If you don’t have much time in Badlands National Park, but you want to experience the Badlands proper, the Door and Notch Trails are for you. These trails are extremely short (together, they’re 1 mile (1.6 km) RT), and they start from the same parking lot near the visitor center – so you can minimize driving time. Plus, the views of the Badlands are spectacular and the Door Trail allows you to leave the boardwalk and really experience walking on and in the Badlands. If you have a little more time on your hands and a sense of adventure, you can also take The Notch Trail (1.5 miles RT (1.4 km)), which also starts from the same parking area. Together, these trails offer some of the best close-to-the-road-but-out-of-the-overlook scenery I’ve found in the park, and much of the Door and Window Trails are wheelchair accessible, too!
We arrived, a bit tired I’ll admit, late one afternoon in October after hiking the western end of the Castle Trail earlier in the day. The parking lot is very long and narrow, which is part of why so many trails can go off of it in totally different directions. However, the parking lot can fill up quickly, so you may have trouble finding a parking space during busy times. We decided to hike to The Window first (it’s the shortest of the trails). This trail begins in the middle/left end of the parking area (if you’re facing the road); the two boardwalks merge a hundred feet (30 m) or so down the trail. Stay on the boardwalk as it winds its way across the hardpacked clay toward a wall of Badlands. After 0.12 miles (0.2 km), the trail will go through a natural “window” in the Badland and you will see amazing views of the Badlands beyond. The viewpoint is located on the edge of a cliff, which makes the view even more inspiring. The trail to the Window is fully wheelchair accessible.
Retrace your steps, turning right once you reach the sidewalk near the parking area. The Door Trail begins close to the far right (if you’re facing the road) end of the parking area. (A map of the parking area can be viewed at http://www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/upload/Cedar%20Pass%20Area,%20Badlands-2.pdf.) This boardwalk winds its way through a break in the Badlands known as “The Door” (thus the trail’s name) before ending, 0.37 miles (0.6 km) later, at another viewing platform, this time on a flat area between several sets of badlands. This part of the trail is fully wheelchair accessible. However, just before the viewing area, a set of steps lead down to the Badlands, themselves; beyond this, the trail is not accessible to wheelchairs. I highly recommend that you take this trail; not only is it spectacular in terms of views, but it allows you to experience the Badlands beyond the roads and overlooks.
Follow the poles and cairns across the Badlands. This is not a difficult trail; but do keep the cairns/poles in sight so you don’t lose your way back. Also, be careful as there are drop-offs in the area (though not too close by). The trail finally peters out, but take some time at the end to take in the view. It’s spectacular and you can feel fairly alone even though the road is much less than a mile (1 km) away. Our younger ones loved the freedom here to run around (well away from the drop-offs) while we enjoyed the scenery and a few desert flowers that have found a home in the badlands clay.
Speaking of the Badlands clay, I do not at all recommend taking this hike after it’s rained. We made that mistake once – and only once! After taking several steps on the muddy clay, each of us found ourselves an inch or more taller than before as the clay clumped on our shoes, giving us instant platforms! It was fun, but I hate to think what the van would have looked like afterward if we hadn’t scraped off as much mud as we could before we climbed in, then took off our shoes at the door. So, do your Badlands hiking when the clay is good and dry!
Return by the way you came. If you have some extra time (and are feeling adventurous), The Notch Trail begins at the other end of the parking area. Not wheelchair accessible, this clay path wonders up a drainage, climbs a ladder, and then hugs a cliff edge for a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) RT hike with spectacular views of the Bandlands and beyond at the end. We were tired enough that we didn’t attempt it this visit, but the children definitely have enjoyed the ladder on other visits.
Round Trip Trail Length: The Window Trail: 0.25 miles (0.4 km); The Door Trail: 0.75 miles (1.2km); The Notch Trail: 1.5 miles (2.4 km).
Elevation Loss/Gain: The Window and The Door Trails: Negligible; The Notch Trail: About 125 foot (38 m) gain
Facilities: Primitive restrooms; more facilities are located just down the road at the visitor center. A free campground is also located outside the park; my review of the campground can be found at http://www.annestravels.net/campgrounds-at-badlands/
Fees: $15 per vehicle 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?
Key GPS Coordinates for The Window and The Door Trails:
Parking area for The Window and The Door Trails: 43.761903N / 101.927224W (43N 45’ 42.8502” / 101W 55’ 38.0058”)
Beginning of The Window Trail (North): 43.760685N / 101.927625W (43N 45’ 38.466” / 101W 55’ 39.45”)
Beginning of The Window Trail (South): 43.760220N / 101.927959W (43N 45’ 36.7914” / 101W 55’ 40.6524”)
(The North and South trails converge after about 100 feet/30 m)
The Window Overlook (end of trail): 43.759252N / 101.926685W (43N 45’ 33.3066” / 101W 55’ 36.066”)
Beginning of The Door Trail: 43.763568N / 101.926686W (43N 45’ 48.8442” / 101W 55’ 36.0696”)
The Door Trail Overlook (end of maintained trail): 43.764073N / 101.924883W (43N 45’ 50.6628” / 101W 55’ 29.5782”)
Steps down onto the Badlands: 43.764013N / 101.925249W (43N 45’ 50.4462” / 101W 55’ 30.8958”)
Beginning of the Notch Trail: 43.760073N / 101.928217W (43N 45’ 36.2622” / 101W 55’ 41.5812”)
(Please note that all GPS data is approximate; common sense should be exercised, all regulations followed, and self-rescue skills known; the coordinates should not be used as a sole source on any trail.)
Getting to The Window and The Door Trailhead:
From I-90 in South Dakota, take Exit 131, turning south/west on SD-240 W/County Road S 8. Drive 6 miles (9.6 km), entering Badlands National Park at 3.7 miles (5.9 km), to a parking area on the left. This should be signed for The Notch, The Window, and The Door Trails, but it may not be. Alternatively, from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (the Badlands National Park Visitor Center), travel North/East on SD-240 E (in other words, turn right out of the visitor center) and drive 2.2 miles (3.5 km) to a parking lot on your right. Again, this should be signed, but it may not be.
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A hiker’s guide more than a biker’s guide, this book covers hikes across the Black Hills region, including Badlands National Park (note that there aren’t many hiking trails in Badlands, but this book does cover them as well as tips on the Sage Creek Wilderness area of the park). Photocopies of topographic maps, marked with trails mentioned in the book, are included.
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