Badlands National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Cliff Shelf to Big Badlands Overlook

by Amy Myers
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Badlands National Park may very well have the most bizarre and spectacular must-sees of all of our country’s parks. The dusty red ridges will take you to another planet, one with the same rocky landscape and warm colors. But unlike Mars, there’s plenty off wildlife that thrives on the region’s arid conditions. Along the trails, you may spot permanent residents of the Badlands, like bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs and even the endangered black-footed ferrets.

The Badlands are also a fantastic place to learn more about our nation’s past. From the travelers and tribes that first gave the park its name to the geological make up of its biggest attractions, much of our natural and human history lies within the borders of the Badlands. That’s why the park’s trails sees more than 1 million visitors every year and why its views are out of this world.

Quick Guidelines for Hiking in Badlands National Park

Bring plenty of water. Because the Badlands National Park sits in an arid climate, there isn’t a whole lot of natural coverage in the park. Add that to the 90-degree highs in the summertime, and dehydration can quickly turn into heat sickness or worse. The NPS has developed a formula for hikers to follow while wandering through the park’s 244,000 acres. Officials recommend that you bringn two quarts of water per person per two-hour hike.

Have a backup form of communication. Cell service is notoriously spotty in Badlands National Park. Whether walkie talkie or carrier pigeon, be sure you have another way to get in touch with the outside world in case of emergencies.

Explore responsibly. Badlands National Park has an open hike policy. This means, unlike most other national parks, you can hike off-trail wherever you desire. Popular areas for open hiking include Deer Haven and Sage Creek Wilderness Area. If you do decide to explore the pak this way, be mindful of your surroundings. Keep a distance of 100 feet from all wildlife. The park states that if an animal notices you, you’re too close.

Pack the proper gear. There’s a good reason why the Badlands has its name. Without the right gear, you’re in for a tough visit. With lots of loose gravel and silt and camouflaged rattle snakes, hiking poles and sturdy boots with ankle support are a must. There are also ladders, stairs and rock scrambles along many of the trails. Weather at the Badlands tends to be at an extreme, so layers, sunscreen and sunglasses are a good idea, as well.

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Conata Basin Overlook, Badlands National Park (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Outsider’s Choice of Badlands National Park Must-Sees and Trails, Easiest to Hardest

  • The Pinnacles (easy)
  • Panorama Point (easy)
  • Big Badlands Overlook (easy)
  • Yellow Mounds Overlook (easy)
  • Window Trail (easy)
  • Fossil Exhibit Trail (easy)
  • Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (easy)
  • The Door Trail (easy)
  • Burns Basin Overlook (easy to moderate)
  • Notch Trail (moderate)
  • Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail Loop (moderate)
  • Cedar Butte Trail (moderate to strenuous)

Cliffside Trails at Badlands National Park

Ever wanted to feel on top of the world? These trails will make you feel closer to the clouds with their sharp peaks and incredible views. You’ll get to walk alongside the jagged tops of Badlands National Park’s unique geological formations. But be warned, to get to the summit of these trails, you’ll have to traverse rock slopes, ladders and a few stairs. Take your time and bring lots of water. If a trail is too treacherous, don’t be afraid to double back and try another.

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

  • Length: 0.5-mile loop
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 65 feet
  • Duration: less than 30 minutes

Located near Interior, SD, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail climbs 200 feet over staircases and boardwalks and into the heart of Badlands National Park’s cliffs. Along the way, you’ll pass by a couple of rarely-seen ponds where wildlife tends to gather. This trail is also known to be an ideal route for birdwatchers. The Badlands are home to a variety of bird species, including cliff swallows, golden eagles, prairie hawks and burrowing owls. You may even be able to spot a few mud nests formed on the underside of Badlands walls.

Be sure take it slow on the stairs and boardwalks, particularly if it has rained. These structures can become incredibly slick, making it easy to slip.

Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail Loop

  • Length: 11-mile loop
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 314 feet
  • Duration: 4 hours

The Castle-Medicine Root trails loop is a popular choice for Badlands National Park visitors looking for a longer journey through the tops of the Badlands cliffs. Conveniently located across Badlands Loop Road from other popular hikes like Notch and Door trails, this long route follows Castle Trail on the way in and Medicine Root Trail on the way out. Besides the Badlands cliffs, you will likely find a few deer grazing in the brush. This trail doesn’t have a whole lot of coverage and often gets windy, so it’s a good idea to pack a light layer or two before heading down the route. You can also pick up the Saddle Pass Trail from the area to extend your trip even further.

Notch Trail

  • Length: 1.5-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 127 feet
  • Duration: 1.5 hours

This trail follows a ledge and a long ladder to traverse across clifftops until you reach “the Notch,” a slot in the formations that gives an incredible, panoramic view of the White River Valley. The top of this climb feels like you’ve entered a rusty rock village. With patches of green grasses and blooming wildflowers, this trail also has plenty of spots to stop for a scenic lunch. However, this probably isn’t the best choice for those with a fear of heights. The ladder portion will have you climbing up and down a steep row of dozens of wooden rungs that may make your knees shake. Be sure to watch for dropoffs, too.

For a longer route, you can also access The Window along the way, too.

Mounds and Must-See Overlooks at Badlands National Park

Get to know the true colors Badlands National Park’s with these scenic routes. While there’s plenty of rocks, silt and prairie lands at the national park, these elements are only the tip of th sandstone iceberg that is the Badlands. The area’s ridges are the result of several different composites being compacted, all to create the unusual rainbow of browns, yellows, reds and even purples that so many visitors capture in their photos.

Yellow Mounds Overlook

  • Length: 0.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: unknown
  • Duration: less than 10 minutes

The Yellow Mounds Overlook needs to be at the top of your must-see, can’t-miss, need-to-experience list when visiting Badlands National Park. This overlook gives you a front-seat view of the most colorful region of the national park. Here, you can see hues of yellow, purple and gray as well as bands of red stacked up in the hills. These colors are a result of the sequence of soils like interior paleosol as well as the Chadron and Brule formations compressing together.

Especially under a blue sky, this overlook is gorgeous enough to make you come back for a repeat visit on the same trip.

Burns Basin Overlook

  • Length: 0.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy to moderate
  • Elevation: 36 feet
  • Duration: less than 10 minutes

While the Burns Basin Overlook may not be quite as colorful as the Yellow Mounds, you can still see distinct bands of reds, browns and grays among the hills and peaks of the rock formations. And luckily, the trail is fairly easy to complete, so you can even see both in the same morning. But be warned, this trail does have a few steep parts and lots of gravel, so those hiking with strollers or wheelchairs may have a harder time.

Cedar Butte Trail

  • Length: 2.9-mile loop
  • Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
  • Elevation: 242 feet
  • Duration: 1 hour

Despite the breathtaking valley views, you won’t find too many other people on the Cedar Butte Trail. The trailhead is a bit out of the way from the rest of the park’s attractions. To get there, you need to have a vehicle with four-wheel drive and high clearance. Otherwise, you’ll likely get stuck on the unpaved, rough terrain. Additionally, the trail, itself, is just as rugged. Hikers on AllTrails stated that even with a map on hand, the route was still fairly difficult to navigate.

However, despite the difficulties at the trailhead and along the way, all hikers agreed that the views are well worth all of the effort. Not only can you see the sand castle formations of Badlands National Park, but you can also see the Black Hills in the distance along the horizon.

Under 30 Trails at Badlands

Whether you’re on a time crunch or are looking for a quick hike to fill in some downtime, Badlands National Park has plenty of short and sweet trails that you can finish in under 30 minutes. This gives you plenty of extra time to snap photos, take a water break or just enjoy the scenery before heading back out to the trailhead.

Window Trail

  • Length: 0.3-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 13 feet
  • Duration: 10 minutes

The Window Trail is another one of Badlands National Park’s most popular must-sees. Like the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, there are plenty of opportunities for birdwatching along the way. This trail is also the perfect option for those hiking with wheelchairs and strollers as there are plenty of accessible parking spots, a wooden boardwalk that is at least eight feet wide and several benches on the route. At the overlook, you’ll be able to spot lots of wildlife, particularly bighorn sheep and deer.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

  • Length: 0.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 9 feet
  • Duration: 10 minutes

The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a must-see for families visiting Badlands National Park. Along the way, you’ll get to see replicas of fossils of species long gone. The park has created informational placards to go along with the exhibits that explain the creature’s life cycle in the area. See and touch the skull of a nimravid, often called the false saber-toothed cats, as well as ammonites which are shelled cephalopods.

Like the Window Trail, this route is fully accessible, too, as it features a six-foot-wide boardwalk with edge barriers and railings. The trail also starts under a shady gazebo and has bathrooms close to the trailhead.

The Door Trail

  • Length: 0.9-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 22 feet
  • Duration: 20 minutes

The Door Trail is another one of Badlands National Park that features an incredible overlook of the rocky ridges There are plenty of picture-perfect rock formations that you’re bound to stop and admire during your journey. “The Door” itself is an observation area that acts as a literal threshold to some of the most magical views of the region.

Though the Door Trail is pretty easy, there are aaa few rock scrambles along the way. The route starts on a forgiving boardwalk before transitioning to a dirt trail. Then you can choose your own adventure by following the yellow markers however way you want. Depending on how you wander, you can take as short as 20 minutes or as long as an hour on the trail.

Must-See Sunrise, Sunset Spots at Badlands National Park

Calling all morning birds and night owls – these trails are for you. The best start or end to your day at Badlands National Park will be at one of these overlooks. While all three trails to these ideal sunrise and sunset vistas are relatively short, once you watch the sun kiss the tops of the rocky ridges, you’ll be glued to your spot and itching to return to see it all again.

Big Badlands Overlook

  • Length: 0.2-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 3 feet
  • Duration: less than 10 minutes

The Big Badlands Overlook is a must-see sunrise site at Badlands National Park. Just as the world begins to wake, you’ll get to see the sun’s first rays cast a warm glow on the park’s ridgeline, lighting the red sediment stripes on fire. This attraction is one of the most popular in the Badlands, so expect to see crows. The trail is also fully accessible with a wide boardwalk and flat, packed-down gravel trail.

The Pinnacles

  • Length: less than 0.5-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: unknown
  • Duration: 10 minutes

The Pinnacles overlook happens to be the highest point of elevation in the North Unit of the Badlands. Needless to say, you’ll have a fantastic viewpoint of the lands that were once a fatal challenge to pioneers centuries ago. From this attraction, you’ll get the best view of the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, especially at sunset. And on a clear day, you can even see the Black Hills in the distance.

The Pinnacles is also a prime place to spot bighorn sheep. During the spring, from late April to early May, you could even see newborn animals take their first steps, as this is often where ewes have their lambs.

Panorama Point

  • Length: less than 0.5-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: unknown
  • Duration: 10 minutes

Like the Pinnacles, Panorama Point is a go-to spot for sunset chasers, and it may very well be the most-visited must-see in all of Badlands National Park. From here, you can find wide-stretching views of the Badlands formations bordered by vibrant grassland hilltops and a grassland valley. This spot is the perfect way to end a day of exploring before heading back to basecamp for the night.

Hiking with Pets in the Badlands

As much fun as it would be to bring pets along the must-see trails at Badlands National Park, there are strict rules against hiking with pets on any of the trails or wilderness areas. While this may be disappointing to dog moms and dads, the regulations protect both the parklands and your pets. There are countless rattlers that like to hide under rocks and in high grasses. Should your furry friend come too close, your trip could end in tragedy. Not to mention, the ladders aren’t made for paws to climb.

Luckily, there are a couple of options for those traveling through the Badlands with pets. Pets are allowed on paved or gravel backroads throughout the park. These roads may not lead to overlooks or clifftops, but you will get to see a much quieter part of the grasslands. The most popular route is the Old Northeast Road just north of Cedar Pass. Plan on taking your pets along these roads in the early spring, fall and winter to make sure you won’t run into any scaly park residents or risk burning any pads on the hot gravel.

Keep in mind that the park also prohibits leaving any pets unattended at campgrounds or at trailheads. All pets need to remain on leash while in the park.

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