One of the most breathtaking National Parks in the United States is the Badlands. For more than 11,000 years, the Lakota have called this beautiful place home and used it as their hunting grounds. Many different animals inhabit the park, such as mule deer, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and bison.
It will be difficult not to fall in love with this National Park. The encouraged exploration, the easy to moderate selection of trails, the stunning views, the rampant wildlife…it really has everything that people are looking for in a national park adventure. This is the true American Heartland. Fossils of prehistoric animals, legends of Native American Warriors, ghost dances, bison, rocky spires, and so much more make this a trip that everyone should try and experience.
It’s an absolute must for anyone who loves photography. Visitors are encouraged to crawl all over the countless mounds, but where do you start? There are literally dozens of trails throughout this massive national park, so it can be difficult to figure out which are worthwhile and which are a waste of time, especially if you have a list of animals and formations that you want to see. To help you navigate this sprawling landscape, we’ve noted some of the top hiking trails throughout Badlands National Park.
Medicine Root Trail
This is a short, four-mile trail along mostly flat terrain that gives people a great opportunity to walk among the prairie dogs. As you drive through the park to get to trailheads, you can’t help but notice the thousands of tiny heads popping themselves up from below the surface, watching your vehicle drive by. There are simply scores of these cute little creatures all throughout the park, but this trail probably gives visitors their closest look at the animal’s natural home. Just be careful of cactus and the occasional rattlesnake sunning itself on the boardwalk! While visitors are allowed to go off trail throughout the park, for the Medicine Root Trail, you likely won’t need to explore off-trail very much to get great images of prairie dogs to take home.
While short (just a mile and a half), the Notch Trail is deceptively strenuous. This is a good trail for anyone who wants to experience the ruggedness of the national park. You walk through canyons until you reach a log ladder, and then you hike along the edges of the canyons until you see a stunning view of the White River Valley. The ladder is quite memorable and really fun to climb. It’s about fifty steps and just makes you smile as you climb for a nice change of pace. This trail is recommended for a quick sojourn, especially for anyone who wants to feel like they’ve really explored the canyons, but without having to hike all day to do it. You might see some small ponds formed and maybe even white-tailed deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
This short, half-mile trail along a boardwalk is a fun little family hike that just takes a few minutes to conclude. At the end of the trail, you’ll see a spectacular view of the White River Valley, as well as Eagle Butte. Not only is this a quick, family-friendly trail, but you can see more than fifty plant species and potentially more than a hundred bird species along the way. This is mostly due to the proximity of a bowl-like area that retains water within the Cliff Shelf itself. When it collects water, you may see bighorn sheep having a refreshing drink.
Sheep Mountain Table Road
For the more serious hikers out there, this trail is a pleasant moderate difficulty with a little length. At just over fourteen and a half miles long, the Sheep Mountain Table trail will weave you through the National Park to see beautiful wildflowers. It’s lightly trafficked, so you likely won’t be bumping into all of the families that will opt for shorter trails. It’s a hard-packed dirt road that you could also traverse using a bicycle or appropriate off-road vehicle, but hiking it will definitely give you the most satisfaction. It has limited views due to being in the centre of the plateau, but a few are truly gorgeous. Many people prefer to drive up to a certain point and then hike the rest of the way.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Kids always have a good time on the Fossil Exhibit Trail thanks to the plaques spread along the trail that indicate what kinds of things have been found here before. It’s a short quarter-mile hike along a boardwalk, so while it’s not a serious hike for more experienced visitors, it is still worth the visit to see the bronzed casts of impressions and fossils that have been discovered.
Sage Creek Loop
For anyone looking for a real challenge, this nearly twenty-three-mile loop is perfect. Located near Wall (about twelve miles away, but relatively speaking, close enough compared to the vast emptiness of the area), you can expect scenic views as you tread across this difficult trail. Plan to spend some time on this trail, likely up to three days, which is fine since there are camping spots for backpackers (no designated sites, but many natural clear areas that suit camping perfectly). If you want an almost guaranteed sighting of bison and pronghorn, then hike this loop. Surrounding rock pinnacles will remind you why they call this park the Badlands in the first place. You’ll climb gravel mounds, enjoy natural amphitheatres, sit through juniper stands, cross ridges, and hit a high point of nearly three thousand feet.
The Door Trail
This is a wonderful trail to hit right around sunrise. Not many people will be there (it’s heavily traversed throughout the day) and the natural lighting really elevates the terrain’s appearance. There’s a short boardwalk that leads to a practical rocky playground full of ashy spires that you can climb up and over. It would be easy to spend an entire day photographing through this trail. The surreal view of rock formations sets the scene for why most people come to visit the Badlands in the first place. Why is it called the Door Trail? Because it leads right up to a break in the Wall referred to as the Door, hence the name!
The Window Trail
Another great small trail with a short boardwalk, this easily accessible quarter-mile trail will take you up to a natural window in the Badlands Wall. You’ll see a wonderful view of eroded canyons, but try to get there around sunset for a sight you will never forget. It’s a great way to end your adventure in the park and can be traversed by people of pretty much any age.
Saddle Pass Trail
This is a moderately difficult trail, but with a little help and encouragement, most people can do this just fine. This trail leads through the Badlands Wall and takes about an hour. Make sure to bring water and sunblock as you climb the terrain to a decent elevation, at the pinnacle of which you can easily see the majority of the surface area in the park. As you climb the narrow trail (which has slightly alternate routes along the way, depending on whether or not you want to climb a little more than you have to), you’ll come across some very tricky drop-offs. Stay steady and make the climb, because when you get to the very top the payoff is fantastic. There’s a very narrow trail up to a tall spire, with a little nest area perfect for a picture of the National Park. The trail actually ends where others begin; you can hop over to the Medicine Root Trail here or even the Castle Trail, depending on how much longer you feel like hiking before getting back to the car.
Reported as one of the harder trails in the Badlands, the Castle Trail actually only take about two hours to complete. The trail is ten and a half-mile long and is actually a loop that begins fairly close to the town of Interior. The best time of year to experience the Castle Trail is probably between April and October. The elevation is only about 314 feet, but the distance is what makes most people think that this is a harder trail than what it actually is. It will give you a very expansive view of the Badlands, starting with the typical rocky terrain and then a few miles in turning over to the tall grassy areas, or prairie land. If it rains right before you’re about to go on the trail, make sure you have heavy boots that can handle the mud that is sure to build up.
Badlands National Park is a wonderful area to photograph. Aim to do the vast majority of your shooting early morning or late afternoon when not only the golden soft light illuminates the landscape beautifully. But also because it will be cooler and easier to walk than during the heat of the day. As with any sort of landscape photography always pay attention to the weather forecast and make sure you stay safe.
Photo credits: Dreamstime – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.