When we visit a national park I usually plan a few scenic drives and a few hiking trips. For Badlands National Park, I set my sights on Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail combo hike. Combining both trails make it one of the longest trails in the park, so we are in it for a whole day.
This is easy to moderate trail technically starts at the Door and Window parking area on the east and travels five miles one way to the Fossil Exhibit parking lot, on the west. We decided to do the opposite, and start on the west side. During the peak season, the trail can get crowded, but we hit the trail a few weeks after Labor Day. By the time we pack up and lock the truck, we’ve noticed that Mother nature blessed us with cool temperatures and a light breeze. A great day for a hike.
The relatively flat trail throughout means we hike fairly fast, but of course stop to take in the view along the way. First, we pass through some grasslands and see Badlands formations including spires and monuments that look like distant castles. I guess that’s where the trail gets its name from. We then come upon a kind of in-between place, where the grassland erodes slowly away and turns into a scarred landscape of sand, gravel, and rock. Grass islands seemingly rise up from the desolate shale and stone base. I can see that parts of the path use to go through that area, but water and wind washed the land and trail away.
The path then gives way to rocky landscape. The stones here seem rounded and buff, indicating that it might be a wash during flood seasons. We pick through the multicolored stones in hopes of finding a fossil or gem. Our hike continues through a scenery that alternates between grasslands, prairies, rocky washes, and lunar landscapes. Meanwhile to the south, badlands formations eerily spire, like alien castles from Mars. To the north, golden meadows constantly wave in the breeze. The wind irregularly blusters, making the tall grass sound like a strange waterfall or a roar of white noise.
Saddle Pass Junction
At the top of Saddle Pass, we gawk at an amazing view over the White River Valley. Directly down, I can spot the parking lot for the trailhead and the Scenic Drive Loop road, which we drove on earlier in the week. We pick a spot to rest and enjoy the view while watching an exceptional hiker make their way up the fierce terrain of the short but strenuous path of Saddle Pass Trail.
Onward to Old Northeast Road
We continue our hike eastward on Castle Trail and spy more badlands formations while trekking through more grasslands and rough rocky hills. The most notable feature is the change in plant life. In addition to the tall grass, nearly everywhere on either side of the trail are Curlycup Gumweed. This short and stout plant that bears several branches with daisylike flower head decorated in a bright and cheery yellow. But that is where the niceties of this plant stops; the entire flower head surrounded by pointed, outward-curling, green bracts that produce an annoying sticky material. I’m glad I wore long pants, I can imagine how the sticky barbs would annoyingly tug at my skin.
After another hour of hiking, we reach Old Northeast Road, sometimes called National Park Road on other GPS maps. There is also a gaggle of school kids about to hike the Eastern half of Castle Trail toward Door and Window parking area. There is a small roadside parking lot here, but no seating or picnic tables, so we find a grassy knoll and have lunch.
Medicine Root Trail
After our break, we hit Medicine Root Trail. Park rangers mark this trail with green colored stakes, so we don’t lose our way. The path gently rolls for four miles and west through tall grasses and prairies before connecting back up with the Castle Trail and Saddle Pass Trail at the junction. There’s more Curlycup Gumweed, but also wild sunflowers, prickly pears, soapweed yucca, and the particular lone standing eastern cottonwood.
Back on Castle Trail and a Surprise
On the last leg of Medicine Root Trail, our hike begins to wear on us. By the time we reach Saddle Pass junction, our shadows are getting lengthy and trace behind us. We push on and retrace our steps on Castle Trail, back to Fossil trail parking lot.
Just a couple of hundred feet before we reach our car, we climb a hill. When we reach the top we are surprised by a small herd of Bighorn sheep. They quietly graze upon the bucolic landscape, not giving us a second thought. They block our path with indignant ownership of the trail and great apathy to our sore feet. We’ve hiked a little over 8 miles this trip, and both of us are in need of a lavatory. We quietly give the half a dozen rams wide birth by cutting off the trail and through the tall grass. I watch my step and avoid surprise cactus, but I manage to get seed spurs in my pants and socks. I guess it’s a small price for a chance meeting with few magnificent creatures.
By the time we reach the truck, we’re tired, a little achy, but slightly stunned at our close encounter with the Bighorn. We take our bio-brakes and watch the sunset while relaxing in nice comfy seats. A long hike, but wonderful views and awesome encounters.