Explore the immense beauty of Badlands National Park on one of these 8 must-do short hikes.
Located in western South Dakota, the Badlands are one of the most stunning, unique, and memorable National Parks anywhere in the country. Massive buttes, pinnacles, and spires slice through the horizon, and after nearly 500,000 years of erosion, “fossils buried in the rock slowly reveal themselves and park paleontologists study them to learn about ancient life in the area,” according to the NPS.
Compared to other National Parks, most hikes in the Badlands are quite short, some even wheelchair accessible! It’s safe to say that you could tackle at least a few of these hikes in one day, but if you’d rather enjoy the views from the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle, a main road loops through the park and offers spectacular views all along the way! Current entry fees can be viewed here, and all are valid for seven days. Also worth noting, dogs are also not allowed on any hiking trail in the park – a policy consistent with many National Parks in the United States.
Entering from the Northeast Entrance, the first hike to make the list — and one of the shortest – is the Big Badlands Overlook Trail. This 30-minute round-trip walk offers awe-inspiring views to the east, showcasing the majestic geological formations the Badlands are known for. If you’re coming from the east on Interstate 90, take Exit 131 and head south to the entrance station. This quick hike is just a few seconds past the entry and a great opportunity to stretch your legs after a long drive.
Heading further south, you’ll wind through a few curves in the road before noticing a large trailhead on your left. This parking area is extremely large and good for RVs, trailers, and buses, with plenty of parking for cars. The Door Trail, Window Trail, and Notch Trail all offer incredible views and all begin from this trailhead. The Window and Door Trails are a great pairing, but a visit to all three is a rewarding endeavor. The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is another excellent short hike just down the road and offers sweeping views of the Badlands from its highest point.
On the western edge of the park, the Fossil Exhibit Trail offers a short family-friendly boardwalk hike with several placards detailing fossils that have been found in the region. It’s described by this source as more of "an outdoor Visitor's Center than a hike to see some fossils," though its family-friendly feel and wheelchair accessibility make it a must-do hike if you have the time.
Should you be up for the challenge, the Castle Trail is the longest and most epic route to make the list, at just over 5 miles. It connects the eastern and western edges of the park via 5 miles of backcountry trail “through intricately carved buttes, sod tables, washes and gullies with useful perspective on the powerful erosive forces that shape the Badlands.” Source
Though you could hike out-and-back on the trail, its an excellent option if you have two vehicles, or if you have someone who is willing to shuttle you. Alternatively, this route pairs the Castle and Medicine Root Trails for an excellent loop from the east – the same trailhead shared with the aforementioned Door, Window, and Notch Trails.