Cliff Shelf Trail – Badlands National Park Interior, South Dakota

We arrived late in the afternoon to Badlands National Park, settled into our cabin, and in the evening found our way to the free, ranger led, astronomy program. We were glad we did as it gave us the outstanding view of the diffused light of the Milky Way captured in the title photo. There was no ambient light from any nearby city so the astronomers pointed out that there were 4000 to 5000 stars visible in the sky above us. The lights seen in the lower part of the photo were small, arose from the nearby campground, and did not interfere with the viewing.

In the dark sky, Jupiter was easily seen cresting over the red hue of the encircling mountains.

With the aid of their telescopes, we saw Jupiter and its 4 moons, the rings of Saturn, and the blue glow of Neptune. What an exciting experience to start our visit.

The next morning we took the short drive from our cabin in the Cedar Park Lodge area to the Cliff Shelf Trail. The views from the parking lot were striking, almost alien to this Midwesterner. It could have been a movie set. In fact, the Badlands has been used for several movie locations.

The loop trail starts as a boardwalk with some stairs and hand rails – accessible, but not an “all person’s” trail (not wheelchair accessible). The boardwalk appears to be in place to get hikers over some ravines and to minimize risk of erosion to the terrain.

The trail would switch off and on from boardwalk to a dirt and stone path, but was largely free of challenging terrain or trip hazards, although there was the occasional problematic erosion.

The early part of the trail circumvents the “Shelf” of fallen stone that had collapsed from the neighboring butte some millennia ago. It had resulted in an obstruction to the drainage from the butte’s watershed, leaving a relative wetland when compared to the surrounding arid lands. This moister area, while not wet, allows for more luxurious plant growth, especially of Rocky Mountain Junipers and grasses.

There were numerous game trails through this valley, easily visible from our elevated positions.

About a third of the way into the route, the trail becomes a series of stairs. This is largely where the 200 foot elevation change occurs.

The climber is rewarded with expansive views of the dry, short grass prairie below and the distant stone formations that lay within the Badlands Park proper, as well as the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The distant ridge in the photo below is the gully of the White River.

The view in front of you is so unique it is captivating, but the detail behind you on the walkway offers its own geologic appeal. Here you see the exposed strata that provides textures and colors to the landscape.

On closer examination it reminded the photographer of the sand castles that we built with our daughters, with saturated sands, on so many beaches years ago.

As the trail starts to descend from the precipice you get one last view of the broad valley and can see part of the terminus of the trail.

Once off the mountainside the trail weaves through the canyon of the watershed, in the shade of Junipers. Despite the steady breeze that was welcomed on this warm morning, there is a pleasant scent of “cedar” in the air, adding a feeling of freshness to the setting.

One final climb reminds us that this trail has its challenges,

and the loop trail reconnects with the first few yards of boardwalk.

Some of the interesting sightings along the path included this ubiquitous yellow flower of Rubber Rabbitbrush,

and this red berried shrub.

When one thinks of South Dakota one probably does not think of cacti, but 2 varieties of Prickly Pear Cacti were seen along the trail. It makes sense since the area only averages 16 inches of precipitation per year.

We also found this interesting hardware along the route: A metal cylinder filled with concrete holding a copper token. We are not sure what it is used for but the USDI probably stands for the United States Department of Interior, and the NPS for National Park Service. Perhaps it is some type of surveying marker.

Lastly, a sign like this always gets your attention, but requires a little reasoning.

One ranger who had a thirty year tenure at the Badlands did the math for us. He said in his career that approximately 30 million folks had visited the Badlands and that there were 8 recorded rattlesnake bites over that time period. There were however many more severe injuries related to falls secondary to errors in judgement and risk taking, almost exclusively in males.

In summary, the 0.5 mile Cliff Shelf Trail is a great introduction to the nature and geology of the Badlands National Park and we enjoyed it on our first full day. While short in distance, it is moderately challenging with its series of stairs, and rewards the participant with outstanding views. posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – Interior, South Dakota

Parking – Large asphalt lot.

Facilities – None

Trail Conditions – rolling loop trail of boardwalk as well as some bare gravel, rock, and dirt. There is a 200 foot elevation change with many well constructed stairs.

Print Map Link – none. There is a good pamphlet of all the trails at the Badlands available outside the Visitor Center.

Benches – Several noted.

Picnic Tables – none noted

Kids – kids 6 and over should do well here. I suspect shorter legs will be challenged by the number of stairs.

Dogs – Prohibited

Suggested Paired Hikes – There are many hikes of varying difficulty available nearby.



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