Probably the most popular is the Fossil Exhibit Trail, which is located about a five mile drive, or hike from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the parks paved loop road. This 1/4 mile boardwalk goes through an incredibly fossil rich area. It is handicap accessible and a must see, even if you plan to only drive through the park.
The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is about a 1/2 mile north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and is also a very popular trail -- and will probably have the most crowds. It's popularity is caused by the fact that it is the second trailhead you come to before reaching the rangers station. This 1/2 mile trail goes down into a "slump" area where runoff from the winter snow melt and summer rains tend to collect. Due to the terrain, water retention is enhanced so an oasis of green in the summer months awaits the hiker surrounded by the stark moon like buttes of Badlands.
Located about two miles north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a parking lot which allows access to the trailheads of the Door Trail, the Window Trail, the Notch Trail, and the five mile long Castle Trail. The Door Trail is a 2/3 mile long trail that heads almost due east out of the parking lot, and it's trailhead is located on the northern corner of the lot. The first 100 yards is accessible to the handicapped if you have an athletic wheel chair. The remainder of the trail is moderate, but brings the visitor to some of the best views in the entire Badlands of it's famed other world landscapes. You should note that the Door Trail is currently having improvements being done to it, so you should call ahead to the Ranger Station to find out what condition it is in.
The Window Trail is a short 100 yard walk east out of the parking lot. The trailhead is located at the center of the lot. The trail goes to a "window" in the buttes, which allows for some unique views of the landscape below.
The Notch Trail is not for the faint of heart. This 1.2 mile trail starts by taking through a wash and will come to a 45 degree cable and wood ladder. You will have to climb this ladder and if you have a fear of heights you should not take this trail. You will continue to follow the wash to a notch in the buttes. Your reward for your labors is what some people argue is the best views in the park. The difficulty of the trail and the ascent on the ladder will keep most ordinary folks away, allowing for solitude with exception to the busiest days.
The Castle Trail stretches for five miles from the parking lot, with the trailhead located to the west on the other side of the Park Loop Road. The trail is relatively flat and intersects the Medicine Root Loop, the Saddle Pass Trail, and ends at the Fossil Exhibit. Be mindful that this is a ten mile round trip. Badlands National Park has the worst of everything when it comes to hiking, especially in the summer months. Not only is it hot and void of shade like a desert, it can experience brutal humidity which will quickly beat you down. You should carry two quarts of water for every hour you plan to hike in the Badlands, and you need to be mindful that none of the water in the park is potable. Filtering will not make the water potable either.
The Castle Trail will take you through a variety of terrain and in the early summer will have a lot of vegetation. You should check with the rangers at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for trail conditions. Even the smallest amount of rain can make the trail a muddy mess that will be almost impassible. Your boots should be waterproofed and you should carry spare socks on this trail. The trail tends to be overgrown in places and you will have to look carefully for the trail markers which tend to blend in with the landscape. Hiking the Castle Trail without a map, and navigation device like a compass or GPS is dangerous. The terrain is relatively flat and open (with buttes and hoodoos all around), with little to offer for orientation for the first time hiker. If you do become disoriented on this trail, you should head due south, as you will run into the Park Loop Road. The Castle Trail does offer the hiker solitude, and with exception to the above mentioned intersections, you are unlikely to run into any one on the trail. It also allows you to carry a badge of honor, if you conquer all ten miles of it round trip and can still smile.
The Medicine Root Trail is an alternative loop that is accessible from the Saddle Pass Trail to the west and the Castle Trail to the east. Where the Castle Trail passes through some vegetation and then into a stark and barren moonscape, the Medicine Root Trail passes through a relatively lush area of the Badlands. A wide variety of plants from prairie grasses to desert cactus can be found. If you are lucky enough to visit the trail after some rain, the desert flowers are spectacular. This trail also tends to be overgrown, and is difficult to navigate. It should be noted that the trail distance on both the National Park handout and the Trails Unlimited map are wrong, which both list this as a 2.0 mile trail. This trail has been measured via GPS as 2.6 miles, which in mid-summer heat can make a lot of difference. The intersection of the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail does offer a steep butte that can provide shade at most times of the day, it is a good dry place to rest. Like the Castle Trail, you should check with the rangers for conditions and you should never hike the trail without equipment or a map. Getting disoriented on this trail is easy, and if you get heading north you will be in a lot of trouble fast.
Challenging Hikes of Badlands National Park...