What’s wonderful about the state of South Dakota is the abundance of outdoor activities. Along with the Black Hills and Custer State Park, one place I go to again and again is the Badlands National Park. I can’t even begin to express how much I love this place and it’s safe to say it’s one of my favorite National Parks.
Designated a national park in 1978, the Badlands is open all year round except when there are weather closures, therefore visiting the park shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. In the summer it can get very warm, even though South Dakota is fairly north. In the winter, the weather is unpredictable, and the snow and wind can make it not only very chilly but also dangerous.
Upon entering the park, you’re automatically transported to the bizarre and unique landscape of the Badlands. The Badlands Loop Road has multiple overlooks allowing visitors to absorb the drastically different landscapes, from the painted buttes to the flat, peaceful prairies.The Badlands offer up wonderful hiking trails and they’re my absolute favorite. It’s so vast, you can hike on the trails without seeing another soul for hours. Other than Saddle Pass, which is quite difficult, all of the hikes are relatively easy to moderate. You just need a lot of time to enjoy the sites. Because you’re essentially in the backcountry, there are no services available anywhere past the visitor center. Taking a lot of water, wearing sunscreen, and a hat and/or sunglasses are all things to remember when on a long hike, regardless of the location or time of year. I wear my trusty Camelbak whenever I go, which carries about 3 liters of water. There’s little to no shade on the hike and while nature is beautiful, it can also be inherently dangerous.There are eight trails and some of them run into each other.
The shortest and easiest trail is the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Fully accessible and on a boardwalk, this quarter mile trail is the most interactive with exhibits of extinct animals and fossil replicas that were found in the area.
The Saddle Pass is the most difficult. Marked by metal rods, this quarter mile trail isn’t really a trail…it’s more of a climb. Coming down was more nerve-wracking than going up because it was so steep. However, once you reach the top, you’re met with an amazing view along with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop Trails.
The Castle Trail is the longest trail at ten miles round trip. Other than a few locations of moderate difficulty, this trail is easy and flat, and well marked with metal rods. The path goes through the Badlands formations but also through a more prairie-like surrounding. I love going during different times of the year because the landscape changes drastically.
The Medicine Root Loop meets up with the Castle Trail twice and is around four miles round trip. This is my favorite trail because it’s mostly a grass prairie and beautiful. Cacti line the sides of the trail, to include my favorite, prickly pear! And when the fruits are ripe, and if you’ve got a knife on you, they’re also edible. I typically like to start at the Castle Trailhead by the Fossil Exhibit, hike until it meets up with the Medicine Root Trail, and do the four-mile loop before going back.
The Notch Trail is more moderate than the Castle Trail or Medicine Root Loop. This one-and-a-half mile round trip trail takes you through a canyon and there’s a log ladder that takes you up to a ledge, “the Notch,” and you get a beautiful view of the valley. There are plenty of drop-offs, so make sure you exercise caution when hiking.
Close to the Notch Trail are the Door and Window Trails. Both are short and easy, about a mile total in length round trip. The Door Trail has a quarter-mile boardwalk and once you go beyond the maintained trail, you’re on your own. It’s fun to go off the path a bit here but always exercise caution.
The last trail is the Cliff Shelf, which weirdly enough, I haven’t hiked yet. Probably because I always drove past it and don’t even realize it. However, it’s about a half-mile round trip and it follows a boardwalk and flights of stairs along the Badlands Wall.
Animal life is abundant in the Badlands. I have yet to see a rattlesnake, but they are around and it’s wise to keep an eye out for them while hiking. Sometimes its a hit or miss on which animals you see, but I’ve seen bison hanging out near the entrance and bighorn sheep grazing right along the road. Rabbits and prairie dog communities are also common. While nice to look at, wildlife should be left alone and viewed them from a distance.
A quick note: these photos were taken during different times of the year so the greenery and fauna vary dramatically during the seasons.
Have you ever visited the Badlands? Please share your experience!