mission to see as many parks as we could in 10 days. On our longest stop, we hopped out for one quick hike to stretch the legs, and then drove off on our way west.
So, when we interviewed with Badlands Park Ranger Ed Welsh for the podcast, we weren’t surprised to hear most people see the park this way! For many, the Badlands is considered a drive-through park on the way to bigger destinations like Yellowstone or iconic places like Mount Rushmore.
With that in mind, we set out to find the best day hikes at Badlands National Park on our recent trip through South Dakota. Take a moment and stretch your legs on one of these fun excursions during your next visit!
1 – Saddle Pass
This one is a bit of a doozy. It’s only a ¼ mile hike up to the top of the pass, but it takes most people 20-30 minutes.
We used our hands often to help over big formations. And, on one tricky part, we scrambled off the trail for a bit.
Halfway up we reached a point with no markers to be seen. It looks like the trail heads off to the right, but we should have climbed up the big shelf to the left. In fact, we didn’t realize we went the wrong way until the return back to the car. We then realized why we had so much trouble on the way up!
Once at the top, both of us were red in the face with our chests heaved up and down as we sucked in air. But, the views made it all worth it — you feel like you’re on top of the world!
2 – Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
If the Saddle Pass sounds a bit too strenuous for you, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail might be more your speed as it’s one of the easier day hikes at Badlands National Park. The ½ mile trail follows along a gravel path and a boardwalk with stairs up to a beautiful view of the plains.
Some might find this trail a bit underwhelming, but I love to walk through the cool shade of the trees after a day where the hot sun beat down on you. In fact, this area attracts a lot of animals because of the water source. You might see bighorn sheep, deer or a little bunny rabbit hop across your path!
The trail is also archaeologically significant because humans used the cliff for over 11,000 years! At the top of the trail a small pool of water collects during the wetter months.
I find it fun to walk in these places and reflect back on history. Close your eyes and imagine you stand in the same place others stood for thousands of years. What kind of life did they live?
3 – Notch Trail
Of all the day hikes at Badlands National Park we did, this one is our favorite. You end up at a break in the wall, or notch, nestled above the Cliff Nature Trail. And while the views are as amazing as those on Nature Trail, the adventure to get there is what makes this hike unique.
The 1 ½ mile trail can be strenuous at times, so make sure you wear good hiking shoes for this one.
To start, we walked along a flat trail as the Badlands formations loomed around us. The trail winds around and the formations get taller and taller until we found an interesting surprise just around the corner:
The wooden ladder runs up the side of the formations to the top, and the climb seems steep from the bottom. However, you can walk up most of the ladder like stairs. When you get close to the top, you’ll have to climb it like a ladder the rest of the way.
From there, we traveled through more of the maze with a few cliff ledges thrown in for un-comfort.
The reward? A grand view from the notch in the wall!
4 – The Door Trail
This ¾ mile long trail is pretty easy. It begins on the boardwalk, but be sure to continue passed the maintained trail’s end. It’s at that point the fun begins!
The whole hike feels like you’re on the moon. Numbered markers dot the landscape as you walk through smaller formations. And at the end, you walk through a “door” and overlook some of the deep valleys of the Badlands.
It’s a great beginners trail if you want to take it easy. I found this Badlands hike to be a bit of a thrill. It’s because the experience is so otherworldly!
Other Day Hikes at Badlands National Park
We tried some of the other hikes in the park but found them to be a bit boring. We wanted to do the longer Medicine Root and Castle Trails. However, we ran out of time and the weather kept us in the RV.
In addition to our 4 favorite hikes, we also wanted to mention a cool hiking feature of the park: if you’re the adventurous type with a good sense of direction, you can hike ANYWHERE you want in the Badlands.
Yep, that’s right, I said anywhere! The open hiking policy at Badlands National Park offers a unique opportunity to hike anywhere you please without concern for the surrounding environment. The formations are always eroding, so your footprints will disappear once the next rainstorm moves through the park.
On The Way To Bigger Things
So, if you find yourself driving through the Badlands along your way to bigger destinations, take a moment to stretch those legs. The 4-day hikes we mentioned could be knocked out in a day.
Or, you could always take a bit more time in the area along the longer trails, visit Wall Drug, or take a trip through the Cold War at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site north of the Badlands east entrance!
Badlands NP Quick Review
Recommended Visit: 1-3 Days
Things to Do: Hiking, Fossil Discoveries, Scenic Drives, Backcountry Camping and Ranger Talks
Location: Main Visitor’s Center Address — Ben Reifel Visitor Center, 25216 SD-240, Interior, SD 57750
- Cedar Pass Campground has electrical hookups and accommodates rigs up to 40 feet.
- Sage Creek Campground offers First Come First Served camping and free!
- Backcountry camping
- Free boondocking in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
If you’d like more tips and trail reports for hikes in the National Parks, sign up below to join our Virtual Kamper community!
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