Hiking in Badlands National Park

We spent the majority of our trip to Wyoming and South Dakota meeting with property managers to scout rentals in places where we thought we might want to move. However, equally as important was the time we dedicated to exploring the surrounding areas to see what we liked more holistically about each place.

I was thrilled that one of our exploratory days took us to Badlands National Park, where I spent my 38th birthday hiking and driving around this incredible area with Brian.

I couldn’t believe it had been more than 20 years since the last time I was there, and close to the same for Brian. We had fun sharing our prior memories as we drove around creating new memories together this trip.

We started early to beat the heat and ended up really enjoying the following hikes and drives.

Notch Trail

Immediately upon entering we parked in the lot by the Window and Door trailheads where we could catch the path to our first hike of the day.

The Notch Trail is 1.5 miles roundtrip but considered moderate to difficult because you have to climb a log ladder and navigate around questionably stable rocks to the ‘notch’ where you can look out over White River Valley.

It was more daunting going down the ladder than up for me! While the ladder is secured at the bottom and top, the middle is just loose against the rock and moves around as you climb. I’m short and the distance between the steps was quite noticeable as my extended foot searched for a place to land!

Castle Trail / Medicine Root Loop

With our climbing out of the way, we set out for our long hike of the day. Across the road from our parking area we caught the Castle Trail, which is the longest maintained trail in the park. We decided to hike it out to the Saddle Pass / Medicine Root junction and then loop back on Medicine Root trail.

The hike ended up being about 8 miles, and it was very sunny and hot by the end. I was glad we followed the park’s advice – plenty of sunscreen, hats/sunglasses, and water.

The first section of the hike was our favorite – lots of interesting geographical features, some navigation around said features, and we even saw a deer at one point (visible out by the rock formation in the second photo below).

Maybe it was just the mid-day heat setting in, but it was a bit of a slog back to the parking area on the Medicine Root trail. Several areas had been flooded, requiring us to make our way around the deep, wet mud, cognizant of the snakes and other creatures in the tall grass nearby. When Brian started making up songs about Medicine Root, I was sure delirium had set in; but, we did eventually make it back to our car and the back-up water.

Ben Reifel Visitor Center and Sage Creek Rim Road

We briefly stopped at the visitor center – it was packed so we didn’t take in the exhibits as we usually would. Instead, we refilled all of our water containers, used the facilities, and then shared a bagel sandwich in the car before setting out on our scenic drive toward Rapid City.

We took the Badlands Loop Road (highway 240) to Sage Creek Rim Road, which is gravel and dirt. We pulled over at a number of panoramic view points, and this was the section of the Badlands I remembered from our family vacation.

One of my favorite pullovers with the Yellow Mounds area – I’m sure I was here before, but I didn’t remember seeing this area! The sun was lighting up the mounds from the west and they were stunning.

One family in matching prairie outfits asked me to take their picture for their Christmas card. It was certainly a perfect spot for a family portrait!

We eventually turned onto the gravel road – it’s no joke. We only passed a handful of cars the entire time, and each time we did we had to slow down even further to allow the massive dust cloud each one left in its wake to dissipate.

I didn’t entirely mind slowing down when we hit this section of our drive (aka prairie dog country). The prairie dogs would initially freeze at our approach – which doesn’t make them any less conspicuous! – and then we would laugh as they resumed their antics.

We were ready for a cooling shower and night on the town in Rapid City after an incredible day re-discovering this park. So glad we had a chance to return and experience it together.

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