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Hiking The Notch Trail In Badlands National Park

Hiking The Notch Trail In Badlands National Park

The Notch Trail is a moderately difficult 1.5-mile roundtrip hike with 130 feet elevation gain in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. It’s the most adventurous of the 10 hiking trails on offer in Badlands thanks to a tall ladder climb and cliffs with steep drops. So make sure you don’t miss the Notch Trail if you enjoy a challenge and you don’t have a fear of heights.

In this guide we show you exactly how to hike the popular Badlands Notch Trail based on our own experiences.

Our Notch Trail Experience

Where are those morgans at the notch trail overlook with awesome view behind in badlands national park sd
Here we are at the end of trail viewpoint on a cloudy day

We’ve hiked the Badlands Notch Trail on a beautiful but cool day in September 2019 and on a cold overcast day in April 2021. You’ll see photos from both our trips in this guide. We had the entire trail to ourselves in September and April, which meant we could slow down and really enjoy the hike.

For us, Notch Trail is the best short hike in the Badlands. In fact, we’ve even included it in our guide to the 50 best US hikes because it’s such a unique experience. Our favorite part of the trail is definitely the ladder climb and we’re confident it’ll be your favorite part too! Read more about us.

Further Reading: What to do when you visit the Badlands

Trail Information

Two hikers walking up a wooden ladder
Mark and Kristen hiking the log ladder in the Badlands
  • Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 130 ft
  • Time: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

The Notch Trail is not a hard hike, but it does contain some challenging elements so it has to be considered as a moderately difficult trail. It’s a short out-and-back hike with just over 100 feet elevation gain. And the famous 50-foot tall Badlands ladder accounts for around half the total elevation.

You can easily hike the entire Notch Trail out and back in less than one hour if you’re a quick hiker. But we encourage you to slow down, enjoy the trail and spend a good 10 minutes at the summit viewpoint. You won’t get this level of excitement on any of the other 9 hikes in Badlands.

According to All Trails, Notch Trail is the top rated hike in Badlands with a rating of 4.7/5 after thousands of real hiker reviews. And we can’t argue!

 

Badlands Notch Trailhead

Notch Trailhead is located on Badlands Loop Road (SD-240) near the park’s northeast entrance.

Click or touch the map below to activate.

  • On a computer, click the blue directions icon to open your Google Maps app and input your current location for directions to Notch Trailhead.
  • On mobile, click expand map to open the map straight into your Google Maps app.

You should park on the southern side of a long and narrow parking area located next to Badlands Loop Road, which serves Notch Trail, Window Trail, Door Trail and one end of Castle Trail.

There’s lots of parking spaces at the trailhead, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a spot unless you visit Badlands on a weekend in the summer. Half way along the long parking area you’ll find vault toilets.

Trail Walkthrough

Next, we’re going to walk you through the hike from start to finish so you know what to expect. You’ll see our own photos from the hike and we’ll describe the trail exactly as it was for us.

1. Park At The Trailhead

Hiking information board at the start of a hike in south dakota
Walk to the trailhead after parking

We began our hike at the southernmost point of the long and narrow parking lot and read the information board before starting. There was a sign stating no dogs allowed and to wear sturdy boots because the terrain is rough.

We wore running shoes because the ground was completely dry both times we hiked Notch. But if it has recently rained and the ground is wet, you should definitely wear boots with good grips because the ground turns to sludge.

2. Beware Of Rattlesnakes

Beware of rattlesnakes sign in south dakota national park with hike behind and mounds of rock
One of many “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign in Badlands

Immediately after we began walking on the dusty path surrounded by yellowish-green grass, we passed by a sign saying beware of rattlesnakes. Now, we’re not huge fans of snakes so we were acutely aware of our surroundings at all times. Every time a blade of grass blew in the wind we thought it was a rattler!

In the end we didn’t see a single snake on either visit, but it’s important to know they’re in the area so you should err on the side of caution.

3. White Tipped Trail Markers

Pole to mark the Notch Trail hike
White tipped trail markers on the hike

Notch Trail is one of the easiest hikes we’ve ever done in terms of being able to follow the correct route. We simply followed the white tipped flag poles for directions as we entered a narrow gorge between angled cliffs.

It’s important to stick to the the beaten path as much as possible so you don’t disturb fragile vegetation along the route. Enjoy the Badlands buttes, spires and domes from the proper trail.

4. The Badlands Notch Trail Ladder

Smiling woman climbing up wooden ladder poles on the notch trail in badlands national park sd
Kristen climbing the upper section of the Badlands ladder

After 0.3 miles, we came to what looked like a dead-end. But a glance to the right revealed the solution, a 50-foot tall steel wire ladder with around 55 wooden rungs clinging to the side of a steep cliff. We found the bottom section easy to climb, but it became slightly more difficult near the top because the ladder bounced, it was steeper and the steps felt further apart.

We had the ladder section completely to ourselves both times, but the hike will be busier in summer, so you’ll need to allow enough space between climbers. You can take the steps slowly, put both feet on each pole and use your arms to climb. Or if you’re confident, you can take the ladder like it’s nothing more than a set of regular stairs.

Hiking Tip: To minimize bouncing, lean in towards the rock so your center of gravity keeps you tight against the cliff.

5. Carefully Navigate The Cliffs

Danger sign in south dakota keep right of the sign to avoid falling
Warning sign at the top of the ladder climb

Once we had successfully scaled the Badlands ladder, we turned left and followed a ridge (using the poles for directions). This ridge hugged tightly against a rock face and became narrow with steep long drops to the left side. Eventually we reached a warning sign pointing to the right to avoid risking a drop off, so we took it.

You should have no problems with this section because the path is wide enough. Just be extra careful with your footing, especially if the ground is wet. Also worth noting is to stick tightly to the rock face if it’s windy.

6. Cross The Badlands Wall

Woman walking up the canyon in South Dakota
Kristen crossing over the Badlands Wall

After the ladder climb and cliff skirting, we’d taken care of the most technical parts of the hike. The next section was to walk through the center of a small canyon on top of the Badlands Wall. We found this to be one of the best parts of the trail because the rocks were bursting up into the sky all around us. It’s a bit like standing at the lowest point inside an amphitheater looking up.

We kept following the black poles with white tips as we hiked through the canyon. Eventually it came to a fork in the path, and we saw a pole to the right side so we took a right turn and headed for the summit.

7. Summit The Notch Trail

Hiker with backpack and hat sat on a small rock overlooking a far reaching view of rocks, trees and plains on a clear sunny day
Kristen enjoying the summit views on a sunny day in September

The final approach was through another canyon with tall formations to both sides. We passed by an end of trail sign and reached the summit, which is shaped a bit like a crescent moon. Without getting too close to the edge (which has long drops) we sat and enjoyed far-reaching 180 degree views over the flat landscape below.

On a clear day the views are amazing. You can even see the curvature of the horizon because it’s completely unobstructed. Something to note is that it’s a southwest facing viewpoint, so you could do sunset here. Just make sure you take headlamps and secondary light sources for the hike back.

8. Return By The Same Route

Steep cliff side path on a rocky edge in south dakota
The narrow cliff section on the hike back to the trailhead

Notch Trail is a there-and-back hike so we took the exact same route back to the parking lot. We hadn’t given it much though until reaching the top of the Badlands ladder, but now we had to step off the cliff and descend the rungs. In the end it looked worse than it actually was, and after the ladder it was a simple walk back to our car.

Our advice is to turn around and climb down (as though you’re on a normal ladder) if you don’t feel comfortable going down as you look straight ahead. Once you’ve conquered the first few poles, the rest of the ladder is easy. And that’s a big Notch in the box for the best trail at Badlands National Park!

Avoiding The Badlands Ladder

Map showing how to avoid the Badlands ladder by using a dry wash bed route instead
Map showing how to avoid the Badlands ladder on Notch Trail

Do you have a fear of heights? If so, the ladder climb might not be a good idea, especially on the way down. But there is a path you can take which would allow you to completely avoid the wooden ladder.

Just before the ladder you’ll notice a white tipped pole marker. Look for the narrow wash running to the left (as you face the ladder) and follow it until you can climb up a bank to reach the dangerous cliffs sign. By taking this route instead, you’ll cut out the ladder section and the steep cliff section with drop offs.

There is a small climb to navigate on the wash route because you have to get onto the beaten trail, but it’s nothing compared to the ladder. Take care with your footing and wear shoes with good grips for this alternate route.

Hiking Tips

Notch Trail summit view over Badlands National Park
Great summit views over the Badlands
  • Check current weather conditions on the official NPS website prior to hiking.
  • If the weather report shows high winds or rain, wait for conditions to improve if possible. Water can cause the rock to turn sludgy and slippery.
  • Wear robust shoes or boots if the ground is wet.
  • The trail is exposed so sun protection and water are a must, especially in summer.
  • Hike early in the day to avoid the heat and crowds if visiting in peak season.
  • Views at the summit are west facing, so it’s a great sunset spot in the park.
  • Use one of the best hiking apps to track your hike with an offline map.

Leave No Trace

Please take great care not to disturb formations, vegetation or wildlife when you hike Notch Trail. It’s a beautiful place to visit and we all have to keep it that way for future generations to enjoy.

Wooden sign indicating the trails for doors, window, Notch and Castle
Brown wooden sign at Notch Trailhead

Remember and follow these 7 principles of leave no trace when hiking in Badlands National Park:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of others

Best Time To Hike Notch Trail

View of the Notch Trail ladder from a distance
The wooden ladder on Badlands Notch from a distance

Badlands National Park is open year round so you can hike Notch Trail anytime you like. We’d say the best time to hike it is a weekday morning in April, May, September or October when the park is quiet and temperatures are comfortable, as long as the trail is in good condition.

Expect the trail to be busier if you visit Badlands during a weekend in July or August. We’d try hard to avoid those times, but in truth the only time we recommend not hiking Notch Trail is after rainfall when the trail can be treacherous.

More From Badlands

More From South Dakota

Want more South Dakota content? Head over to our South Dakota Travel Guides to explore Mount Rushmore, Badlands, the Black Hills and beyond. 


We hope our Notch Trail hiking guide helps with planning your visit to Badlands!

Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

Happy Hiking,

Mark and Kristen

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