Badlands is beautiful from the road – no doubt. But if you really want to see the Badlands, you’ve got to get out and experience it. A great trail to do this on is the 0.7 miles (1.1 km) (RT) Saddle Pass Trail, which climbs 200 feet (60 m) up the Badland Wall for incredibly desolate vistas atop Saddle Pass. The trail is a bit rugged, but since it’s not even a half mile (1 km) one way, the “misery” doesn’t last long. In fact, it’s a great trail for children because they can climb and slide on the trail quite safely (though they should be supervised since there are drop-offs nearby). Our children always have a blast on the trail and at the top of the pass where there are opportunities for climbing up atop a badland butte. It’s fun and you get some of the greatest views I’ve seen in Badlands!
From the parking area, cross the bridge and follow the path toward the Badland Wall. It does not take much time to come to the beginning of the Wall, where the trail will suddenly begins climbing upward at an alarmingly steep rate. Watch your footing, not because it’s so rocky, but because it’s somewhat slippery and the dust makes it more slippery. (Warning: if it’s rained recently, this entire trail is a mass of mud – you’ll soon find yourself climbing with an inch or so platforms on the bottom of your shoes, if you can climb it at all!) The trail goes steeply upward for a few yards (meters), then flattens out, and climbs again. This continues all the way up to the saddle. The trail is not at all hard to follow, and if there is any question about which way the trail goes, the National Park Service has put up trail markers.
Finally, after it seems like you’ve been climbing forever, the trail suddenly enters Saddle Pass. It’s not much to look at, but turn around: all around you are more badlands and classic Badlands scenery. Catch your breath, and if you’re with children, this is likely where you want to stay. However, if you’re looking for more views, head over to the left to the huge butte on the west side of the pass (you can see this butte in the picture). If you go to the far end of the butte away from the cliff edge, there is a trail that ascends the butte – again, it’s a bit slippery but doable. It looks really dangerous, but although you should use caution, it’s not too bad unless you’re terrified of heights. However, we got even the most height-phobic members of my group up the butte, so it’s doable.
From the top of the butte, you get a good view into Saddle Pass, but you also get spectacular views of classic Badlands scenery in almost every direction you look. The Badland Wall is very nice, and you can also look out across the grasslands to other formations. Very cool!
Return by the way you came. Or, you it’s a short walk from here to the Castle Trail, which I’ll talk about next week!
Key GPS Coordinates for the Saddle Pass Trail
Parking Area: 43.757995N / -101.974451W (43N 45’ 28.782” / -101W 58’ 28.0236”)
Saddle Pass (approximate): 43.761185N / -101.973029W (43N 45’ 40.2654” / -101W 58’ 22.9038”
Top of the butte (approximate): 43.760946N / -101.973799W (43N 45’ 39.405” / -101W 58’ 25.6758”)
Getting to the Saddle Pass Trail
From the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, turn left, then take a quick right onto the Badlands Loop Road. Drive about 2 miles (3 km) until you reach the Saddle Pass Trailhead, on your right. Alternatively, from the Pinnacles Entrance, drive about 20 miles (32 km) southeast on the Badlands Loop Road. Pass the Fossil Exhibit, then drive a couple miles (3 km) to the Saddle Pass Trailhead, on your left.
Round Trip Trail Length: 0.7 miles (1.1 km)
Facilities: None that I can remember; but on our last visit we were pleasantly surprised to find that the parking area had been paved and a really nice bridge had been built across the wash. There are also a couple signs at the trailhead.
Fees: $15 to enter Badlands National Park, valid 7 days. America the Beautiful (Interagency), Senior (Golden Age), Access (Golden Access), Volunteer, Military, and Badlands Annual Passes also accepted.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
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Although it covers many other areas of the Black Hills besides Badlands National Park, this book offers visitors a good number of trail options in the Black Hills and in Badlands – many of which are suitable for both backpackers and dayhikers.
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