Badlands National Park
Ben Reifel Visitor Center; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

A Full Day (and Night) in Badlands National Park: Best Hikes & Where to Camp

Badlands National Park has an incredible 40-mile scenic drive with plenty of pullouts, but getting out of the car and hiking one of the many trails in the Badlands will be a whole new experience.

We’ll cover the best hikes there, and a few camping options so you can have the full park experience. While I love visiting National Parks and sharing my opinion on where to go and the fun things to do, I believe it’s also important to understand the history of the land.

The Badlands was originally the land of the Oglala Sioux. The Second Treaty of Fort Laramie stated that the land should remain in possession of the Sioux. However, the United States broke the treaty and confiscated the land when people rushed to the Black Hills in search of gold and to settle and build in the area.

The southern half of the park remains part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but the northern half is where the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and all of the designated hiking trails are located.

Enjoy the hiking trails and incredible geologic features, but respect the land and the native peoples still living there. While the government should be reconciling with the Indigenous people, we can do our part to research, learn, listen and pay our respects, too.

Without further ado, here are the best hiking trails and areas to explore in Badlands National Park.

Top 5 Hikes in the Badlands

5. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This trail is a nice loop on a boardwalk, with stairs, around a juniper forest with views of the Badlands up, above, and below you. If you head clockwise, it will be a more gradual hike with fewer stairs.

The junipers offer a great place to see and hear birds. The trees smell great, too. If you look toward the northeast, you’ll see people standing on the edge of the Badlands above. They’ve made it to the end of the Notch Trail (more about this trail later on).

  • Trailhead: Cliff Shelf Nature Trail parking area off the Badlands Loop Road
  • Total hiking distance: 0.5 mile/0.8 km loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Elevation gain: 200 ft./61 m
  • Highlights: Following a boardwalk with steps up and around an area of junipers. It’s a short drive from the visitor center.

4. Saddle Pass

Saddle Pass Trail
Saddle Pass Trail: (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

When you arrive at the trailhead, you can already see the endpoint of this trail — it’ll tower above you.

You’ll begin by crossing over a bridge and following narrow trails heading straight up the Badlands Wall. It’s a relatively short but very steep trail. Make sure your shoes have good traction and be careful of the small, loose bits of gravel on the way back down.

If you want to continue hiking, the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Loop Trails meet there too.

  • Trailhead: Saddle Pass Trailhead parking area off of Badlands Loop Road
  • Total hiking distance: 0.7 mi./1.1 km out and back
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 216 ft./66 m
  • Highlights: Hiking up the Badlands Wall and experiencing incredible views of the White River Valley

3. Castle Trail

Castle Trail
Castle Trail trailhead from the western side; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This trail is the longest maintained trail in the park, and it connects with four other trails. So, making this number three is cheating, but I’m doing it anyway.

It depends on which parking lot you start in, but explore the Door and/or Window Trail on one side before or after the hike, and explore the Fossil Exhibit Trail on the other side of the trail. Those three trails are all under one mile (1.6 km) individually, and they provide an extra look in the Badlands.

The fourth trail is the Medicine Root Trail. Follow the Castle Trail one way and return on the Medicine Root Trail for the middle section on the way back. As you hike further away from the main road, your chances of seeing wildlife go up.

Bighorn sheep at sunset
Bighorn sheep at sunset; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

We saw some bighorn sheep as we turned a corner, which was a fun surprise for everyone. As long as you keep your distance, you will all be fine. Just keep following the reddish metal poles for the trail markers.

  • Trailhead: There are two ways to access this trail: Fossil Exhibit Trailhead parking area on the western side, and the Door and Window Trail parking area on the eastern side.
  • Total hiking distance: 10.3 mi./16.6 km out and back (more if you add in the other trails)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation Gain: 305 ft./93 m
  • Highlights: A full-day hike connecting several trails and getting to experience the Badlands to the fullest

2. The Notch Trail

The Notch Trail
The Notch Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This trail is known for its ladder and is as fun as it looks! Begin by winding through the Badlands, and then you will quickly come to the ladder. You’ll probably have to wait for people to come down, but this is a great opportunity for a water break. Then climb up the ladder and continue following the trail along the cliff edges until you reach the final turnout toward the notch.

As mentioned above, this Notch Trail overlooks the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. Return the way you came and enjoy heading down the ladder. Remember to keep three points of contact at all times.

  • Trailhead: The Door and Window Trail parking area
  • Total hiking distance: 12 mi./9.7 km out and back
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: 685 ft./209 m
  • Highlights: Climbing up and down a ladder, following cliff edges, and overlooking the Cliff Nature Trail

1. Deer Haven

Deer Haven Trail
Deer Haven Trail; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)

This is the premier hike in the Badlands, in my opinion. This trail is the hike to do if you’re interested in getting away from the crowds, using your navigation skills, and hiking into the unknown.

This area is an unmaintained network of trails that you’ll follow westward from the trailhead. You’ll go through flat, open, dry areas and high, dry prairie grass areas that will eventually lead you to Deer Haven.

This is a secluded area of juniper trees with the Badlands towering above. From that point, you can either enjoy the shade after a hot hike and return the way you came, or you can hike up into the Badlands and see the view from above.

From there, you can either climb down or continue onward, following a river bed and making your way up and down over Badland formations back to the trailhead.

The rock can be very crumbly, so be careful when exploring the formations. Be prepared with plenty of water, a map, a raincoat in case the weather turns quickly, a hat, snacks and, again, plenty of water.

  • Trailhead: Conata Picnic, Backcountry Access Parking Area on Conata Road, 1 mi./1.6 km off of Badlands Loop Road
  • Total hiking distance: Around 6 mi./9.6 km out and back (depends on your route)
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Elevation gain: It depends on your route
  • Highlights: Hiking a secluded area in the park and experiencing a lush area of junipers in the middle of the Badlands

After a whole day of hiking and enjoying the sunset, you’ll want to camp, so here are a few ideas.

Best Places for Camping in Badlands National Park

1. Cedar Pass Campground

  • Location: Near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
  • Number of sites: 96
  • Site fees: $23/night for two people (tent sites), $38/night for two people (electric sites); $40/night (group sites, 26 people max)
  • Other fees: Septic dump available nearby for $1; $4 fee for each additional person per night (children 15 years and younger stay free)
  • Amenities: Pay showers and flush toilets
  • Campfires: Not allowed
  • Reservations: Visit cedarpasslodge.com or call 605-433-5460

2. Sage Creek Campground

Sage Creek Campground
Sage Creek Campground; (photo/Xiaoling Keller)
  • Location: Sage Creek Rim Road, an unpaved road on the far west side of the park
  • Number of sites: 22
  • Fee: Free; first come, first serve
  • Amenities: Pit toilets and covered picnic tables. No water available.
  • Campfires: Not allowed

3. Backpacking

  • Trailhead locations: Medicine/Castle Trail Loop, Saddle Pass Trailhead, Conata Picnic Area, Sage Creek Basin Overlook, and the Sage Creek Campground
  • Fee: Free (with registration at the trailhead)
  • Amenities: No water available
  • Campfires: Not allowed

Conclusion

These are my personal top five hikes in the park, as I’ve visited multiple times — and the Notch Trail is one I will never miss!

I hope your visit to the Badlands is full of hiking, learning more about the park and its history, watching wildlife from a distance, enjoying a stunning sunset from Pinnacles Overlook, camping under the stars, and whatever else you enjoy.

View from the Boland Ridge Trail
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