Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Door Trail: A great Badlands trail for kids

Door Trail at sunrise in Badlands National Park.
Hiking the Door Trail in Badlands National Park is like a two-for-one deal. The trail begins amid the prairie’s level and open grasslands. It ends in a bizarre menagerie of spires and domes encased by striped, twisting canyon walls.

The trail is located two miles northeast of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the Loop Road. Pull over in the large Door and Window parking area. The 0.25- to 0.75-mile trail starts in the parking lot’s northern end.

The Wall
Pavement covers the trail for the length of a football field, as grasses sway in the wind, rippling like ocean waves. Sometimes bison can be spotted. Be wary of prairie rattlesnakes that like to sun themselves on rocks or hide under bushes; so long as you stay on the trail, though, the chances of encountering one is low.

The trail remains easy until coming to the break in the Badlands Wall. This break is known as “The Door” – hence the trail’s name.

Nearly 60 miles long, the Wall marks the edge of a massive area of erosion that has left behind remarkable looking geological features. Three river systems, wind, rain and snow melt over the past 5 million years have carved out the Badlands. The Wall continues to be made today, at the rate of an inch a year.

Walking through the break is indeed like entering a new room and a bizarre one at that. The scene is otherworldy, even surreal, a sharp contrast to the prairie you’ve left. A quarter-mile boardwalk offers fantastical views of the Badlands.

Spur into the badlands
The trail technically ends past the wall, but a spur allows you the trek through a maze of rolling mud hills. Yellow signposts point which way to go, but they are not particularly high, making them easy to miss from a distance. Because getting off the off-beaten path is easy here, and given the steep drop offs, you’ll probably want to turn around if traveling with young children walking on their own.

If heading onto the spur, remain constantly aware of your location and don’t allow children out of sight. Also, make sure you wear good walking shoes as the ground is rugged.

You might be lucky enough to spot a fossil in these mudhills. If you do, report it at the visitor center. You may have just discovered an important new fossil bed!

The best time to visit the Badlands is in late spring or mid-September. Summers are oppressively hot and winters bone-chilling cold. Regardless of the season, expect wind. Afternoon lighting is best for views from the Door Trail.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.