|Finding our way on the Door Trail, Badlands National Park|
A few days ago, the National Geographic Intelligent Travel blog published readers recommendations for "The World's Best Hiking Trails." Guess who was the first person they quoted? Me!! Other people suggested the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu or long ones such as the Trans Canada Trail and Australia's Bibbulmun Track. North American hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail have been the setting and practically a character in popular memoirs and their resultant "based on the best-selling book" movies, Wild and A Walk in the Woods, respectively.
What did I suggest? A hike that's only 0.75 miles (1.2 km) round-trip. A short trail that plops you down into a desolate, other worldly setting. A walk where you can imagine yourself exploring the canals of Mars. Short hike. Big payoff. I recommended the Badlands National Park's Door Trail because it's accessible. It's doable. It's something that a person with fair to middling athletic ability can handle and still feel overwhelmed by the glory of being surrounded by nature. It's a tipping point hike, one that can convince a couch potato to get up, go out, and explore.
|100 yards of boardwalk at the beginning of the Door Trail|
The trailhead is located just a few miles off Interstate 90, Exit 131 and close to the park's Northeast Entrance. As we set out from the parking lot, the Badlands Wall, a 100-mile long ridge of steep rock formations, rise up and hide whatever is on the other side. It's really easy going at the beginning. On this summer day, clumps of cheerful sunflowers line a boardwalk that makes the path accessible to wheelchairs and strollers for a quarter mile in. We come around the bend, go through the namesake "door" in the wall and find a stark landscape spreading out before us. I'm struck by how straight and level the layers are. It's as if the steady hand of God evenly sprinkled down one layer of sediment after another like a 3D printer, leaving valleys and peaks where you can mentally connect the lines across the gaps.
At the end of the boardwalk, stairs lead down to the ground. It's time to step off and really begin to explore. The ground is rugged and uneven with crevices snaking their way across here and there. I'm accustomed to walking the beaten path at National Parks. The ones where you clearly know where to go because the hundreds of thousands of people who went before you have worn down a clear passage. Door Trail is different. At first glance, you feel like you may possibly be the first person to discover this alien place (if you studiously ignore the boardwalk behind you).
|Looking back towards the Badlands Wall|
You don't have to follow in anyone's footsteps, but if you'd like to stay on the official trail — the path of least resistance — the park service has marked it with bright yellow poles. Going off-trail is declared to be "at your own risk" by the signs at the trailhead, but I see some people taking up the challenge. I walk around the taller formations, choosing the easier path, but my kids scramble up and over them like little billy goats. There are steep drop-offs, too, but none are so close together that falling down into one seems imminent. It's a bit like maneuvering through a maze but with canyons blocking your way instead of walls.
To follow the trail, you look around for the next numbered pole and make your way towards it. The trail snakes around so that you can only see two of the yellow poles at a time, the ones immediately in front and behind you. When you get to one, scan the area to find the next pole. I like this extra bit of fun, this searching for clues of where to head next. More importantly, staying in sight of the numbered poles helps you make your way back to the boardwalk which is now hidden from sight.
|Panorama at the End of the Trail|
A prominent End of Trail sign marks the turnaround point. The Badlands go on and on, off into the distance. We haven't hiked far, and it wasn't particularly difficult, but it seems like we're on a different planet. I feel light years away, not mere miles, from the nearby interstate highway where thousands of cars speed between cities. This is more than walking through a door; it's like walking through a portal to another world. And that's why it's my recommended hike.
What's your favorite hike to recommend?
What You Should Know:
- Door Trail is a manageable walk for older elementary school children or any kids who have enough awareness to watch where they're going.
- Allot 30-60 minutes for this hike, depending on how many photos you take
- Watch for the yellow poles to stay on the path
- Bring water; one liter per person is the amount suggested by the park
- To read more about our visit to the entire Badlands National Park, see here.
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