3 Inspiring Hikes Beyond The Badlands National Park Loop

Hiking Badlands National Park

Like Ladona and Brad, I’m on a mission to visit all of the National Parks in the United States. And last summer I took a couple of months to knock a few parks off the list. Badlands National Park came out on top as my #1 favorite National Park that I’ve been to (so far).

The scenery that you experience at this park is some of the most awe inspiring that I’ve seen, and yes, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone! While it’s true that you can take in all of this natural beauty from the comfort of your car, there is so much more to experience just a few steps beyond the road.

When I visit National Parks, I like to pack up the car with a cooler and lots of drinks and snacks because I intend to close that thing down at the end of the day. For my visit to the Badlands, I was there for just one day, but that was an epic 14-hour day.

Cruising along the Scenic Drive in Badlands National Park
Cruising along the Scenic Drive in Badlands National Park

Sure the National Park Service website tells you that you only need around two hours to drive the scenic loop and stop at a few scenic overlooks, but honestly, that is not nearly enough time to take it all in.

With just a bit of pre-planning, you can get out of that car and take a few easy to moderate hike. You will see parts of this park that you’d never even glimpse from the passenger seat.

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What To Bring For Hikes In The Badlands

While you might be tempted to hop out of the car in your flip flops and summer attire, I implore you to not do that. Even if you’re only planning on the easiest of hikes, it is important to be prepared for hiking in hot weather.

  • Proper footwear. You’ll want something with closed toes so that you don’t injure yourself if you trip and fall. Plus, there are rattlesnakes in the park! Hiking boots are good for those who plan to do moderate to difficult trails, but I’m a big fan of hiking sandals for easy trails – KEEN is my favorite brand that I’ve trail tested.
  • Plenty of water. Remember that cooler? Don’t underestimate just how thirsty you’ll get hiking out in the sun and summer heat. For a two hour hike, most people estimate that two quarts per hour (per person) is an adequate amount. Personally, I carry as much water as I comfortably can in my pack.
  • High energy snacks. If you’re doing a long hike, then definitely pack some snacks that can give you an energy boost. You can buy packaged snacks designed for this purpose, or just mix your own trail mix. I also sometimes just bring a bag of almonds or a couple of packets of Justin’s nut butter for short hikes.

    Shawna on Badlands National Park Hiking Trip
    Shawna on Badlands National Park Hiking Trip
  • Sun protection. In addition to wearing sunscreen, I suggest that you bring a sun hat and possibly a UV-protection shirt to prevent sunburn. I live in Las Vegas, but even I was surprised by how intense the sun was in this park on the day I visited.
  • Trekking poles. While this may seem like something that is only good for serious hikers, keep in mind that they can also be used as a weapon in the unlikely event that you surprise some wildlife and they attack. I hike all the time (and all over the place) and have never had to use my poles as weapons, but it’s always good to be prepared. Plus, trekking poles help you stay on your feet when you encounter loose gravel on a trail.
  • Daypack. Use this to store all of your gear, and wear it on both shoulders to evenly distribute the weight. Just be sure to not pack it too heavy because it will fatigue you and give you back pain.

Hiking In The Badlands

There are several marked trails in the park, so you have multiple options for stepping out of your comfort zone and experiencing a bit more of the Badlands.

When you enter the park, the rangers should give you a map that shows where all of the marked trails can be found. Or, you can find it on the park website.

Before you set off on a trail that takes you away from the main road, please be sure that someone knows where you are going. Most of the trails have a sign-in book for hikers. Please sign in when you start the trail and sign back out when you return. In the event that you end up lost or injured, this will help the park rangers to find you.

One important thing to remember is that you generally should stay on the trail, especially when you are in areas where there is a drop-off into a canyon. This isn’t a big deal on most of the easy trails, or even on the longer Castle trail. But there are a few trails here where it can be dangerous to get off trail.

Below I’ll share some of my recommend trails at the Badlands.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

I recall this being the easiest trail at the park. The entire trail is a covered boardwalk, so even visitors with walking difficulties should be able to enjoy this one.

It’s not a very long trail at all and gives you some information on the types of animals that used to roam the area. Also note that there are restroom facilities here.

Castle Trail

If you’re feeling adventurous, then I recommend this trail. It starts across the road from the Fossil Exhibit trail and I’d rate it easy to moderate. Just know what you’re in for before you start, because this trail is around 10 miles roundtrip.

Even if you don’t want to hike this trail, I still suggest you cross the road from the Fossil Exhibit trail area. Here you can just do a bit of exploring at the trailhead. There you will find a lot of the cool Badlands formations that are so characteristic of the park. And if you’re like me, then you’ll want to do some scrambling on them! You can even scramble up to the top of some of them without too much effort, which gives you a nice view of the surrounding landscape.

This trail ends over at the parking lot where the Door trail and the Window trail start. There are also restroom facilities there.

Wildlife while hiking in Badlands National Park
Do you see the Big Horn Sheep on the bluff?

Cliff Shelf Trail

Despite it’s dangerous sounding name, this trail is only rated “moderate” and I didn’t find it to be particularly dangerous.

However, you might encounter wildlife on this trail since there is a pond, though apparently it dries up sometimes. Just remember to not approach any wildlife!

You do need some degree of physical fitness for this trail because there are stairs and a slight elevation increase.

This trail is only a half-mile round trip. You can find this trailhead between the visitor’s center and the Notch trailhead.

While these are my recommend trails in the park, you will find more marked on the visitor’s map. Several of the other trails are rated “easy”. Just one of the other trails is a strenuous option for more experienced hikers.

I hope these tips help you to make a full day of exploring all of the beauty that the Badlands offers. And if you have an extra day in the Rapid City area, then I highly suggest visiting the nearby Custer State Park. It also has a scenic loop where you can see lots of wildlife and nice scenery. Plus, there are more trails for you to hike there.

Meet our Guest – Shawna from ActiveWeekender.com

Shawna helps non-outdoorsy people get outside and get active, even if it’s just on the weekends. From hiking to water sports, you can find her tips at https://www.activeweekender.com/

Ladona’s notes: When Shawna and I talked about this post, I shared with her that I didn’t get far from the loop road in Badlands National Park because we heard rattlesnakes close by. I’ve seen all those spaghetti westerns where the rattlesnake jumps out of the weeds. I just couldn’t do it!  So I’m thrilled Shawna stepped in to share some of the delight that can be found by hiking this beautiful park. I mentioned it to friends last week and they said “that’s what your hiking poles are for”. So now I have another use for my hiking poles that I am never without.

If you have a trip ahead for some Badlands National Park hiking, don’t forget to pin this post to your vacation board! If you have enjoyed the beauty of this amazing land, please share in the comments below.  Hiking in Badlands National Park!
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