Notch Trail

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Saturday, September 22nd, 2018
Last Updated: Monday, October 15th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 1.5 miles roundtrip
Time 1 hour
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons Spring, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Not only is the Notch Trail the most difficult of the three trails that start near this parking lot (check out the Door Trail and the Window Trail too!), it's also the most thrilling hike in the park (and one of the more thrilling hikes in the Midwest) thanks to the cable and log ladder built to help you ascend an otherwise vertical badlands rock formation. The sweaty palms and uphill climb are worth it though, since the view from the notch, named for the gap between two towering rock formations where this trail ends, is spectacular. This trail gives you an intimate look at the cool geology of the badlands, and the intimidating ladder and uphill climbing involved scare away some of the crowds of people that you'll find on the other trails nearby.

Starting from the southeast end of the parking area, the trail starts with a mostly flat section winding through a water-carved gorge -- during those torrential South Dakota thunderstorms, this area probably turns into a muddy river as the water pours down the cliffs. In some places, the path is less obvious and may split into two or more directions; try to choose the most traveled path to stay on course and of course avoid trampling any plants. The trail ends near a steep cliff and on your right you'll see the ladder pictured below.

Climbing this ladder is the most exciting part of the Notch Trail

Climbing this ladder is the most exciting part of the Notch Trail

Now you must climb the infamous ladder. While it's nothing compared to the Half Dome cables in Yosemite National Park, we take what we can get in the Midwest. The biggest challenge with the ladder is that it's awkward to climb. It starts out nearly horizontal and gradually transitions to vertical, which means at the start you can either step between the rungs or try to balance on top of the rounded logs until you need to use your hands. Walking alongside isn't a viable option since the sandy, gravelly slope has terrible traction and you'll probably slip. If this description wasn't already intimidating, know that the ladder also sways a bit since it's just two cables with logs in between. Go slow and maintain three points of contact at all times, and you'll be just fine. Once you reach the top, you'll be rewarded with a nice view towards the Notch, as pictured below.
Looking towards the Notch after ascending the ladder

Looking towards the Notch after ascending the ladder

The rest of the trail travels through a barren, canyon-esque landscape reminiscent of Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch in Death Valley National Park. The hard baked clay and mud underfoot doesn't accumulate footprints well, so three foot metal poles with white tips (see the picture below) will help you navigate the rest of the way to the Notch. The labyrinth of canyons and uniform looking landscape means it's really easy to get lost if you veer off trail. As you travel, there will be some slight ups and downs as you pass over different rock formations.
White-tipped poles guide the way across the desert landscape

White-tipped poles guide the way across the desert landscape

You'll know you're near the end once you start climbing steeply uphill -- a last workout before you can enjoy the final destination. As shown in the two pictures below, the view is fantastic with south-facing views of a jagged rock formation as it extends into the vast prairie.
The view of the juniper forest below with the visitor center and the town of Interior in the distance

The view of the juniper forest below with the visitor center and the town of Interior in the distance

The expansive south-facing view from the top of the Notch

The expansive south-facing view from the top of the Notch

Maybe you thought the ladder wasn't as scary as someone on the internet made it sound after you climbed it and made it to the Notch. Well, you might change your mind on the return trip now that you're staring down the vertical cliff (see the picture below) with no idea how you're supposed to safely descend this precarious ladder (I'm speaking from experience). The safest way to descend is facing the ladder, just the same as how you ascended. I tried going down with my back towards the ladder at first, but it was uncomfortable and awkward, not to mention it's impossible not to look down in that position. Near the bottom you might want to change position as the ladder becomes more horizontal.
Don't look down! Descending the ladder is definitely scarier than the climb up

Don't look down! Descending the ladder is definitely scarier than the climb up

Phew, you survived the hardest part! The rest of the hike is an easy jaunt back to the parking lot. If the views and adventure here weren't enough, definitely visit the other trails near here (side note: one huffing and puffing couple I passed stared at me dumbfounded when I told them I was planning on doing "all the trails" here -- a totally doable feat even for a casual weekend hiker). Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Instagram and Twitter!

Important Information

Pets are prohibited on all hiking trails in Badlands National Park. This is not a family friendly hike; the ladder portion of this trail makes it too difficult and dangerous for small children, though brave older children would probably love the climb. While you can certainly hike here in all four seasons, the trail is unmaintained in winter and may be icy or covered in snow -- in addition to the brutally cold temperatures you'll have to endure. Summers are hot and dry with average daytime highs in the 90s, exacerbated by the lack of shade anywhere in the park; I wouldn't recommend visiting in the summer. Be prepared with extra water and sun protection, no matter which season you hike. This is one of the most popular areas of the entire park, as evidenced by the amount of parking spaces here, so expect to share the trail with crowds of people.

Directions

From Interstate 90, take exit 131 for South Dakota Highway 240 (you'll see a brown sign for Badlands National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center). Head south and continue to the park entrance station. Pay your fee, continue straight, then turn left into the parking area, labeled with a brown sign for the Door/Window viewpoints.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Entrance to the park requires paying the $20 vehicle entrance fee ($25 starting January 2019), except on designated fee free days. Annual passes for Badlands National Park are also available at $40 ($50 starting January 2019). Interagency annual passes are available for $80 with discounts for seniors, military, and those with disabilities. Visit the Badlands National Park webpage about fees for more detailed information. There are pit toilets available in the center of this large parking lot.

External Links

Nearby Hikes

Window Trail

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Door Trail

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Cliff Shelf Nature Trail Loop

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Saddle Pass to Medicine Root Loop

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