Badlands National Park has many scenic views of the South Dakota badlands that you can get by walking a few steps from your car… and even without even getting out of your car!
But if you do want to get out and walk more than a few steps, you have a few short hikes to choose from that you can do when you have just one day in Badlands National Park!
When it comes to short hikes, Badlands National Park is pretty easy to navigate.
That’s because basically all of the official short hikes in Badlands National Park are located in one area. That is the Cedar Pass area.
First, THE hiking trail if you’re looking for a solid day hike, with short hiking and long hiking options.
Then, a bit about the “wilderness” trails or “backcountry” of Badlands National Park
Then, a list of hiking trails in Badlands National Park as you will find them driving along Badlands Loop Road, which is the main road in the national park. Easy hikes included!
The “big” hike to do in Badlands National Park: Hiking the Castle Trail
The longest official trail in Badlands National Park is the Castle Trail.
The Castle Trail is around a 10 mile round trip hike.
But if that’s more time than you want to dedicate to hiking in Badlands National Park, you may very well find it to be worth it to make it a short hike.
There are a few different ways to hike the Castle Trail:
- Hike from the Door / Window / Notch trailhead parking lot
- Hike from the Fossil exhibit trailhead parking lot
- Hike from the Saddle Pass trailhead
For any of these hikes, you can decide how long you want to hike and turn around when you feel good about what you’ve seen.
When hiking from the Door/Window/Notch trailhead (it’s all same parking lot) or the Fossil exhibit trailhead, you will start off seeing views of rock formations and hiking through these rock formations.
Basically, you will be hiking through the Badlands rock formations at the beginning of the hike, no matter which end you start it on.
Then, as you walk further, you will start to be hiking more through grasslands, seeing a combination of grasslands and badlands.
If you start the hike from Saddle Pass, after you get through the rock formations of Saddle Pass, your hike will be a mix of grasslands and badlands views.
If you like to have a “destination” to hike to, with any of these hikes, you can take a look at a map at the trailhead, and then make a road or trail junction your turnaround point.
For example, if you start hiking from Door / Window / Notch, you can say your turnaround point is at Old Northeast Road. Or you can keep going and make it a loop with the Medicine Loop Trail.
If you start hiking from Fossil, you can say your turnaround point is when Castle Trail meets Saddle Pass Trail.
That’s all if you want a shorter hike instead of the full 10 mile round trip hike. If you want to hike 10 miles, then it’s a point-to-point out-and-back hike! If you start at Door Window Notch or Fossil, it’s a relatively flat hike.
See more about this hiking trail in Badlands National Park: Where to start the Castle Trail
Where is the Badlands hiking trail in Nomadland?
One of the Badlands spots that you see in the movie Nomadland is also one of the best hikes in Badlands National Park!
There is a scene in Nomadland in which the main character Fern is walking through the Badlands.
That Nomadland filming location was Door Trail, past the boardwalk!
Well, I think it is anyway! It looks like you can see the Door Trail boardwalk in the background!
This means that hiking in Badlands National Park is as seen on TV!
For another Badlands spot in the movie, Fern also went camping in the Badlands as a camp host, and that filming location was Cedar Pass Campground!
For more Nomadland locations in South Dakota, Fern was also seen driving through the Needles Eye Tunnel (I am pretty sure) and she was also seen working at Wall Drug!
There is also a scene in which Fern is standing with the Needles of the Black Hills as the vast landscape. You can find similar scenes at stops along the Needles Highway.
And finally, there was another scene of her watching a buffalo. Because of the other scenes surrounding it, my guess is that was Custer State Park.
If you plan to go hiking in the Badlands, you can watch Nomadland on Hulu before you go!
“Wilderness” trails in Badlands National Park: Hike anywhere!
Castle Trail is the longest official trail in Badlands National Park, but it’s not your only option if you’re looking for a long hike.
Badlands National Park is an “open-hike” park.
This basically means that you are allowed to hike anywhere in Badlands National Park, even if it’s not an official trail… within reason of course. Be safe out there! There are also a few signs that will tell you not to go off-trail. But aside from this, it is open hiking.
If you are looking for a long-distance trail in Badlands National Park, Sage Creek and Deer Haven are the usual backpacking spots. Backcountry camping in Badlands National Park is possible.
These 2 areas are further away from the popular spots along Badlands Loop Road, with Sage Creek being the furthest away. This means that you might get a more wild and remote feeling with hiking in Deer Haven or Sage Creek.
Also in the Sage Creek wilderness area is the Sage Creek Campground. This is a free camping spot in Badlands National Park that you can drive to. (So it’s not backcountry camping.) This is for tent camping is smaller RV camping. You can also make Sage Creek Campground your base for a day hike around the Sage Creek wilderness area.
Prairie dog sightings are very possible at Sage Creek campground!
You may also see buffalo in this remote area of Badlands National Park!
Take care when hiking in Badlands National Park!
Generally speaking in Badlands National Park, sometimes the dirt can be dry loose gravel which means it can be slippery. So, take care!
If it’s flat it’s generally fine but it’s when you start on trails that go up or down that you may notice it.
It is also said that rain can cause for unsafe hiking conditions in Badlands National Park, so use your good judgment!
When in doubt, don’t go!
Also, pack a gallon jug of water or 2 into your car so you’ll always have easy access to water! Temperatures in Badlands National Park can be in the 90s and 100s.
Even better to always take a water bottle with you whenever you leave you car. You never know if you’ll find some views you like and want to stay out and wander longer than you thought!
More below about the short hikes in Badlands National Park for one day of hiking!
Here are some ideas for a classic South Dakota road trip going from east to west!
After you go to Badlands National Park, you can head west to Wall Drug and then onwards to Mount Rushmore! You've made it to the Black Hills, where you'll find Custer State Park for a perfect place to stay. You can choose from the Custer State Park campgrounds or Custer State Park camping cabins for a budget-friendly stay, or you can go for more luxury at one of the Custer State Park lodges! (You can even stay at a past president's Summer White House!) While you're in the area, you can also go to Wind Cave National Park and/or Jewel Cave National Monument and/or the Mammoth Site! Drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway on your way west out of the Black Hills and South Dakota as you continue your epic road trip to Devils Tower National Monument and Wyoming! Then, onwards to the best places to visit in Wyoming with your grand finale of Wyoming being one day in Yellowstone National Park!
Read the details: Best places to visit in South Dakota
Save the South Dakota video playlist to watch on youtube later!
5+ short hikes in Badlands National Park
It can be reasonable to do all of these Badlands hikes in one day. You can drive along Badlands Loop Road and stop for each of these hikes!
Badlands National Park has several entrances.
This is the order that you would come across the hikes if you enter Badlands National Park through the northeast entrance.
Starting from the northeast entrance of Badlands National Park…
You’ll first pass by the Big Badlands Overlook. You can make a stop here for a quick walk around!
Then, you will come to a large parking lot. This is where you can start 4 hikes in Badlands National Park!
The Door Trail, Window Trail, and Notch Trail all are at the same parking lot. (A little bit about each of these coming up.) You can also start the Castle Trail from this parking lot.
As you pull into the parking lot, the views of the Badlands will be right in front of you.
You can go off and walk around some of this!
From this parking lot is also where I saw a bighorn sheep!
Okay, so we now the first “real” hike that you will come across.
1. Door Trail
When you are in the parking lot facing the Badlands in front of you, the Door Trail will be on the far left of the parking lot.
This is a relatively easy hike in Badlands National Park, and you have options.
You can simply make this an easy leisurely walk by walking the boardwalk section of Door Trail only. This is listed as less than a mile round trip.
Or, you can leave the boardwalk and then hike further out into the Badlands.
Although it’s not really a difficult hike, it is always a good idea to be wearing good shoes if you are going out hiking the Badlands.
If you hike out here, then you might spend a total of around 30-45 minutes out on the trail round trip.
2. Window Trail
Next, you can move on to Window Trail.
This starts from the same parking lot as Door Trail.
But if you have parked in the far left area, you can get back in your car to cool off in the AC for some relief from the 90F or 100F weather of the Badlands, and drive over to the right side of the parking lot. 🥵🥵🥵 Or, you know, you could walk. 😜
Either way, Window Trail is located towards the right side of the parking lot.
This is an easy hike in Badlands National Park. It’s more like an easy leisurely walk.
It will likely take you less than 10 minutes to complete the whole walk which will be entirely on a boardwalk.
This will take you to the “window” of the Badlands “wall.”
3. Notch Trail
Next you can move on to the Notch Trail. This is on the same side of the parking lot as the Window Trail.
Notch Trail is an iconic hike in Badlands National Park.
What makes it iconic is the Notch Trail ladder.
This is a kind of rope ladder so it moves a little when you’re on it.
But actually, you don’t need to climb the ladder up in order to hike the Notch Trail.
When I was there, there were a number of people who climbed up the steep trail that was off to the left of the ladder. I did this too. 😆 This does have some of the dry and loose gravel, which at a steep angle can cause slipping if you’re not careful… and even if you are.
I did come down on the ladder though. 😱 And yeah the whole time I thought I was going to slip and fall off the ladder. 😆😬😅
So the Notch Trail is one of the adventure trails of Badlands National Park.
If you can get past the Notch Trail ladder, then you will be able to manage the rest of the trail just fine.
This will have you hiking with rock formations all around you, and it ends with a viewpoint of the open grasslands.
The Notch Trail is listed as 1.5 miles round trip. You might spend about 1 hour on the Notch Trail round trip.
Door Window Notch to Castle Trail
Once you have finished up all the hikes you want to do at the Door Window Notch parking lot, you can also have a quick hike (or long hike!) on the Castle Trail. At the parking lot, you’ll look for the crosswalk, and that will take you to the start of the Castle Trail.
Hiking for 10-15 minutes one way on the Castle Trail from the Door Window Notch parking lot will have you hiking through rock formations.
Now moving on from the Door Window Notch parking lot…
4. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
As you continue driving along Badlands Loop Road, you will find the parking lot for the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail directly along the side of the road.
You’ll be walking with views of the Badlands Wall.
There are lots of stairs on this trail.
You might be on this trail for 20-30 minutes total.
5. Saddle Pass Trail
Next along Badlands Loop Road, you can look for the Saddle Pass trailhead parking lot.
I also saw bighorn sheep in the field in front of this parking lot.
This wouldn’t be considered an easy hike, but it is a short hike based on distance. It’s listed as a quarter of a mile round trip, but it will take a bit longer because this trail is steep!
It also has the dry loose gravel so you’ll want to take care on this trail.
Even if you don’t plan up hiking up, you might want to stop here to walk across the bridge to get views from the bottom of the hill.
See more about this hiking trail in Badlands National Park: Saddle Pass Trail
Saddle Pass to Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail
Once at the top of the Saddle Pass Trail, you will find a trail junction to start hiking on the Castle Trail (option to hike towards Door Window Notch or towards Fossil) or to start hiking on the Medicine Root Trail.
6. Fossil Exhibit Trail
And driving further along Badlands Loop Road, you’ll come across the parking lot for the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
This trail is literally an exhibit of fossils! It is basically a mini outdoor museum with the Badlands as the backdrop.
You will be walking around and you can see the display of fossil replicas that will also take you through the different time periods and the rock layers (and fossils!) of the Badlands that were formed throughout the millions of years in the past.
This is another easy hike in Badlands National Park. Once again, this is more like an easy leisurely walk.
This trail is listed as a quarter of a mile. Depending on how much time you spend learning about each of the fossils and and time period that are from, it might take you less than 10-20 minutes to complete this walk, or less if you just stop to learn about 1 or 2.
And if you are interested in fossils, then be sure to stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center of Badlands National Park. You can check if the paleontology lab is open for visitors where you can see real fossils and maybe even a paleontologist at work!
Fossil Exhibit Trail to Castle Trail
And then you can also start the Castle Trail from the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Once again, you’ll look for the crosswalk, and across the road from the Fossil Trail parking lot will be the start of the Castle Trail.
And once again, you can walk for 10-15 minutes to walk around rock formations!
The end of hiking around Cedar Pass of the South Dakota Badlands!
And then you can continue your drive on Badlands Loop Road for more scenic overlooks, or you can end the day by camping with classic views of the Badlands at Cedar Pass campground!
Badlands National Park is considered a good spot to view the night sky, with a chance to see the Milky Way.
You can do your own star gazing from anywhere in the park.
Near the Cedar Pass campground, there is also a night sky program in the summer where you can learn about astronomy from park rangers.
When I was there, there was a telescope set up to see the planet of Jupiter and 2 of its moons.
Anyone can attend the night sky program for free, whether you are camping or not!
Badlands National Park hiking MAP
For better understanding of where all of the hikes in Badlands National Park are, here is a map from the National Park Service!
And those are some hiking trails in the South Dakota badlands!
More overlooks you may like in Badlands National Park:
More hiking in South Dakota:
More national park sites in the Dakotas:
- How to spend 1-2 hours in Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- The adventure cave tour in Jewel Cave National Monument
- Remote unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- The even more remote unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
More of Badlands National Park on youtube: List of Badlands National Park videos
HAPPY HIKING IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK!