This post wraps up the final entry in our three-part series highlighting some of the best medium-distance hikes in the Black Hills and Badlands. We hope to see you out on the trail!
At 109 miles total, the distance between the trailheads ranges from 2 – 16 miles. This multi-use trail is built on the old railroad grade of the Burlington Northern rail line that ran from Edgemont to Deadwood during the Black Hills gold mining days. It is named after Governor Mickelson who was crucial in its development for recreational uses. It is available year round for summer and winter activities, including horseback riding and, in some parts, snowmobiling. Be watchful for rattlesnakes and cows on the path in the summer months. As this trail often goes near private land, be sure to not wander off the marked path. You can access it from 15 trailheads, many off of US Highway 385. There is a minor fee to use the trail (it can be paid daily or seasonally) and passes can be obtained from local visitor centers or found at the trailheads themselves. The path is flat and wide, made from crushed rock with a minimal grade. The trail crosses several beautiful wooden trestle bridges and ambles through narrow canyons. It allows visitors to easily see some of the more secluded (and captivating) Hills scenery. There are also several tunnels through the rock that are the same as those the trains once used (they have been shored up for stability). The atmosphere creates a scene that harkens back to a bygone era. You can almost imagine the faint *clackety-clack* of the train wheels and its whistle sounding from the distant past.
At 111 miles total, it traverses from Bear Butte State Park in the north to its southern terminus at Wind Cave National Park. The trail can be accessed from numerous locations and is available for winter and summer activities including mountain biking and horseback riding (in some areas). It traverses several recreational areas including various parts of the Black Hills National Forest, Black Elk Wilderness, Custer State Park, and Wind Cave National Park. Overnight camping is allowed off-trail (observe local regulations and be aware parts of the trail are near private land). Numerous wildlife are regularly seen in this area including deer (white tail and mule), elk, bighorn sheep, and buffalo. Use extreme caution near the buffalo as they are unpredictable and can be dangerous, so be sure to give them plenty of space. A good rule of thumb when dealing with any wild animals is that if they are reacting to you, you are too close. Mountain lions also call this natural area home, though they are rarely seen and attacks are almost unheard of. If you happen to see one, make plenty of noise and keep children and dogs close to you.
With almost ten miles of trails traversing the hillside, this area is available year round and is convenient as it’s only a scant 10-minute drive just west of Rapid City. So, not only is it a great place to spend a day, it’s a convenient location for evening/after-work activities. The trailhead is found on Route 44, less than a mile west of the turnoff for Falling Rock Road. It’s a beautiful area with several trails varying in length and difficulty that can be combined in numerous ways to make several loops. While the grade to the top is steep, once you’re there the trail grades are relatively flat. There are numerous picturesque views at the top.
I noted some safety tips in a previous post but they’re important and worth mentioning again. There is little to no shade in this area. It is also frequently windy and the climate is very arid. Make sure to drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen, sunglasses, and lightweight clothing/wide-brimmed hats. Also, be watchful for rattlesnakes (especially in tall grasses or in shaded spots/cracks when the weather is hot).
Medicine Root/Castle Trail Loop
At less than 3.5 miles total, the trailhead is located off the Old Northeast Road—which can be found about 0.9 miles west of the Castle/Door/Window/Notch trails parking lot. There is a sign for the Old Northeast Road and it only goes north from Route 240 (the Badlands Loop Road). Drive a couple hundred feet until you see a wooden bridge on the right-hand side. There is a small parking notch and the trailhead is to your left. The Medicine Root Trail and Castle trail meet here. A portion of the Castle Trail forms the southern arm of the loop through the Badlands formations, while the Medicine Root trail forms the northern arm of the loop. Metal posts with yellow paint mark the trail and the loop can be completed in either direction (I recommend trying both). On the Medicine Root Trail, watch for “Sod Tables” which are interesting dirt and rock formations resembling mini-plateaus with grass growing at the top. Rattlesnakes are only of concern in the summer, but this portion of the trail traverses mostly through prairie and is frequented by rabbits that burrow into the ground leaving large holes which could easily turn an ankle if you aren’t being watchful. Mule deer—identified by their larger, stockier size and mule-like ears—are prevalent in this area. Bighorn sheep and pronghorns are also occasionally seen.
The most striking views on this loop are found on the Castle Trail where the prairie meets the Badlands formations. It’s not unusual to be walking through prairie grass and relatively flat, hardened mud and see what appear to be minor ruts in the landscape ahead. When you reach these “ruts”, however, you realize they actually lead to yawning chasms formed by erosion that eventually open onto the plains of the White River Valley to the south. The reds, yellows, grays and various brown shades of the rocks are best viewed when the sun is lower in the sky (in the morning or evening). These are also the cooler times of day when summer heat is a concern. This is also a prime time to hear the Badlands “sing”. There is no more eerie sound to raise the hairs on the back of your neck than hearing the ghostly (and beautiful) howls of coyotes surround you while the sun sets over the Badlands’ walls. Not to worry, though, coyotes usually stay far from humans, preferring to dine on the numerous prairie dogs and other rodents that are rampant throughout the Badlands.
Saddle Pass Trail
At 0.7 miles, this trail is a bit confusing as there are two Saddle Pass trailheads, with one being near the I-90, Exit 131, entrance before you reach the first overlook. This is used mostly as a horse trail (though hiking is allowed as well). It mainly traverses the high prairie surrounding the Badlands and isn’t heavily used. The usual Saddle Pass trail is located about 2 miles west of the Cedar Pass Lodge and the Badlands Visitor Center. It is short—less than a mile and essentially just a connector up the Badlands Wall to the top of the plateau—but don’t let the diminutive distance fool you. This trail is STEEP. The descent is actually worse as the sandstone can be crumbly under your feet. This trail would be especially hazardous if it was wet, as the dirt will turn to slick mud. Another concern in summer is that due to the steepness of the trail it’s normal to look for handholds, which are numerous as there are plenty of cracks in the nearby rocks. The problem is, these are also prime areas for black widow spiders, rattlesnakes and other critters that may take refuge in the shade on a hot summer day, so be wary. The climb is worth it though, as there are spectacular views of the White River Valley once you reach the top of the Wall. At the trail’s terminus at the top of the Wall, it intersects with the western junction of the Medicine Root and Castle Trails.