After researching South Dakota national parks, I discovered the Badlands hiking trails within Badlands National Park. The best part is that Badlands National Park is just an hour from Rapid City, which is where we made home base for our visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Badlands.
Where are the Badlands?
How many times has someone asked you, "Where are the Badlands?" Let me guess…zero! But growing up in the States, I knew they were somewhere in the Midwest. I later discovered that the Badlands in South Dakota were a bit off-the-beaten-path from the other famous US National Parks, but very much worth the detour. If you're not joining a tour group, I highly recommend renting a car to get around. This will give you the flexibility to travel at your own pace, stop for photos whenever you'd like, and choose the best of the Badlands hiking trails without holding up others.
How to get into the Badlands…
First thing's first, Badlands National Park is massive - far larger than I had expected at 244,000 acres of protected land. After driving about an hour from Rapid City, you'll pass a Prairie Dog Village and a visitor center worth popping in to (if driving to the Northeast Entrance of the park), before reaching the official entrance to Badlands National Park.If you're going to more than one National Park during your trip (as we did), I highly recommend purchasing an annual pass; an annual interagency parks pass costs per vehicle, and you will certainly get your money's worth! As with all national parks, you will be allowed into the Badlands after stopping at the Ranger's Booth to show ID and proof of pass. You can enter from the Park Headquarters, Northeast Entrance, Pinnacles Entrance, or Interior Entrance. Then continue along the Badlands Loop Road.
What are the Badlands?
I'm still not sure if the Badlands are more like canyons or more like mountains; these buttes and pinnacles seem to have created a category of their own! The intricately carved cliffs of the Badlands exist due to significant erosion over time, and continue to erode today further shaping the canyons and spires. Quite frankly, it looks a bit like mars or the set of a science-fiction movie.
But what are the "Badlands"? Split it in two: bad lands. The French trappers in the mid-1700s had trouble traversing the lands and called it "les mauvaises terre," meaning bad lands. Later on, the Lakota Native Americans began calling it "mako sica," meaning "land bad." After spending a day on the Badlands hiking trails, I can certainly see why the early homesteaders called it the Badlands! If you're interested in learning more about the geology or early inhabitant history, make your way to the Badlands National Park Visitor Center. It's an incredible thorough and fascinating exhibit along the Badlands Loop Road.
Best of the Badlands Hiking Trails The Badlands hiking trails give you the opportunity to get up close and personal with the intricacies of Badlands National Park, both from above and below! You'll find everything from incredibly easy trails and difficult hikes; research the hiking trails in the Badlands before you take off to ensure that you find yourself the right trail for your fitness level.
Door Trail: The Door Trail is ¾ mile (1.2 km) round trip hiking trail beginning with a short boardwalk leading to "the Door," a break in the Badlands Wall, which looks out over the Badlands. The Badlands Wall stretches over 60 miles, separating the upper from the lower prairie. After the boardwalk ends, the trail becomes more difficult as you'll have direct access to the rugged terrain of Badlands National Park. You can spend ample time wandering up, over, and through the ancient fossil beds. Look for short yellow markers as a general guideline for the trail.
Window Trail: The Window Trail is an incredibly easy ¼ mile (0.4 km) round trip trail that leads to a natural "window" in the Badlands Wall. From the window, you'll look out over a beautiful canyon in Badlands National Park. Unfortunately we didn't snap a picture here, but the Window Trail is worthwhile if you're feeling an easy stroll.
Notch Trail: The Notch Trail was the hardest trail that we did, but I would still say that it was a pretty moderate hike. It's a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) round trip hike that takes you through a canyon, up a ladder, and along a decently-wide ledge to "the Notch" at the end of the trail. From this opening, you'll be awarded great views of the White River Valley. I would not recommend this trail on a rainy day, or for anyone with a fear of heights.