Castle Trail to Saddle Pass, Badlands National Park

Our evening arrival to Badlands National Park coincided with a torrential storm that brought rain, wind and hail to the region. We learned the next morning that the campground was flooded, as was every arroyo in the park. We soon learned that the soft clay of the Badlands terrain does not mix well with lots of rain. Think quicksand you sink inches with each step thick, goopy mud that sticks to your shoes like glue. My brother Dave and I attempted to hike the Saddle Pass Trail to join the Castle Trail at Badlands on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 beginning at 7:30AM. In no time our plans changed, as the clay mud was simply impassible. Instead, we killed some time sight-seeing, and waited for the afternoon sun to begin to dry the muck. So beginning about 1:00PM we hiked the trail in the opposite direction, starting at the west trailhead for the Castle Trail.

Hike Length: 4 miles Hike Duration: 2.5 hours

Hike Rating: Easy. Our original plan, climbing the Saddle Pass Trail to the Badlands Wall is strenuous. However, once up at the mesa level, you’re walking on flat grassland and (fortunately) drying arroyo.

Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: Stakes

Elevation Change: 80 feet Elevation Start: 2,638 feet

Trail Condition: Under normal circumstances the trails would be fine, but don’t try to hike the Saddle Pass Trail after a ferocious rain storm. Later in the day, the Castle Trail still showed puddling, but was mostly grassy open prairie.

Starting Point: Saddle Pass Trailhead is near Ben Reifel Visitor Center on loop road. The west end Castle Trailhead is at the Fossil Exhibit pullout on the loop road.

Trail Traffic: Two other intrepid hikers attempting the muck with us in the morning. About a dozen others later in the day on the Castle Trail.

How to Get There: From Wall, SD take Hwy 240 to the entrance to Badlands National Park, then travel the Badlands Loop Road to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The Saddle Pass Trailhead is about a mile and a half west, and the Castle Trailhead another two miles beyond that.

 

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Dave and I arrived in Wall, South Dakota just past dinner-time, checked into our motel, and headed to The Badlands National Park excited for some great sunset photos. Instead, we were greeted with 40 mph wind, stinging rain, crazy lightning, and a black pall on the entire night sky. Welcome to The Badlands.

While our evening excursion was a bust, we were up early the next morning ready for some great hiking in South Dakota. Little did we know that the storm lasted most of the night, causing flash flooding and general mayhem. At the trailhead we encountered a woman in an RV who had stayed the previous night at the nearby park campground. She reported large hail twice, and flooding of the poor tent campers who most certainly didn’t sign up for that.

At the trailhead for Saddle Pass Trail, a footbridge crosses the arroyo. There was still brown water flowing. The walls of the bridge were packed full of desert scrub debris that had washed through the arroyo from flash flooding that must have been many feet above the level of the bridge. Incredible. The trailhead sign even says, “this short, but steep trail is not recommended when wet.” After navigating our way through the debris across the bridge, we found out why.

The wet clay looks innocent enough still a smooth surface. Dave took the first steps and realized immediately he was in one giant mess. His boots sank into the mire nearly to his ankles. I tried going in a different direction on the other side of the bridge with the same unfortunate result.

Now what? There was a grassy area to the east a hundred yards, so we tried accessing the trail from that way (see the picture at the top of this post). At least it was passable, but there was still quite a bit of standing water.

We made it around the worst of the mud and began the climb up the Badlands Wall to Saddle Pass. Another couple guys arrived about the same time and tackled the trail with us. We soon found out it wasn’t any better. The mud wasn’t soft like near the wash, but we might as well have been on ice. Seemingly for every step forward up the hill we would slide two steps back on the extremely slick mud. This was untenable.

 

Each step on the very slick clay must be strategically planned.

 

So we surrendered. The mud won. We tip-toed our way back to the car and spent 10 minutes cleaning our boots, drove back to the Visitor Center, and asked the friendly rangers how long it takes to dry. If there’s wind, he said, maybe only a matter of a few hours. The good news was that there was a bit of a breeze, and the temperature was warming. This lifted the morning fog and left an overhanging cloud layer.

We came up with a different plan. We would drive the loop road sight-seeing for awhile, then check out the other end of our planned hike at the western Castle Trailhead, hoping for dry or drying turf. The plan worked. After a few hours of picture taking and a picnic lunch, the trail was passable by 1:00. So off we went.

We did encounter just a bit of remaining mud, and a few puddles, but overall the breeze had done a nice job of drying the clay.

Castle Trail is the longest hiking trail in Badlands National Park, stretching a total of five miles from west to east. We only planned to go as far as Saddle Pass, just two miles, and tackle the eastern portion of the trail on another day.

The arroyos, or washes, that snake through the Badlands mesa are omnipresent and provide a natural drainage system for the otherwise level prairie that is the heart of the national park. The clay spires or pinnacles surround this grassland and make good markers for how far you have walked, and how far you have yet to go.

The climate seems arid, but there is obviously enough water to carve the arroyos, and to provide habitat for the very green grass and the occasional wildflowers. There really aren’t many places elsewhere in America that are quite like The Badlands. The appearance is somewhat similar to some of the redrock formations and hoodoos in Utah canyon country, but that is mostly sandstone. The hills and buttes here are made of clay.

 

The ecosystem on the prairie is diverse, with clay and sand, grasses and wildflowers, and water carving the arroyos.

 

At the two mile mark is a junction of trails, including the Saddle Pass Trail that we tried (and failed) earlier in the morning. There is also the Medicine Root Trail that makes a loop of the eastern portion of Castle Trail. That would be a hike for the coming days. For today though, we just went to Saddle Pass to examine the view we had missed out on in the morning by not being able to climb the Badlands Wall.

Now, some seven hours later, there were plenty of people coming up Saddle Pass Trail with ease, completely unaware what we had been through just a matter of hours before. Quite remarkable. In this case, the early bird didn’t get the worm. We got dirty instead.

There was quite a change at Saddle Pass. There was blue sky instead of fog. We could see for miles into the interior of the park, rather than just a few feet through the gloom. I had waited decades for a return to The Badlands, a place I barely remembered from my youth. The previous night and this day got off to a rocky start, but maybe this was going to turn out ok after all.

The two-mile stroll back flew by. I had a new spring to my step. Dave and I could tell things were getting better. We still had 20 days of adventure ahead of us, and a now positive vibe to enjoy it with.

In summary, our day didn’t go quite as planned, but still ended up with a nice introduction to Badlands National Park. Trails at the mesa level are quite easy. The Saddle Pass Trail (that we could not complete) is the only trail rated strenuous, but even it is short. The message I want to leave you with is this: as you should in most remote environs, beware of the weather. It can change things in a hurry. The Badlands is unhikeable when it’s wet, but a lot of fun when it isn’t.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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