This guide about hiking the Castle Trail in Badlands National Park is a guest post by Sarah and Matt, of Two Outliers, an adventure travel and photography blog dedicated to helping you plan your next adventure!
Across the prairie, a bighorn sheep stands on the edge of a cliff of striped rock, the sun glowing behind him paints the surrounding terrain in a bath of warm yellow light – this was the moment we knew Badlands National Park was a magical place.
The largest undisturbed mixed-grass prairie in the United States, the Badlands are known for eroding buttes, colorful rock formations, a diversity of wildlife, including a large bison and bighorn sheep population, and a complicated Native American history.
In our opinion, the Badlands are one of the most unique and underrated national parks in the United States!
There are plenty of things to do in the Badlands but one of the best ways to experience the park is by hiking the Castle Trail, a 10 mile out-and-back trek that takes you through open prairies filled with swaying yellow grass, past eroding buttes striped in different colors, and if you’re lucky, gets you up close (but not too close!) with some of the park’s diverse wildlife.
In the article, we will explain everything you need to know to have an epic day exploring the Badlands National Park on the Castle Trail.
Looking for more things to do in South Dakota?
- The Best Things to do in Custer State Park (+ Where to Stay & Itineraries!)
- The Best Things to do in Badlands National Park (+ Where to Stay & Itineraries!)
- The Best Things to do in the Black Hills (Hikes, Towns, Food, & More)
- 7 Day South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: Black Hills to Badlands
About Badlands National Park and the Castle Trail
Of all the national parks we have visited, the Badlands probably exceeded our expectations more than any other. We were definitely a little skeptical as we were deciding whether to go. It is so far out of the way, is it worth a visit? The answer is a resounding yes!
The vast prairie dotted with buttes and spires of striped rock is oddly mesmerizing and unlike any national park we have visited. The park receives relatively few visitors, so you are likely to find some valuable alone time with nature. Even better, the hiking trails are fairly short and flat making it easy for hikers of all skill levels to experience the best the park has to offer.
There are only seven officially marked trails through the Badlands, all of them located in the North Unit. The Castle Trail is the longest official trail in the park. However, don’t let this deter you. The trail is a total of 10 miles, but only includes about 305 feet of elevation gain, making the hike only moderately challenging despite its length. You can read more about planning a trip to the Badlands here.
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
History of the Badlands
There are two sections of the Badlands – the North Unit, where all the hikes and most major attractions are located, and the South Unit or Stronghold Unit. The South/Stronghold Unit is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Oglala Lakota Tribe. During World War II, the South/Stronghold Unit was used as a bomb testing range by the Air Force. Visitors are warned not to hike in this area, as there are still unexploded bombs in the ground.
It is also important to recognize the sad history of the Native American people who, for thousands of years, lived and hunted in the area. During the time of westward expansion, some nefarious and downright despicable deals and treaties essentially stripped the Native Americans of their rights to inhabit their ancestral lands. In recent years, the National Park Service has been working with the Oglala Lakota People to cede back control of the land.
In fact, it was the Oglala Lakota who named the area “mako sica” which translates to “Bad Lands”, an appropriate term for an area with little water, hot summers, and cold, windy winters.
You can read more about the history of the Badlands here.
Castle Trail Stats
Miles (roundtrip): 10.3
Elevation: 305 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
Even though the Castle Trail is over 10 miles, it is fairly flat making it a moderate hike. We completed the hike in late July and it took us just under 5 hours.
- Longest trail in the Badlands and includes many of the best sites the park has to offer
- Simple, flat, and easy to follow trail
- Multiple connecting trails allow you to design your own adventure
- Few people willing to complete the full hike so you will get some solitude
- High chance of seeing big horn sheep, bison, pronghorns, or other animals common to the Badlands
- If done as an out-and-back, the second half is repetitive
- No trees or shade cover
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
When to hike the Castle Trail
The best time to visit the Badlands is during the spring and fall. Crowds are typically smaller (although there aren’t usually large crowds any time of year) and weather is mild and pleasant.
Temperatures in July and August consistently reach into the 90’s. Summers are typically dry, but thunderstorms are unpredictable and not uncommon and June is the wettest month. Winter temps are consistently well below freezing and the park averages 12-24 inches of snow per year.
As such, the best time to visit the park and hike the Castle Trail are the shoulder seasons (April through June and September through November).
We hiked at the end of July and it was hot, but manageable. As always, check the weather before you depart on any hike and be prepared for quickly changing conditions.
A Note About Smoke/Haze:
When we visited the Badlands in late July, we were in the midst of one of the worst wildfire seasons in history. While we didn’t see any fires in the immediate area, there was thick haze almost everywhere we went from the fires across the northwest.
While we definitely missed out on some views due to the dense haze, it wasn’t that burdensome and we didn’t notice an impact on our hiking ability. You can see just how dense it was in some of our pictures! This is also a good opportunity to remind you to always be careful when starting a fire in the wilderness. You don’t know how much of an impact small mistakes can have!
What to bring to hike the Castle Trail
In addition to our usual hiking essentials, here are few items to make sure you pack for hiking the Castle Trail:
There is no water available on the trail and it can get hot, especially during the summer months. Be sure to bring extra water on this hike.
There is no shade on the trail and the sun can be blinding. Do yourself a favor and make sure you bring sunglasses and a hat so you can enjoy the surrounding scenery.
There is a theme here – it can get hot and there is no shade! There is no easier way to ruin a trip than with a crispy sunburn.
Download offline maps
We highly recommend downloading offline AllTrails Maps and offline Google Maps so you can navigate without cell phone service and don’t get lost!
Things to know before hiking the Castle Trail
There are two different trailheads for the Castle Trail – Castle Trailhead and Fossil Exhibit Trailhead (where we started). There is ample parking at both trailheads. We’ll explain the different routes in more detail in the sections below.
While pets are permitted in Badlands National Park, they must be kept on a leash and are restricted to developed areas like campsites, parking lots, and picnic areas. Dogs are not permitted on trails or in the backcountry, so this hike is not dog friendly.
The entrance fee for the Badlands is $30 for a private vehicle. This will allow you to enter the park for seven days. Alternatively, you can purchase an America the Beautiful Pass for $80, which gets you access to all national parks for a year. If you plan on visiting three or more national parks within the year, you should definitely purchase an annual pass.
There aren’t many rules for hiking in the Badlands. In fact, they have an open hike policy, meaning you are allowed to go off trail if you’d like. Of course, always be aware of your surroundings and if you decide to leave an established trail, make sure you know how to return.
There are restrooms located at both the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead and Castle Trailhead.
Our experience hiking the Castle Trail
We stopped at the Badlands for one weekend on our drive from Idaho back to Virginia. With only limited time and wanting to see as much as possible, we decided to tackle the Castle Trail, which is the longest trail in the park. We then tacked on the Notch Trail, which is probably the most popular hike in the Badlands and adds just 1.5 miles. We’ll explain everything you need to know about both the Castle and Notch Trails below.
Castle Trail Hike Details
There are two different trailheads for the Castle Trail: the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead and the Castle Trailhead (which is located across the street from the Notch trailhead). It doesn’t really matter where you start as the trail is a straight out-and-back. If you start at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead, you will hike to the Castle Trailhead before returning the same way you came or you can start at the Castle Trailhead and hike to the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead before returning back to the Castle Trailhead.
Because we visited in July and we knew afternoon temperatures were going to be hot, we started our hike around 8:00 AM and we are very glad we did. There is no shade on the trail and that afternoon sun can be relentless.
We decided to start at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead and hiked towards the Castle Trailhead. The first two miles or so from the Fossil Trailhead were probably our least favorite part of the trail. There aren’t as many of the cool rock formations and the trail just winds its way through the grass. We did see a few bighorn sheep, which was exciting!
After about two miles, you will reach an intersection with the Saddle Pass Trail and the Medicine Root Trail. You have two options here. You can either continue straight on the Castle Trail or turn left to take the Medicine Root Trail. The Saddle Pass trail will bring you back to Route 240, which is the main road that runs through the park, so there is no need to go that direction. However, you can take the Medicine Root trail, as it meets back up with the Castle Trail closer to the Castle Trailhead. This can be a good option on your return hike to switch things up!
We continued straight on the Castle Trail. As you keep going, more and more of the unique rock formations for which the Badlands are known will rise above the prairie. Make sure you take some time to appreciate just how wild the landscape is!
Soon enough you will reach the Castle Trailhead, which is where the Castle Trail ends. We were surprised by how quickly we reached the end of the trail but then remembered there is almost no elevation gain so it’s easy to push through the five, flat miles.
Detour to the Notch Trail
After reaching the Castle Trailhead, you have two options – you can either take a quick break and return back towards the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead or you can continue onto the Notch Trail, which starts right across the street. If you have the time, we highly recommend adding on the Notch Trail.
Watch us hike the Notch Trail at Badlands National Park.
This 1.5 mile hike is super fun and includes a walk through a small canyon, a climb up a wooden ladder (great photo op!) and ends along a cliffside trail leading to a viewpoint overlooking the Badlands prairie.
Whether you decide to continue on the Notch Trail or not, eventually you will need to head back towards the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead on the Castle Trail. About 1.5 miles from the Castle Trailhead you will reach an intersection with the Medicine Root Trail.
If you don’t want to hike back the exact same way you hiked in, you can take the Medicine Root trail, which connects back with the Castle Trail farther down the line. We did not take the Medicine Root detour, mainly because we were tired and wanted to get back to our car, but we definitely wish we did. It doesn’t add much distance and otherwise there isn’t anything new to see on the return trip.
Our total hike from the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead to the end of the Notch Trail and back took us just under five hours with a total distance of 12 miles.
About the Authors
We’re Sarah and Matt, two digital nomads, outdoor enthusiasts, and the creators of Two Outliers, an adventure travel and photography blog dedicated to helping you plan your next adventure! We road trip full-time across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home each month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time hiking, camping, backpacking, kayaking and pretty much anything else you can do in the outdoors. We hope that our experiences will help you plan your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!
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