The short but adventurous Notch Trail Badlands National Park’s best and most popular hike. We’re going to show you exactly what you can expect from hiking the Badlands Notch Trail, with tips and a complete walkthrough.
Badlands is more of a scenic overlook and stunning photography National Park than an epic hiking arena. But Notch Trail goes a long way to giving Badlands a fun and unique hike, with an exciting ladder section the star attraction.
Notch Trail is the most popular of the 7 best Badlands hikes and it does end at a wide open ‘overlook’ crescendo, but in our opinion the journey is even better than the destination.
Cutting through intriguing Badlands buttes and spires, climbing a surprisingly intimidating ladder and skirting a cliff edge will lead you right inside and on top of the Badlands Wall.
Notch Trail is the unmissable hike at Badlands and we have even included it as part of our popular guide to the best hikes in the USA.
Let’s get into some top tips and a complete Notch Trail walkthrough!
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Badlands Notch Trail Facts
- Trail Distance: 1.3 miles return (out & back)
- Time: 1-2 hours
- Elevation Gain: 130 ft
- Difficulty: Easy / Moderate
- Unique: 50 ft ladder climb
- View: Awesome panorama
- Dangers: Wind, water, ice
- Recent Comments: All Trails
Notch Trail Hiking Tips
We’ve hiked the Notch Trail twice ourselves, once in October and once in April under two very different sets of conditions.
Here are our top tips for hiking the trail:
- Plan the hike around weather conditions.
- If the weather report shows high winds or rain, wait for conditions to improve if possible.
- Water can cause gritty and sandy rock to turn ‘sludgy’ and it quickly becomes slippery.
- Strong winds can be a problem for one section which skirts a ledge with a fairly high drop off.
- Conversely, Notch is an exposed trail so sunscreen and water in Summer are required.
- It’s a short trail so layering isn’t vital, but choosing appropriate footwear is important.
- The ladder section is unique and fun but take care on the steep upper portion.
- Hike early or later in the day to avoid midday crowds.
- Views at the trail end are West facing, which means it could be a great Badlands sunset location.
What To Pack
Badlands Notch Trail is a quick hike and doesn’t necessarily require any specialist gear.
You can read our guide to the 10 most important things to bring on a day hike if you plan to take on more trails in Badlands on the same day.
Here are a few of the shorter trail essentials we typically use and recommend:
- Water Bottle: Nalgene Tritan
- Water Filter: Lifestraw
- Hiking Shoes: Men’s Merrell Moab 2 and Women’s Merrell Moab 2
- Day Pack: Osprey Daylite Plus
Where Is Badlands Notch Trailhead?
Badlands Notch Trail is conveniently located right on Badlands Loop Road (SD-240).
You can reach it either by entering at the Minuteman Missile entrance or the Wall entrance. Trailhead parking is closer to the Minuteman Missile entrance at just 6 miles from I-90.
Door, Window and Notch trails all begin from the same parking lot. One end of the Castle trail is also located in this same lot.
Notch trailhead is the southernmost path in the parking lot. There are restrooms available and plenty of parking spaces.
Badlands Notch Trail is a nice, easy and enjoyable hike. It is moderately trafficked in Summer but usually very quiet in shoulder seasons. Badlands is among the best USA national parks to visit if you’re looking to escape the crowds.
Let’s get right into a walkthrough of the trail with plenty of photographs so you can see exactly what to expect:
Door, Window & Notch Parking Lot
Begin at the southernmost point of the parking lot where you will find an information board showing the trail and a sign stating:
‘Notch Trail, rough terrain, wear sturdy boots’.
You don’t need boots but sturdy footwear is recommended. Not only for slippery surfaces but because the surface is very uneven and it’s easy to roll an ankle.
Head South along the dusty path surrounded by yellowish-green grass.
You will pass a second warning sign which you might take a little more seriously!
If you haven’t already seen a snake, your senses will be in hyperdrive now and every time a blade of grass whistles in the wind you’ll think it’s a rattler.
Chances are you might see a small 1-2 ft long snake that will slither off away from you. But the rattlesnake sign is there for a reason so keep your eyes peeled.
You will enter a narrow gorge-like section surrounded by buttes of all shapes and sizes.
Follow flag poles for directions and keep to the beaten trail as much as possible. After around 0.3 mile you will see a cool looking ladder shooting up a steep rock face.
The Badlands Notch Trail Ladder
By far the most fun part of Badlands Notch Trail is climbing up its 50 ft wooden step wire ladder.
We had the ladder section completely to ourselves both times we visited Badlands National Park. But Notch Trail will be much busier in Summer, so we have to start by saying take care and allow enough space between climbers.
The bottom section is easy because it tightly hugs the stone, but the higher up you get, the more ‘bouncy’ or ‘springy’ each step becomes.
The wooden steps have a slightly awkward distance between each pole. They’re far enough apart for a longer stride at a good momentum to take one step at a time all the way up.
However, for those less confident about the ladder, take each step as slowly as you need and put both feet on every pole before moving on.
Make sure you lean forwards toward the rock and not outward away from the rock.
Once the ladder has successfully been scaled, you will follow as the trail narrows and hugs a rock face with a fairly substantial drop into a canyon.
You should have no problems here, but be careful with footing if wet and stick tightly to the rock if winds are strong. You will see another sign stating:
‘Dangerous cliff, keep right’
Heed the advice and scramble over the right hand side rock to the next pole. That’s all the technical or challenging parts done and the trail opens up on top of the Badlands Wall.
Continue straight ahead and turn right when the rocks open up.
This short spur will lead you to the Notch Trail overlook with 180 degree elevated views over the lower altitude flat expanse of Badlands National Park.
On a clear day you can expect stunning views and this is West facing so sunset seekers might enjoy this hike later in the day.
Take care along the crescent moon shaped overlook edge. There is a serious drop off over the edge, not one to take any chances with.
Return Via The Same Route
Take the exact same route as you return to the parking lot, taking care around the narrow sections and underfoot.
The ladder section might have felt easy coming up but going down is another story. If you don’t feel comfortable going down looking straight ahead, turn around and climb down as though you were on a normal ladder.
Once you’ve conquered the first few poles the rest is easy.
And that’s a big ‘notch’ in the box for the best trail at Badlands National Park!
More From Badlands National Park
- More hikes: 7 Most Popular Hiking Trails in Badlands National Park
- Things to do: The Best Things to do in Badlands National Park
- Where to stay: The Best Hotels Inside and Near Badlands National Park
- Photography: Stunning Badlands National Park Photography
Plan more amazing hikes throughout your visit to SD with our ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Planner.
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We hope this hiking guide helps you plan your Notch Trail hike in Badlands National Park!
Have you been to Badlands? Which is your favorite hike in the park?
Please let us know if you have any questions or need any help planning your visit.
Mark and Kristen
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