Saddle Pass to Medicine Root Loop

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Saturday, September 22nd, 2018
Last Updated: Wednesday, February 13th, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 4.5 miles roundtrip
Time 2.5 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons Spring, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

The Medicine Root Loop is one of the longest hikes in Badlands National Park using the park's limited network of developed trails. Because I enjoy making things harder for myself, I combined this with the popular yet strenuous climb to Saddle Pass. The length and difficulty means you'll be able to enjoy some less-visited scenery with some opportunity for solitude while on the Medicine Root Loop. This trail is a welcome escape from the hectic crowds found throughout the park, giving you quiet time to enjoy the stark beauty of the badlands.

Starting from the bottom of the Saddle Pass Trail, you'll face a formidable looking wall, pictured below. Despite its looks, the trail climbs at a humanly possible grade over the top of those fantastic badlands rock formations. Long metal poles jabbed into the rock indicate your route the entire way to the top, though in the most difficult areas between poles you'll notice a few well-worn route options to avoid obstacles. Steep is an understatement, and you'll ascend 200 feet over the course of only an eight of a mile.

Somehow, you will ascend this craggy mass

Somehow, you will ascend this craggy mass

At the top, you'll be rewarded with the nice view pictured below, where the tall badlands give way to the prairie with a few rogue pinnacles jutting out of the grass. As your breathing slows, you can appreciate the height you've climbed with the additional reward of a mostly flat trail for the rest of the hike.
The view after a hard climb up Saddle Pass

The view after a hard climb up Saddle Pass

In comparison to the barren wasteland you just climbed, the remainder of the hike is lush with grass growing in sandy soil, as pictured below. Pinnacles rise above the flat plateau in all directions. As you hike away from Saddle Pass, you'll reach a trail junction where the Saddle Pass Trail meets the Castle Rock Trail and Medicine Root Trail. Either continue straight or turn right to do the loop (I went straight and will describe the loop in the clockwise direction).
Prairie grasses punctuated by sand

Prairie grasses punctuated by sand

While the badlands are obviously the centerpiece of the park, you'll be see a subtler version of the famous landscape with pockets of wildflowers and short, water-carved hills as shown in the two pictures below. Compared to the sublime overlooks elsewhere in the park, this experience seems subdued, but as a stand-alone hike, the scenery is fantastic.
Wildflowers and prairie grasses with a badlands backdrop

Wildflowers and prairie grasses with a badlands backdrop

The undulating topography contained in the Medicine Root Loop

The undulating topography contained in the Medicine Root Loop

The main reason I rated this hike as 4 instead of 5 stars is that the trail becomes monotonous after a while due to the flatness. Because you can see so far, scenery changes are gradual, evidenced by the picture below, which was taken about halfway through the loop and isn't much different than the landscape at the start of the loop pictured earlier. Near the halfway point, you'll turn right onto the Castle Rock Trail (if you continue straight you'll reach a parking lot).
Rocky pinnacles disrupting the grassland

Rocky pinnacles disrupting the grassland

This final half has more varied scenery as you near the edge of the badlands plateau. You'll pass pockets of hardened bubbly mud like in the first picture below and deep canyons running to the bottom of the prairie visible on the horizon, shown in the second picture below. It's truly amazing what water erosion can accomplish! Over a half million years, ancient rivers and torrential rainfall slowly sculpted the soft, clay-rich soil into these masterpieces.
The extreme effects of water erosion created this unique landscape

The extreme effects of water erosion created this unique landscape

Canyons with a glimpse of the prairie below

Canyons with a glimpse of the prairie below

When the loop ends, turn left back onto the Saddle Pass Trail, and begin your careful descent of the steep grade by following those same metal poles from before. Stop and look up from your feet every once in a while to enjoy the view straight in front of you.

Next time you're in Badlands National Park, try this less traveled trail. Without so many other tourists, you'll really be able to appreciate the austerity and peace of the towering spikes surrounding you. Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are prohibited on all trails in Badlands National Park. With a strenuous climb and long loop, this is not a good hike for kids; instead visit the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail or Fossil Exhibit Trail. Spring and fall are the two ideal seasons for this hike. Due to the strenuous nature of the climb and long, shadeless trail, this hike is not recommended on summer days. In addition, trails are not maintained during the winter, so snow and ice can make the climb treacherous. Despite the difficulty of the climb to Saddle Pass, you'll probably see people during that section; later on the Medicine Root Loop you will be able to enjoy solitude, at least for brief stints.

Directions

From Interstate 90, take exit 131 for South Dakota Highway 240 (you'll see a brown sign for Badlands National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center). Head south and continue to the park entrance station. Pay your fee, continue straight past the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, then turn right into the parking area labeled with a brown sign for Saddle Pass.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Entrance to the park requires paying the $20 vehicle entrance fee ($25 starting January 2019), except on designated fee free days. Annual passes for Badlands National Park are also available at $40 ($50 starting January 2019). Interagency annual passes are available for $80 with discounts for seniors, military, and those with disabilities. Visit the Badlands National Park webpage about fees for more detailed information. There are no facilities available here, so fill your water and use the restroom at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center nearby before the hike.

External Links

Nearby Hikes

Fossil Exhibit Trail

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Cliff Shelf Nature Trail Loop

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Notch Trail

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Window Trail

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