The Castle Trail: Stark Beauty (and a nicely long hike!)

Hiking the Castle Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Hiking the Castle Trail

In the main part of Badlands National Park, I only know of one long trail that is maintained: the Castle Trail, which can be stretched to 10.8 miles (17.4 km) RT hike.  However, for hikers who don’t want quite such a long trek (even if it is a fairly level trail), there are options for making it shorter.  The trail offers a unique look at Badlands and the formations that make up the park as it winds its way along the Badland Wall.  Sometimes the trail goes through spires, buttes, and fins, while other times it stretches across the prairie.  (It’s very easy to imagine you’re the only people around on this trail, as the stillness of the prairie settles around you.)  I highly recommend the Castle Trail to those who want to get out and experience the Badlands or stretch their legs for more than a mile or so.



There are three access points to the Castle Trail, all of which offer opportunities for shuttle vehicles: the Door/Window/Notch Trailhead, the Saddle Pass Trailhead, and the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead.  The Castle Trail stretches between the Door/Window/Notch Trailhead and the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead; the Saddle Pass Trail intersects the Castle Trail about halfway between these two trailheads.  To get an idea of what I’m talking about, a map of the trail can be found at,%20Badlands-2.pdf


The Castle Trail near Saddle Pass, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Castle Trail near Saddle Pass

My group was not interested in a long hike, but I convinced them to take the Saddle Trail up to the Castle Trail, and then to the Fossil Exhibit for a 4.8-mile (7.7 km) RT hike (they’re good sports, so convincing them wasn’t very hard).  I talked about the Saddle Trail in another post, so I’ll pick up where that post left off.


The Saddle Pass Trail, Medicine Root Trail, and Castle Trail all meet just north of Saddle Pass.  If you’re coming from the Pass, turn left on the Castle Trail.  The views are tremendous, if a bit stark.  On your left are one badland formation after another, all standing atop the Badland Wall (which you’ll follow until the last 0.2 miles (0.3 km) before the end of the trail).  To the right is rolling grass prairie.  I found it more fun to watch the badlands than the prairie, but both are nice.


Buttes along the Castle Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Buttes (or “Castles”) along the trail

The trail is mainly flat, with a few uphill and downhill sections.  At times, you’ll be walking through tall grass along a narrow trail; at other times, you will walk out onto badland-type dirt that has no grass on it at all.  However, for most of this section, the Castle Trail is not hard to follow.  Be aware, however, that the trail has no shade at all and is very exposed.  The air seems to hang over the trail, as well, so there wasn’t much breeze the day we hiked it in mid-October – I think the heat did in my group more than the length of the trail!


Hiking the Castle Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Hiking the Castle Trail

After about a mile (2 km) of skirting the line where the prairie meets the Badland Wall, you will enter a maze of buttes and other Badland formations.  This is an interesting section, even if it does not offer the vistas of the first mile.  The trail is rougher here, and you may need to look around a bit more for the trail, especially as the trail crosses several gullies.  Look for the markers set up by the National Park Service; these are helpful in a land where each turn leads to more unique buttes but also Badlands that seem very much the same to the last butte you walked around!  At times, beautiful views will open up through a “window” or “notch” in the Badlands.


Formations along the Castle Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Formations along the trail

The last 0.2 miles (0.3 km) of the trail are the most difficult, due to the roughness of the trail and the lack of a defined trail.  You may have to look around a bit.  However, here (as before) the National Park Service has installed trail markers, so be on the lookout for these.


At the end of the trail, cross the road (carefully; it can be difficult to see oncoming cars due to the curves in the road) and enter the parking area for the Fossil Exhibit.  (A bridge and crosswalk mark the end of the trail.)  We had walked the Fossil Exhibit Trail before and knew it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but we were thankful for a restroom and someplace to sit in the shade and make lunch.  You could park a shuttle vehicle here and make the trail only 2.4 miles (3.8 km) long.


If you don’t have a shuttle vehicle, return by the way you came.  Next time I visit Badlands, I can’t wait to try out the other half of the Castle Trail!


Key GPS Coordinates for the Saddle Pass Trail

Saddle Pass 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”)

Saddle Pass/Medicine Root/Castle Trails Junction: 43.762055N / -101.973002W (43N 45’ 43.3974” / -101W 58’ 22.8066”)

Fossil Exhibit Trailhead: 43.772912N / -102.002938W (43N 46’ 22.4826” / -102W 0’ 10.5768”)


Getting to the Saddle Pass Trailhead

A view near the west end of the Castle Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota

A view near the west end of the 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.


Getting to the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead

Follow the directions to the Saddle Pass Trail, except drive 4.9 miles (7.8 km) down the Badlands Loop Road from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center or a little over 17 miles (27.3 km) from the Pinnacles Entrance.  The Exhibit is well-marked and on the west side of the road.


Round Trip Trail Length: 4.8 miles (7.7 km)

Facilities: None at the Saddle Pass Trailhead; primitive restrooms at the Fossil Exhibit 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.


Trail ★★★☆☆

Road ★★★★★

Signs ★★★☆☆

Scenery ★★★★★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★☆☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆


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