Door and Window Trails – Badlands National Park, Interior, South Dakota

We paired these trails together as they share a parking lot, are short, and both have boardwalks that function as true “All Persons” trails.

We initially went to the Door Trail to partake in a ranger led walk on the geology of the Badlands region. The take home message was that water and erosion were and are the driving forces in the Badlands.

The pigmented layers of the mountains were caused by the various plant communities that inhabited the regions over the millions years of history, sediment from rivers that were causing erosion in the nearby Black Hills, and volcanic ash from eruptions in Utah and Nevada. Over those eras the area was a sea, a primordial forest, and prairie. Since the layers were laid down, erosion, wind, and temperature extremes have led to the exposure of the layers of color.

One of the first things we saw on the Door Trail were these prominent vertical striations. In the past fissures developed through the strata that were later filled with other minerals, resulting in these interesting strands called Clastic Dikes.

The boardwalk takes you through the “door”, a gap in the ridgeline, that opens onto a “moonscape” of stone with an eroded floor.

It was in this setting that we were told of the “sod plateaus” that were resisting the erosion. On close up you can see the vegetation on top of the plateau seen at a distance in the photo above. The “sod” vegetation blunts the erosive forces of precipitation, allowing these prominences to remain.

Along the same trail we see this effect on a smaller scale.

Later the same day we returned to walk the Window Trail. It is also a short boardwalk that gets the hiker in close proximity to some of the buttes, allowing close up visualization of the textures and composition. In the Badlands, one is free to step off the boardwalk for closer study of the environs.

The boardwalk winds its way over grasslands and some wildflowers including these Common Sunflowers, which add a burst of color to an otherwise earth-tone pallet.


Eventually you get to the “Window” that opens to a viewing area that offers panoramas onto an eroded canyon landscape.

At this point our middle daughter Ellen and I opted to take the extension of the Door Trail, that allows hikers to exit the boardwalk and weave their way across the mostly barren rock. The recommended route is marked by yellow posts.

The stage is barren and signage strongly suggest that each hiker carry a liter of water with them.

The eroded gullies and step offs require a purposeful and careful gait. Previously a ranger had warned us that if one was taking in a beautiful view to come to a complete stop, otherwise a serious injury could result from a fall from an unseen cliff. As can be seen in the photos below, trails frequently skirted the edge of these ravines, large and small.

We took his advice as to enjoy the outstanding vistas across the terrain.

The safe and slower place allowed us to appreciate the intricacies of the rock formations that were captivating, including this porous swiss cheese stone , a name Ellen and I coined. It is formed when softer rock compounds erode away, leaving only the harder rock with these pock marks.

Popcorn Stone, seen below, is an official term, and results from the presence of volcanic ash in the clay, which expands and contracts on a scale of 20 times, with or without the water. The fissures are the result of the expansion and contraction.

As with all our walks at the Badlands, our efforts were rewarded by outstanding views when we reached the trail’s end, including the one in the title photo.

In the Badlands, one of the things I was most impressed with is the resiliency of plants and how they adapt to the arid environment. Here we have Rubber Rabbitbush nestled in a ravine that harbored slightly more moisture than the surrounding clay soil.

During the earlier geology walk the ranger commented on the injuries that occur in the park, where he noted that they most frequently occur in males, ages 16 to 30. We were on the trail for a short time when we saw this activity occurring on the bordering ridge line. It is hard to appreciate in the photo, but this is a large group of young men, all dressed in black, who came running down the hillside, allowing gravity to pull them downhill at full speed.

Later we saw them again, some perched on a rock plateau, and others running on a trail atop a deep eroded gully.

It was like a bad music video.

It is important to point out that what they were doing is not prohibited here. The Badlands National Park has an “open terrain policy”, allowing visitors to wander across the 244,000 acres at will, with a few exceptions related to critical habitat protection.

What strikes most visitors to the Badlands, or even someone who just looks at the photos of the area, is the colorful layering seen along the eroded cliffs.

These are the result of two things; deposition of various sediments and erosion. The color and thickness variations are due to what caused the deposition in the first place, and over what timeline they occurred. 70 million years ago the area was covered by a sea, the Western Interior Seaway that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Over millennia, sea life died and collected on the sea floor. Eventually the sea was replaced by a hot and humid Everglades-like swamp, then a primordial forest, and eventually by prairie. The changing ecology of the area was due to climate change, with hot and humid being replaced with cold and dry. In addition, episodic flooding or distant volcanic activity would result in sediments being added as new layers. Volcanic ash was deposited two ways: by direct airborne layering, or washing in with runoff from the Rocky Mountains. Differences in concentration of the ash results in different coloration and textures. About 5 million years ago tectonic plates shifted, causing the layered rock formations to thrust up. Then the forces of nature, including the White and Cheyenne Rivers, started the process of erosion, and exposed the many colorful layers. The deepest layer is a blue black shale which is the sediment left from the time of the sea floor. That is not often seen. The next is a pastel yellow seen in some locations. It is in fact of the same origin as the shale, but bleached out by exposure. The gray layer is called Chaldron and is composed of Claystone and is made up of sediment added to an ancient river flood plain and the swamp. The Brule stone, caused by the longstanding prairie, is a richer pink. The Rockyford Ash is a thin beige layer caused by volcanic ash. The final layers is the Sharps Formation, a lighter pink sandstone that formed in river flood plains. Of course all this formation and change took place over tens of millions of years. The National Park Service website has a more complete article on the natural forces that formed the Badlands and I have included that in the links at the end of the essay.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the rock formations at the Badlands is how their color changes so dramatically with the time of the day and the angle at which the light strikes them. Most agree that dawn and near sunset result in the most vivid colors. In addition, moisture make the colors more intense. Unfortunately it did not rain during out stay.

In summary, the Door and Window Trails at the Badlands are a great asset to the park and the patrons who walk them. It allows those with less physical abilities to get up close to the geology of the region and to enjoy some outstanding views of the pigmented mountainsides. Our “off the boardwalk hike” on the Door Trail extension was perhaps my favorite hike at the Badlands. I loved the physicality of it, the intimacy with the stone, and the rewarding views of the surrounding mountain ridges. And it resulted in one of my favorite recent photos of Ellen, doing something that she enjoys. 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, Ellen Burns, and me (the photo of Ellen).


Location – Interior, South Dakota

Parking – Large asphalt lot.

Facilities – Yes

Trail Conditions – Both the Door and Window trail are easy out and back boardwalk trails. The Door Trail is 0.75 miles and the Window Trail is 0.25 miles round trip. The Door Trail Extension is considered a strenuous hike, out and back, and measures just short of a mile round trip. It takes approximately an hour to complete and be sure to carry water.

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

Benches – one on the Door Trail at the overlook.

Picnic Tables – at nearby shelter.

Kids – all kids would do well on the boardwalk but I would limit the extension to teens who are rule followers. There is danger out amongst the rocks and ravines.

Dogs – Prohibited

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


One comment

  1. Christine and I were fascinated when we visited the badlands. Our impression was that the name is exactly right for the territory, Bad Lands. I can see why outlaws might hide out there. Thanks for the blog and photos.

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