You can get out of your car if it’s warm enough to take a peek over the hills along the Custer Trail

A fall hike in the Badlands on one of these trails (click)  is much more comfortable than a July/August hike when it is blazing hot. 

We have hiked the Badlands in every conceivable weather situation, in every month of the year. But we’ve learned to be more prepared for a fall hike in the Badlands. These ideas are helpful.

Print out the attached checklist below.

Weather for a Fall Hike in the Badlands

One of my favorite tools that I use for everything from traveling to hiking to yard work is a weather map. The one my tax dollar pays for is one of the best. The National Weather Service (or NOAA) provides an hour-by hour graph of weather elements.  The tool is good for a spring, summer, winter or fall hike in the Badlands.

 We use one of two tools on the regional forecast page to plan for wind, sky cover, temperature and precipitation.

Bentonite slopes in the Badlands are not just slippery, they are snotty. So, we take note if it has rained recently. If it has, we know creeks can be flowing, or at least muddy. If that’s the case, we plan our hike to stay on highland. That’s a good time to revisit the Petrified Forest Trail.

Time of day

Generally, our hiking pace is about 1 and a half miles an hour.  So, we always look up sunset time, especially when planning a fall hike in the Badlands. Days are short.

Watford City, North Dakota Fine Dining, Superb Accommodations, Great Shopping, and Things To Do!

Watford City, North Dakota Fine Dining, Superb Accommodations, Great Shopping, and Things To Do!

For example, in the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park at Watford City, sunset in mid-October is a little after 7 p.m., central daylight time.  In November when we “fall back” to central standard time, sunset will be a little after 5 p.m.


That means starting about noon to hike out for two hours and back for two hours — either in a loop or an out-and-back trail. 


Park map

Where do we go on a day hike? We have our favorite locations that will give us a good workout, or a chance at good photos. Maps are helpful.

The most convenient day hike is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  When we stop at the entrance, to pay your fee, or show our pass we can pick up a map.  We always talk to a ranger to find out about trail conditions, or wildlife location.  The National Park trails are marked and easy to follow.  We like to hike the interior of the park, off trail and circle around to our starting point. Some helpful tools for that are below. 

Trail Map

We are blessed to have a varied selection of trails in the Badlands outside of the National Park. Summit Trail, Bennett Creek Trail, Magpie Trail, Burning Coal Vein Trail and Buffalo Gap Trail are marked on the very helpful and detailed National Forest Service Map. They are not updated very often, so when we buy one, we plan on keeping it a while. It gets well used, so one that is Mylar coated is helpful. We have them going back to about 1998.  Buy the Little Missouri National Grasslands Map at the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora, or at the National Park Visitor Center, or order them on line from the at this USGS website. (click)


Better to have it and not need it than to need it an not have it.

That’s a major rule when you head off away from civilization. After all, isn’t that the benefit of hiking the Badlands — getting away from it all. Remote. Secluded.  It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it


A fall hike in the Badlands gets the body warmed up quickly.  So, we dress in lightweight layers.  Then, as we go, we can peel off layers. The trick is to peel them off before we get too sweaty.  A perspired wet shirt is uncomfortable when the temperature drops near the end of a day hike.


8 inch tall red wing Irish Setter boots.

Red Wing Irish Setter 8-inch tall hiking boots hold on to the hillside.

The only type of shoe we recommend are hiking boots like these (click), preferably a pair that is ankle high.  It helps give extra support on the uneven terrain.  Plus, a taller boot protects us from the cactus and thorns on the trail.  If you don’t have hiking boots, you can get by with tennis shoes only if they have a good tread.  Of course if you are just walking along the road, anything will do. Once you get off the road, you need the traction of a well-soled hiking boot.


Trail socks are woven to provide arch and instep support. They wick sweat from your feet to keep them dry and help prevent blisters.

Blue jeans

This is not a place for cotton cargo shorts you might wear on the beach.  I’ve worn tough cotton rip-stop cargo pants with several pockets. Any tough fabric such as cotton denim resist snags and withstands the rough surfaces of rocks we perch on when we take a break.


A light undershirt to wick away perspirations will keep me warm.  A good day hike will warm me up on even a chilly day.  So, its important to get that moisture off my skin so I stay warm when the temperature drops.

Long sleeve shirt

You can always roll up the sleeves on a long sleeve shirt but you can’t roll down the sleeves on a short sleeve shirt.  So, I wear a long sleeve shirt to protect my arms from brush and thorns.  A couple of breast pockets are helpful for carrying safety items listed below.

Light jacket

A jacket even on a warm sunny day is good to wear. If it gets too warm, I’ll loop the sleeves around my waist, or stuff it in my daypack. I like jacket pockets for carrying extra socks, bandana, compass or flashlight.

Waist pack or small back pack

Narrow Crossing Over a Deep Crevice on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Marked trails provide crossings when needed.  In this case. I’ve been out a while and have peeled off extra layers, strapped them on to my daypack.

This is not some stylish accessory to wear slung over one shoulder.  A two strap backpack balances my gait, especially one that has both a waist strap and a chest strap. Compartments on the pack allow quick access to items such as these that follow. I can even stash clothes I peel off, or clothes I may need later. Sometimes I even will tuck away a blanket..


It’s so easy to get distracted by the scenery or the effort that I don’t pay attention to my thirst. I always bring water because I will get thirsty. It’s a cardo and muscular workout. So, we need to be hydrated.  Plus stopping for a water break is the right time to stop and enjoy the vista. We pick a sheltered point out of the wind, high enough up a hillside so we can soak in the valley below.

Some pack bottles have loops at the top to sling the bottle from a pack. Sometimes, we stuff a bottle inside the pack.


However, if you take a disposable bottle with you, do not be a jerk. Don’t toss your bottle in a bush somewhere.  Pack in. Pack out.


We always take chewing gum to keep our mouths hydrated. If we’re planning a picnic atop a hill overlooking the valley — the mid-point reward, then sandwiches are good. Often we have made it our Thanksgiving meal.  A turkey sandwich on a November fall hike in the Badlands is a joy.

robin reynolds dakota clayworks

A popular road trip destination on the way to the Badlands. See how to turn Badlands clay into beautiful pottery.
Click to learn more:

Mary likes to take a small bag of trail mix.  I like a crunchy granola bar. Whatever you choose its good to have carbohydrates, a little salt and a little protein with you for a snack.

Safety Items

First aid kit

Bandages cover scraps and cuts.  Chances are on a fall hike we do not encounter many insects, but just in case we’ll take something for a bug bite.  An elastic wrap is a good idea in case someone twists an ankle on the uneven terrain.

Red bandana

Form and function meet at the point of a red bandana.  It’s fashionable to wear one around your neck. If we need to signal anyone, waving it attracts attention.  We have tied a red bandana to a tall bush, shrub or tree for navigation to mark a return point.


Two things to check frequently as soon as we start out are: 1. a directional bearing from a compass and 2. the starting point.

In the case of a starting point, turning around and looking where we came from helps to spot the return route.  Plus it is encouraging to see how far we hiked.  Sometimes, in new territory, we look for identifiable landmarks such as unique hills to identify.  We even talk about how that hill looks like a derby, a chimney, or a house.

A compass will give a precise bearing for the return. In unfamiliar territory, we check it as we start, and then periodically when we stop.  It saves us from guessing the approximate return point. 


We bought a couple of different combination whistle and compass online. Sometimes to get a special photo showing relative distance or elevation, we split up. We take two different routes to the top of two hills, or around a hill. Then, when we get to where we are headed, the first one there can blow the whistle if the other one hasn’t reached their point yet.  It’s how we keep track of each other at those times.  It’s also how a rescue party can find us if we need it.


One December hike we got hung up when I slid into a sink hole and it took extra time to dig my way out. (Bentonite slopes. Snotty slippery.)

Slippery Slopes in the Badlands!

Although the ground appeared dry and stable, the moisture after recent precipittion still remained beneath the surface. ‘Oily’ and ‘Greasy’ describe the badlands under such circumstances. On a slope, you will slide!

Our 1 hour hike became four hours.  It took so much time (and besides, I had a broken shoulder) that we lost our light. By the time we got back to the park road below us, it was too dark to see our way down the hill. We needed a flashlight, which we foolishly did not take. After all, we were only going to be out for one hour.  Never again. Learn from our mistake. We were in the south unit and called a park ranger to show us the way down the hill.  (That’s another story.)



You can pretty much be sure you will not have cell phone service unless you climb to the top of the tallest hill.  Then, maybe you can connect, but don’t count on it.  These days, that cell phone makes for a good movie camera or still camera.  We have invested in special carrying gear that straps cameras to our body tightly. So, when we climb a ridge the cameras are held tightly to our body, safely so they do not get broken.  After all, that can be a couple thousand dollars we are carrying.

Hiking Staff

One of Many Sets of Steep Steps on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

One of Many Sets of Steep Steps on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

autumn hike through the sink holes

The top of the Caprock Coulee trail is like a moonscape, but beware when you walk past the sink holes.

Some people like trekking poles. They are like ski poles to help stabilize on a trail. We prefer hiking staffs. Tough wooden staffs that are shoulder high. A good staff becomes like a third leg.  One that I carry has an antler yoke at the top to make for a good camera monopod.


One of my favorite things to do when we stop is jot down observations I’ve made along the trail. Or jot down what I’m seeing from my resting point.  When I get home, I find that I didn’t remember that point, that rock, that siting of a deer or elk.  Oh yeah!  Now I remember — cuz it’s right here in my notebook.

You may find this blog a helpful and humorous look at packing for a hike.


Beautiful Badlands ND caps

Beautiful Badlands ND caps

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the Badlands open year round?

Yes, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open year round, though if there is heavy snow, some of the scenic drive will be closed.

Outside of the park, the 150 x 50 mile terrain is ranch country, and is busy year round. Much of it is privately owned, but with a good U.S. Forest Service Map, you can identify public ground and trails.

Where can we go on a fall hike in the Badlands?

If you watch the weather, you can go anywhere that you would go in the summer.  Some of our favorite trails in fall include Summit, Bennett, Magpie, portions of the Maah Daah Hey and trails in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Are the Badlands dangerous?

It’s not a walk in the city park.  You are remote and isolated.  But with proper preparation, you can be safe.  Some people have asked us about spiders, bugs and snakes. When we told them they are present, they chose not to explore the Badlands.