Badlands National Park’s Castle Trail: Good Hike in a Bad Land

Good hike? Try great hike! If you haven’t been to The Badlands, you need to make sure it’s on your short list. And when you get there, don’t just drive the Badlands Loop Road – get out and head on into those beauteous buttes and palatial prairies. If it sounds like I enjoyed this hike, I did. Immensely. It is neither difficult nor long, yet packs an almost obscene amount of other-worldly wonder into a scant 3.8 miles of easy walking. My wife, Penelope Planwell – who also goes by Lisa – smartly scheduled this hike for sunset, and we hit the trail at a quarter to seven that evening.

TripAdvisor user Noni314 had this to say about the Castle Trail: “Just a flat, wide-open and boring hike … not much to look at … pretty much the same all the way.” Look, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but most of this just seems objectively wrong. Flat? Really? I’m not sure how buttes and spires equal flat, but okay … the trail itself is relatively level, but there were tiny mountains all around us. Also, “not much to look at”? It’s the nature! I hike whole trails with nothing to look at except tree trunks and leaves without feeling cheated. Maybe that’s just me, but what was Noni314 expecting? Bears on unicycles? Interpretive dance? Mimes?

I would quit hiking if there were mimes.

If I were to concede anything to Noni314 it would be that, right at the trailhead, the immediate area looked a little like what, on the east coast, I might assume was an abandoned construction zone. Then I took ten steps. Suddenly I was in a realm of swirled, pink rock; fluted buttes; and carved pathways in an ever-undulating sea of beige. Nothing was boring. Or flat. The sun was at our backs and bathed the trail ahead in an ever-warming light as we rambled over gently rolling desert. Behind us, that same sun was slowly sinking behind sawtooth hills. We threaded our way through rock formations and grassy plains. The melodious sound of songbirds filled the air, and several times Lisa bade us stop to fully appreciate their warbling.

At one point, the topography that bored Noni314 was so diametrically different on each side of the trail that I could scarcely believe the two existed in the same place. To our right was a moonscape – dark rocks scattered thick across a sandy, earthen blanket; to the left, short-grass prairie stretched for several hundred yards to the base of some tidy-looking buttes iced with sage-green frosting. Beyond the spires to the south, a storm gathered. Lightning flashed beyond some heavily striated rock formations, and we repeatedly resolved to hasten our hike, only to forget two minutes later as one of us stoped to inspect a flower or marvel at a distant spire. Foretelling our safe passage to the eastern trailhead, a rainbow appeared in the Payne’s-grey, southern sky – not the traditional arc, but a paint-stroke of prismatic light that hovered between two distant peaks.

The sky to the east grew pink as we tramped; behind us the sun set the South Dakota prairie ablaze. There was much discussion in the planning stages about whether to hike this route east to west or west to east. A park ranger had no strong opinion either way. Here’s what I can tell you: most of us are inclined to seek out and view a sunset if one is readily available. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Sunsets? I hate ’em. Wouldn’t look at one if you paid me.” Just the knowledge that the sun was setting, and our ever-lengthening shadows, kept us twirling like a top for the entire hike. If we had hiked into the setting sun we may have been less inclined to look behind us. Were that true, we would have missed a truly magnificent display of color in the eastern sky. I think we chose wisely and would recommend hiking east if you do this route at sundown.

Twilight had enveloped the plains as we approached the parking area on Old Northeast Road, where we had dropped our second vehicle earlier that afternoon. We had logged almost four miles. The Castle Trail continues east for another 1.2 miles to connect with the Notch, Window, and Door trailheads, where we would hike the next morning. As we drove away from the lot in the gathering darkness, I wondered how anyone could find that trail lacking in anything other than rigor. Maybe Noni314 was hiking with eyes wide shut. You say boring – I say sublime. Fight me. ♦

Date: July 5, 2022
Location: Badlands National Park, SD
Trailhead: 43.772917, -102.002467
Distance: 3.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 15 feet
Difficulty: Easy

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, and Mnicoujou

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