While traveling through South Dakota on our way to Montana, we spent a couple of days at Badlands National Park. Considered the longest route in the park, the 10.3-mile out-and-back Castle Trail was definitely our favorite hike while we there.
The overall elevation gain was only 305 feet, so it is relatively flat and considered moderate in difficulty overall.
Where is the Trailhead?
Because this trail is an out-and-back hike, there are two trailheads. Both are convenient and easy to find.
We parked our van, Alice, near the Fossil Exhibit Trail where there is ample parking available. The trailhead to Castle Rock is directly across the street from the parking lot.
From there, the path leads hikers to an immediate uphill climb on one of the rocky formations.
Once at the top, we stopped at a vantage point where the vastness of the beauty of the Badlands could be seen in two different directions. From there, we continued on a downhill descent to the flatlands.
Hiking from this trailhead, the route eventually took us to the second trailhead near another hiking trail called the Window Trail. This is a good place to start the Castle Trail as well, although we found this location to be much busier with traffic and park visitors.
Both trailheads are equipped with backcountry registration kiosks. Be sure to take the time to fill out the appropriate information before heading out in order to maximize your safety on the hike.
Things to consider before hiking Castle Trail
The best months to hike in the Badlands are April or October because of the milder temperatures. However, we were in the park in the month of September, and the weather was warm but comfortable. If you are in the park during the summer months (June-August), be aware that the heat in this timeframe can be brutally hot. Also, the possibility of pop-up thunderstorms is higher during the summer season. When wet, the trail can get very muddy and slick, so be sure to wear your best pair of hiking boots/shoes.
During the summer months, start your hike early in the morning or late in the afternoon when temperatures are cooler.
Sunblock and water are highly recommended for this hike. The National Park Service recommends taking at least 1 liter of water per person.
The average time to complete the 10.5-mile out-and-back hike is 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Hikers should practice the 7 Principles of Leave No Trace. Generally, these principles include carrying out what you carry in, staying on designated hiking trails, and respecting wildlife, among others. Be familiar with all the guidelines before starting this or any other hike.
Our Experience on Castle Trail
Overall, the Castle Trail in the Badlands National Park was a great hiking experience that took us through a scenic journey. The trail meandered through the unique landscape, offering breathtaking vistas, interesting rock formations, and a glimpse into the rich geological history of the region.
What we enjoyed most about this hike was the rugged beauty and the diversity of the landscapes. We saw eroded gullies, towering buttes, and colorful sedimentary rock formations. The well marked trail offered both challenging sections and more leisurely stretches.
Another enjoyable aspect of this hike was the wildlife we observed along the way, including deer, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep.
The out-and-back hike was not busy with other large crowds of people. In fact, in the 3 hours we were on the trail, we only encountered 6 other hikers. Most of the time, we felt we were alone on the trail and free to enjoy it at our own pace, which added to our sense of fun.
Although we have not hiked all the trails at the Badlands, our assessment is Castle Trail is among the best overall hikes in the park, if not the best. Our opinion is based on our own experience, people we talked to while in the park and comments from hiker we have read on hiking applications like All Trails.
While in South Dakota, be sure to stop at Custer State Park. We believe it is one of the premier state parks in America!