Badlands National Park -- Castle Trail
Badlands National Park protects an amazing quarter-million acre landscape of towering spires, buttes, multi-colored cliffs, and expansive prairies. It’s pristine also, a fabulous condition caused directly by its foreboding and inhospitable terrain. Hundreds of years ago the Lakota Sioux dubbed this area “mako sica”, translated literally as “land bad”. Later French explorers were no less positive with their descriptors…”les mauvais terres pour traverse” or, “bad lands to travel through”. Either way it’s not hard to see why these historic visitors regarded it as such when you gaze out over the barren and broken landscape. Thankfully, modern access now allows newcomers to see the Badlands through a different lens. It has lost none of its wild nature, to be sure, but now the desolate and rugged terrain can be appreciated for its beauty as well. The scenic beauty of the Badlands was appreciated early on, with South Dakota considering it as necessary to preserve as early as 1909. Through work of local conservationists Badlands National Monument was officially designated thirty years later, in 1939. As a National Park, Badlands is actually quite new…only gaining this highest level of protection in 1978. Today the park is a popular one, though it thankfully never sees the crowds of more famous parks to the west. The Northern Unit is the most developed, with numerous short trails crisscrossing it and a paved 30-mile park road providing access to the most dramatic portions of the landscape. The parks larger South Unit is all but undeveloped, offering a true wilderness experience to the modern day explorer, and is co-managed with the local Oglala Lakota Nation. The subject of this hike would be one of the parks longer, and undoubtedly most scenic, footpaths...the famous Castle Trail...
It had been the better part of a decade since the Castle Trail first popped up on my hiking radar. On my previous visit to the Badlands in 2011 I had wanted to walk it but a tight schedule thwarted me. Badlands National Park, despite being fairly large, has a somewhat limited trail system. The Castle Trail is one of the few which offer a decent-length dayhike and is the only one that combines length with passage through some of the parks most dramatic features. On this visit I was determined to explore it. The Castle Trail is a point-to-point footpath, running in a general east-to-west direction. The western trailhead is located across from the Fossil Exhibit Trail on the Badlands Loop Road while the eastern trailhead is across form the Window Trail north of the visitor center in the Cedar Pass area. Due to the relatively flat nature of the trail there’s no advantage, effort-wise, to hiking it in one direction or the other. I can say that the most dramatic terrain is found at the eastern end so if you want to save the “best” for last that might be a consideration. I hiked from west-to-east primarily due to my timing later in the day…for no other reason than this would keep the sun at my back for pictures. So, arriving at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead I signed the trail register and set out to complete this hike ten years in the making.
The Castle Trail begins by immediately dropping into a barren bowl surrounded by rock formations of all shapes and sizes. Tall spires, small buttes, and narrow ravines surround you and give you a first taste of the scenery which you’ll enjoy the next six miles. Before long the trail enters the prairie, cutting through tall grass as it follows the northern edge of an extensive area of small ravines and dry washes backed by high cliffs. In the summer time especially this section of trail can become quite overgrown so keeping an eye on marker stakes is something you’ll want to prioritize. The route is almost completely flat and the scenery is dramatically different depending which direction you look. To the north is wide open prairie…rolling and only occasionally punctuated by low grassy buttes. To the south is the northern face of the Badlands Wall, where huge spires of rock mark the point where the prairie suddenly and dramatically drops 300-feet to the White River Valley beyond. The first two miles continues through this landscape before arriving at the Saddle Pass Trail, which arrives from the south. At this point you are very near the edge of the Badlands Wall. A short stroll down the Saddle Pass Trail will take you right to the edge. I decided to do something a tad more exciting, however.
I had my sights set on the highest ridge rising from the east side of the pass. There’s no trail up it, but a quick study of the terrain revealed a few possible routes of ascent. I therefore struck out across the grassy field separating the trail from the cliffs, watching and listening for hisses or rattles beneath the green carpet, and soon began scrambling upwards. The climb wasn’t all that difficult, despite the imposing nature of the ridge seen from below, and I even managed to pick up a worn scramble path as I neared the top. Before long the crest was reached and what met my eyes was breathtaking. To the south the jagged south face of the Badlands Wall stretched away to both horizons while dropping beneath me some 300-feet to the grasslands below. In the other direction was the great prairie extending north…an ocean of green and yellow rolling out as far as the eye can see. It was a magnificent place, and one I could have spent an hour or more simply lounging around and soaking up all the natural beauty. As it was, though, I was racing sunset so I soon had to descend back to the trail.
Rejoining the Castle Trail, its western junction with the Medicine Root Trail is passed only a minute or so after leaving Saddle Pass. The Medicine Root Trail can be combined with the Castle Trail from the Window Trailhead to create, from what I’ve read, a fantastic 8-mile loop hike. It will likely be on the itinerary for any future visits I might make. Heading west from Saddle Pass the terrain surrounding you continues much like before, though the trail alternates between prairie and barren flats a bit more frequently. Just before veering more northerly the trail passes alongside an extensive area of deep ravines to the south. It’s the type of landscape that no doubt caused early French explorers to give this land the name they did. Dominating the horizon beyond at this point are also the towering spires and bluffs surrounding the Cedar Pass area…all the natural wonder that is the Badlands is on display here. After about two miles of walking the Castle Trail passes its eastern junction with the Medicine Root Trail and crosses the gravel Old Northeast Road. This is a particularly wet and muddy section of trail if you happen to visit, as I did, after recent heavy rains. This isn’t a trail to do in sneakers, trust me…Badlands mud is a special kind of messy and you’ll be better off to have higher-topped footwear. After crossing the wet flats to the east of the Old Northeast Road the trail now enters its “grand finale”.
This last, easternmost, mile-and-a-half section of the Castle Trail is easily the most dramatic of its entire length. Pressing close beneath towering cliffs, dropping into steep-sided grassy washes, and winding through narrow rocky ravines the trail here is a natural playground made all the more amazing in that you’re crossing it on foot. There’s a dizzying array of natural beauty to be seen in this short section and it makes for a spectacular finish to an already amazing hike. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be itching to get back out on the trail before you’ve even stepped foot off of it. Alas, all good things must end and soon the Castle Trail arrives at its eastern terminus across from the giant interconnected parking lots for the Window, Door, and Notch Trails. There’s not much more I can say. My nostalgia for this hike began before I even left the trail. The Castle Trail is one of those rare experiences that really has no equal in my library of hikes. If you visit Badlands National Park…and you should…this is a hike I’d highly recommend. The effort required is nothing in comparison to the wondrous experience you’ll enjoy exploring this remarkable park on foot. So, without further ado, I present the incredible Castle Trail of Badlands National Park…as always, I hope you ENJOY!!
West Trailhead GPS Coordinates (Fossil Exhibit): 43.772955, -102.002640
East Trailhead GPS Coordinates (Window): 43.761255, -101.927810
Route Type: Point-to-point Difficulty: MODERATE (Petzoldt Rating: 6.10)
Hike Length: 5.6 miles Hike Duration: 3:00
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 2,560' Max. Elevation: 2,750'
Total Vertical Gain: 250' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 45'
Trails Used (blaze color): Castle Trail (unblazed/posts)