While the presidents on Mount Rushmore are arguably the most visited of South Dakota tourist attractions, you might be further wondering what to do in South Dakota. After researching South Dakota national parks, I discovered the Badlands hiking trails within Badlands National Park. The best part is that Badlands National Park is just an hour from Rapid City, which is where we made home base for our visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Badlands.
Badlands Hiking Trails
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Where are the Badlands?
How many times has someone asked you, “Where are the Badlands?” Let me guess…zero! But growing up in the States, I knew they were somewhere in the Midwest. I later discovered that the Badlands in South Dakota were a bit off-the-beaten-path from the other famous US National Parks, but very much worth the detour. If you’re not joining a tour group, I highly recommend renting a car to get around. This will give you the flexibility to travel at your own pace, stop for photos whenever you’d like, and choose the best of the Badlands hiking trails without holding up others. You can have a look at rental car options here.
Where are the Badlands?
How to get into the Badlands…
First thing’s first, Badlands National Park is massive – far larger than I had expected at 244,000 acres of protected land. After driving about an hour from Rapid City, you’ll pass a Prairie Dog Village and a visitor center worth popping in to (if driving to the Northeast Entrance of the park), before reaching the official entrance to Badlands National Park.
Prairie Farm en route into the Badlands
If you’re going to more than one National Park during your trip (as we did), I highly recommend purchasing an annual pass; an annual interagency parks pass costs $80 per vehicle, and you will certainly get your money’s worth!
As with all national parks, you will be allowed into the Badlands after stopping at the Ranger’s Booth to show ID and proof of pass. You can enter from the Park Headquarters, Northeast Entrance, Pinnacles Entrance, or Interior Entrance. Then continue along the Badlands Loop Road.
Camping at Badlands National Park
We all have our preferences when it comes to sleep, but camping at Badlands National Park is definitely the most popular. You can find the most loved Badlands camping sites here. If you’re not the camping type, there are many hotels near Badlands National Park. We personally stayed in Rapid City about an hour away (in between the Badlands and Mount Rushmore), and you can view your options for lodging in Badlands National Park here.
What are the Badlands?
I’m still not sure if the Badlands are more like canyons or more like mountains; these buttes and pinnacles seem to have created a category of their own! The intricately carved cliffs of the Badlands exist due to significant erosion over time, and continue to erode today further shaping the canyons and spires. Quite frankly, it looks a bit like mars or the set of a science-fiction movie.
What are the Badlands?
But what are the “Badlands”? Split it in two: bad lands. The French trappers in the mid-1700s had trouble traversing the lands and called it “les mauvaises terre,” meaning bad lands. Later on, the Lakota Native Americans began calling it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad.” After spending a day on the Badlands hiking trails, I can certainly see why the early homesteaders called it the Badlands!
If you’re interested in learning more about the geology or early inhabitant history, make your way to the Badlands National Park Visitor Center. It’s an incredible thorough and fascinating exhibit along the Badlands Loop Road.
Best of the Badlands Hiking Trails
The Badlands hiking trails give you the opportunity to get up close and personal with the intricacies of Badlands National Park, both from above and below! You’ll find everything from incredibly easy trails and difficult hikes; research the hiking trails in the Badlands before you take off to ensure that you find yourself the right trail for your fitness level.
1. Door Trail: The Door Trail is ¾ mile (1.2 km) round trip hiking trail beginning with a short boardwalk leading to “the Door,” a break in the Badlands Wall, which looks out over the Badlands. The Badlands Wall stretches over 60 miles, separating the upper from the lower prairie. After the boardwalk ends, the trail becomes more difficult as you’ll have direct access to the rugged terrain of Badlands National Park. You can spend ample time wandering up, over, and through the ancient fossil beds. Look for short yellow markers as a general guideline for the trail.
Door Trail – Badlands Hiking Trails
2. Window Trail: The Window Trail is an incredibly easy ¼ mile (0.4 km) round trip trail that leads to a natural “window” in the Badlands Wall. From the window, you’ll look out over a beautiful canyon in Badlands National Park. Unfortunately we didn't snap a picture here, but the Window Trail is worthwhile if you're feeling an easy stroll.
3. Notch Trail: The Notch Trail was the hardest trail that we did, but I would still say that it was a pretty moderate hike. It’s a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) round trip hike that takes you through a canyon, up a ladder, and along a decently-wide ledge to “the Notch” at the end of the trail. From this opening, you’ll be awarded great views of the White River Valley. I would not recommend this trail on a rainy day, or for anyone with a fear of heights.
Notch Trail – Badlands Hiking Trails
4. Cliff Shelf Trail: The Cliff Shelf Trail is a moderate 0.5 mile (0.8 km) loop trail along a boardwalk. The trailhead will split in two, with the left gradually taking you through a juniper forest and the right taking you up a set of stairs and to a viewing platform to “the Notch.” It was pretty cool to see from where we had just come!
Cliff Shelf Trail – South Dakota National Parks
While those were our favorite Badlands hiking trails, if you have more time and would like a longer route, you can check out the 10-mile Castle Trail and the 4-mile Medicine Root Loop. As with all hikes, please ensure that you have adequate water and sun protection on you before beginning your hike!
The Badlands of South Dakota
Aside from these hikes, there are a ton of incredibly stunning pull-off viewpoints for you to take in the beautiful landscapes within Badlands National Park. They don’t all have names, and if you stop at every single one you’ll be in for a long day, but a few of them are certainly worth it!
Into the Badlands
Badlands Map – Where are the Badlands Located?
Below, please find a map of Badlands National Park. I have pinpointed the best of the Badlands hiking trails as well as the most spectacular view points. I hope you find this Badlands map useful!
Rapid City Regional Airport
Badlands National Park
Prairie Dog Village
Cliff Shelf Trail
Mount Rushmore National Memorial Park
Know Before You Go
Packing for the Badlands Hiking Trails
Now that you have a map of the Badlands on hand and have read about the Badlands hiking trails and viewpoints, make sure you’re prepared! If you’re camping, ensure you have a reliable tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, camping pillow, and a warm coat at absolute minimum, especially if you stay at a Badlands National Park campsite. All of the gear I linked to, I own and recommend personally. Of course, there are many more things that I recommend packing for your trip though, and I highly recommend that you check out my “137 Travel Essentials” to pack for your trip to the Badlands.
The Best Travel Card for your South Dakota National Parks Trip
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Purchase Travel Insurance for your Trip to the Badlands in South Dakota
I hope you don’t embark without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas) for a trip like this. I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you travelers. You can get a free quote here.