We had no plans to hike this trail as it was reviewed as the most strenuous of all the trails in the Badlands. We had pulled into the parking lot to allow more hurried drivers to pass us on the scenic Badlands Loop Road.
The lot was largely full and I mentioned to the photographer and our middle daughter Ellen, that the trail gets great reviews. From our spot in the lot we could see the trailhead, just a short distance away across a bridge over a dry creek bed, as well as the initial steep ascent up an approximate 40 degree grade. The trail looked challenging, well worn, and in some weird way beckoning.
Ellen was up for the challenge and became the stand in photographer.
The first part of the trail crosses a dry baked clay that was fissuring due to the lack of rain.
Then suddenly the route was vertical.
The path was not only strenuous due to grade, it was challenging due to the loose pebbles and stones on the otherwise clay and rock surface.
Shortly we caught up with a couple who were attempting the climb. The woman was wearing a smooth soled tennis shoe and was struggling mightily on the loose trail debris, at times climbing on all fours.
The trail offered a sense of jeopardy, with ravines never more than a few feet from the pathway.
We would take breaks along the route, to enjoy the views, the colors of the stone, and the assorted textures.
The path was generally well marked with blue metal poles. Further up, the trail was less smooth and progress required skirting or climbing over large rocks .
Eventually we did get to a confusing fork in the trail that was unmarked. We took the left fork and in relatively short time breached the crest, and found ourselves on a very flat, wide, barren strip of land.
This area was raised about 20 feet above an expansive plateau to the north that hosted a dry grass prairie crisscrossed by two other hiking trails: The Castle Trail and the Medicine Root Trail.
Our high position allowed for several mile views for about 150 degrees, revealing a hive of activity with many hikers visible on the flat terrain. The numerous hikers that we saw may not have been aware of each others’ presence.
Venturing to our right we took a narrow trail that wound around a heavily eroded butte, but it ended in an insurmountable boulder field.
We aborted that trek and returned to the crest. Then I opted to walk about 100 yards onto the grassy plain to verify that indeed these were the hiking trails that I expected. Sod plateaus added some interest to the flat contour.
When I got back to the crest Ellen and I enjoyed the views from this 4000 foot elevation, and took time for some photos. From the ridge we could look south and appreciate the severity of the climb. In the photos below you can see the roadway that we had parked near, giving an idea of the altitude that we had tackled.
It was at this time that we noted another climber who was more ambitious, and certainly a bigger risk taker, than we were.
Shortly after beginning our descent we again caught up with the earlier couple and unfortunately the woman’s footwear became a bigger issue. If the footing was challenging on the way up, it was absolutely treacherous on the way day down, even for those of us with outstanding hiking boots.
It got to the point wear she slid down the steeper grades on her butt .
When we got back to the car and related our experience to the photographer she reported that several hikers were coming down the trail on their butt for safety.
In summary, the Saddle Pass Trail is strenuous as advertised. It is not for those faint of heart, not physically fit, or, like the photographer, with a fear of heights. Also, not for those with inadequate footwear. The park’s literature notes that it will take you 1/2 hour to climb the short 0.25 mile trail : A snail’s pace necessitated by the arduous route. I loved the challenge of it, the surprise plateau on the other side, and the views along the way and at the top. An interesting aside about the hike is the near absolute absence of plants on the south facing slope. One final caution, do not hike this trail after a rain as the clay base turns into a slippery mess.
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Photo credits to Ellen Burns.
Location – Interior, South Dakota
Parking – Asphalt lot for about 14 cars.
Facilities – None
Trail Conditions – a steep grade on clay, bare rock and loose gravel. There are also quite of few ledges to ascend/descend.
Print Map Link – none. There is a good pamphlet of all the trails at the Badlands available outside the Visitor Center.
Benches – None but there are rocks that could act as benches.
Picnic Tables – none noted.
Kids – careful teens should do OK.
Dogs – Prohibited
Suggested Paired Hikes – There are many hikes of varying difficulty available nearby.