- Distance: 4+ miles (lollipop-loop)
- Time: 2 days
- Difficulty: 5 out of 5
When French trappers first crossed the Dakotas, legend has it that they dubbed the twisted topography mauvaises terres à traverser, or “bad lands to cross.” But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
See where you land on a 6.8-mile lollipop-loop from the Door and Window Parking Area (43.7613, -101.9278), an easy entry to Badlands National Park's hiking. Head 1.3 miles northwest on the Castle Trail (pictured) to a junction. Here, create a 4.2-mile loop on the Medicine Root and Castle Trails before retracing your steps. The route is mostly flat, traveling through prairie with views of badland formations.
Ready to step up your game? Dive into Badlands’ trailless interior for a DIY backpacking trip. Though temps creep up to 50°F in early spring, pack for winter. From the Sheep Mountain Overlook parking area (43.6927, -102.5791), follow dirt doubletrack Sheep Mountain Road 1.1 miles south to Spring Draw Creek. Turn west into the drainage and follow the wash .9 mile, including a fun bit through a tight slot canyon. Set up a basecamp at mile 2 on a grassy shelf (BYO water). Find a more complete itinerary below.
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From the Sheep Mountain Overlook:
(1) Walk 1.1 miles south on Sheep Mountain Rd. to Spring Draw Creek. The rocky wash is hard to ID, but it’s near mile marker 6 on the west side of the road.
(2) Turn west (hiker’s right) into Spring Draw Creek, and follow the drainage through a slot canyon to a grassy shelf at mile 2. Be aware of a few steep drops, and make use of preexisting aids to descend.
(3) From basecamp, continue dayhiking along Spring Draw Creek; reach the grassland near mile 2.5.
(4) Create your trip. A good bet: Head 2 miles west out of the canyon, then loop 7 miles through the badlands.
(5) Retrace your steps to your basecamp and back to the car.
Plateau in Spring Draw Creek
Find this elevated patch of soft grass (big enough for a few tents) next to a couple of spruce trees above the creek near mile 2. The creek passes nearby, but it’s unreliable; we recommend packing in your water (a gallon per person per day). There are no designated campsites; campfires are prohibited.
Be sure to check the forecast before you head out. Spring Draw Creek’s meager trickle can turn into a tent-drowning flood with enough rain. Also, the dirt becomes about as slick as a skating rink—what the rangers call “Badlands gumbo.”
Trailhead 43.692720, -102.579015; 9 miles south of Scenic on Sheep Mountain Rd. Permit None Custom-centered map ($15)