Badlands National Park is easily South Dakota's most notable attraction aside from Mount Rushmore. The park covers the majority of the area where wind and water have eroded the soft sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soil which make the area eerily barren. Badlands National Park has a number of designated trails that allow visitors to best experience this unique landscape. The Notch Trail travels through a badlands canyon up to an overlook that gives extensive views over the badlands area on one side and the sweeping grassy Great Plains on the other. For those interested in adventure, this hike has a lot to offer, however it has its challenging sections for those afraid of heights.

Quick Stats:

Trail Length: 1.7 miles City/State:   Interior,
  South Dakota
Bikes Allowed: No
Elevation: 120 feet elevation gain  
County:   Jackson Dogs Allowed: No


Getting There

The Notch Trail is just a short drive from the Cedar Pass Campground and Ben Reifel Visitor Center east down the Badlands Loop Road (otherwise known as Route 240). Visitors will see a turnoff for the Door, Window and Notch Trails that leads into a large parking lot. The trailhead for The Notch Trail begins at the south end of the lot.

The Hike

The hike starts out as a pleasant little stroll on a dusty trail surrounded by sagebrush and other foliage. However, as it winds around canyon walls, it lead to a ladder laying on the side of a hill made of rope, cable and logs. This little ladder requires a climb of 150 feet, but it starts out nearly flat at the bottom. As hikers head up, the ladder makes a fine way to get a foothold in the loose dirt, but near the top, the ladder goes near vertical so hikers will have to use it as an actual ladder. When this portion of the trail is wet, it can be a nightmare considering the clay soil is slick and thus makes the rungs of the ladder slick. However, when not wet, it is an easy, if not fun, climb for anyone in moderate shape.

Once at the top of the ladder, the trail immediately begins to wind around the edge of a steep cliff. While the trail is fairly wide, visitors should still practice caution when hiking this portion, especially if they dare to get near the edge. The rock in the badlands has a tendency to crumble easily, so if hikers are not careful they will slip and take a bit of a tumble. The cliff isn't high enough to be deadly, but it is high enough to break a bone or two. Visitors will want to keep away from the edge and always keep solid footing.

Badlands National Park

After the cliff area, most of the hard parts of the trail are over. It is relatively smooth sailing after that, even though it may not seem like it considering this trail (and indeed all the trails in the park) are marked with short yellow poles that tend to blend into the rock. However, hikers can rest assured that there are no steep drops lurking around the corner.

The trail area flattens out so visitors can do some extensive off-trail exploring it they want to. The rest of the trail is just slightly uphill as it heads towards the Badlands Wall that blocks the park from the Great Plains beyond. Once at this point, visitors will see a number of notches in the wall. The trail only leads to one, but each of the notches have a similar view of the area beyond. All the notches allow for hikers to see for miles in the grassland beyond and, due to the higher elevations, visitors can see the many windswept hills of the badlands from behind. The notches in the Badlands Wall also overlook the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail below that spans the lower portions of the wall and looks out over the prairie. Even if the view through the notches to the strikingly green grassland below is similar to the view presented from other notches, it is fun to scramble over dusty rocks and occasionally slide down a crevice in this area and only adds almost another half an hour to the hike for those on time restraints. For those peeking through the notches, looking out and then up may yield a unique reward. Birds of prey like gold eagles and prairie falcons love to nest on the high cliffs of the Badlands Wall, so visitors may be privileged to see some of their nests or the birds themselves. However, hikers should remember to look and not touch.

Bighorn Sheep, Badlands National Park

The hike back down this short, but rewarding little trail presents much of the challenges that going up had. When traversing the cliff or the ladder, it is best to wait until no one else is coming up the trail, just for safety. This is especially stressed on the cliff area because of the instability of the rock. For those that don't want to wait for other hikers to climb the ladder and don't mind getting a little dusty, the slight hill can easily be slide down once visitors have climbed down the vertical section. However, it's not recommended because it is both fun and not exactly safe. For those that choose to actually use the ladder going down, they will soon learn it is not as easy going down as it was going up. It can be a bit confusing for hikers who have to decide if they need to use the ladder like a ladder or a pair of steps.

As the trail is so short, after conquering it there is plenty of time to explore the other trails that lead up to the Badlands Wall. From the parking lot by the trail head, hikers will be right next to trailheads for equally short Door and Window trails or the lengthier Castle Trail. There are a pit toilets and a tap to get fresh drinking water at the parking lot for those that need to reload before going out again.

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