Even before I arrived at Badlands National Park, I knew I was going to love it. It’s my kind of place, full of bizarre landscapes to hike through, and photograph. So, I devoted almost an entire day to thoroughly exploring the park.
Badlands National Park features a scenic loop road that’s paved, easy to drive, and allows access to many incredible parts of the park. I decided to drive to the eastern entrance of the park, at exit 131 off Interstate 90, then drive the loop and reconnect with the freeway at Wall, South Dakota (exit 110). Then, Rapid City would only be about 50 miles away. What I didn’t count on, was having so much fun, that I actually decided to drive back through the park, ending up where I started, at exit 131. But we’ll talk more about all of that later — after all, I have devoted 6 full pages to my day in the Badlands.
So let’s get started, with a couple of stops that will most likely be your first stops, just as they were mine.
The Big Badlands Overlook is just inside the park’s northeast entrance. Here, you get your first taste of what the Badlands are all about: dry, barren land, that’s eroded into some fascinating shapes. In the distance, you’ll see the Badlands Wall, the cliff which the park road follows — switching several times from the top of the hillside, to the bottom, and back again.
The first big parking area you’ll encounter is for the Door, Window, Notch, and Castle Trails. Castle Trail leads off to the west, across the largely flat plains above the park’s eroded areas. Door, Window, and Notch all lead east, to spots that allow you to view a vast, eroded landscape.
I skipped the Door Trail and instead, started with Window Trail. It’s incredibly simple and short…
… with a boardwalk to follow. The path ends at a “window”, or opening in the rock wall…
… which provides you with a dramatic view to the left…
… and to the right. I was done with this trail in less than 10 minutes.
The next trail required a little more work.
The Notch Trail leaves from the south end of the parking area, not far from the Window Trailhead. It requires a little over a mile of hiking, round trip. The first part is easy, as the dirt trail passes through a valley, surrounded by a nice, foreboding landscape.
The trail gets a bit more fun, when you reach this “ladder” of sorts. The “ladder” starts off flat enough, that you can walk up it, standing upright (it’s basically logs tied together with steep cables). But, it gets steeper as you get to the top, and you will need to use your hands to climb up the last dozen steps. (Coming back down is the only tricky part.)
At the top of the ladder, there is a great view of the valley you just walked through.
Much of the remaining trail is along the edge of a cliff. The trail is wide and safe, except for the places where a sign warns you to plot a different route.
Near the end, there is a fork in the trail. I took the path to the right, which led…
… to this wide notch in the cliffs…
… providing a great view of the hills…
… and the surprisingly green valley below. From here, you get a good look at the area surrounding one of the next stops (the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail), and in the distance, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and park headquarters.
Old Northeast Road
There aren’t many alternate routes that branch off from the main scenic road through Badlands National Park, but you will find one, just beyond the parking area for the Window, Door, and Notch trails. Old Northeast Road is a smooth dirt road, that cuts a path northward across the park. You could follow it back to the Interstate (the park road turns into a series of county roads outside the park boundary, eventually arriving at I-90 at exit 127), but Old Northeast Road generally heads away from the most interesting parts of the park, so there’s no reason to follow it.
I did, however, use the road as a convenient parking space, while I took a few pictures of the flowers growing nearby.
Back on the main road, you will round a corner, then drop down a hill, to the next stop at the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.
Note: This trip was first published in 2008.