Dylan calls it the “Spooky Ladder Trail”. Regardless of how you name it, the Notch Trail is indisputably the most interesting hike in Badlands National Park.
THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO HIKING THE NOTCH TRAIL IN THE BADLANDS OF SOUTH DAKOTA
Notch Trail Hike Facts
- Distance: 1.5-mile, round-trip trail
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation gain: 180-200 feet
- Time: 40-60 minutes
- Trailhead: At the southern end of the Window, Door, and Notch Trails parking lot.
The Notch Trail aka “The Log Ladder Trail”
Can you visit Badlands National Park without packing in any hikes? Absolutely. But if you have at least one hour, do yourself a favor and hike the Notch Trail. One of the longest official trails in the park (yet still so short), the Notch Trail enhances your trip with astounding views, a thrilling walk along a cliff edge, and a fun climb up a log ladder.
A fun trail needs company. The Notch Trail follows this rule to a T and starts at the southern end of a large parking lot that also marks the beginning of the Window, Door, and Castle hikes.
Start the Hike
After the whole day of sightseeing and zero hiking, we opted for a shorter trail at first. The Notch Trail shares its trailhead with the Window Trail. The latter is just a 0.25-mile, round-trip hike along a raised boardwalk that ends at a natural window in the Badlands Wall.
At the trailhead, slightly to the right, the Notch Trail runs through a wide canyon toward the towering giants. The wall of the spires closes in around you as you walk father until it creates an amphitheater. The trail continues through this enclosure surrounded by the guarding white cliffs. Soon it stops at the bottom of the log ladder.
“Spooky” Log Ladder
Probably one of the most interesting parts of the Notch Trail, the log ladder takes the hikers to the cliff edge that towers approximately 200 feet about the canyon floor.
Climbing the ladder is a piece of cake, though. You walk as you’d normally do almost half of it. At the second half of the ladder and toward its end, you start climbing. The logs, attached to each other with a thick steel wire rope, follow an almost vertical incline here.
TIP: Support your kids from the back as you let them climb first. This part of the Notch Trail is easy even for your bundles of joy. Parents with babies in carriers and toddlers conquer this section easily as well. Going back the same way may be a little bit more challenging for them, though. We saw parents hesitating at the top of the ladder, unsure how to approach the descent with their small kids.
For these people, there is an alternative way to get up or down the cliff. Instead of climbing the ladder nested to the right of the trail, continue hiking to the left. This path eventually merges with the official trail and leads farther up to the “Notch”.
Hiking to the “Notch”
If you make all the way to the top of the log ladder, follow the trail to your left. The Notch Trail is narrow here. The ledge is about 6 feet wide, but the views into the canyon are incredible.
TIP: At some point the trail narrows even more, becoming slippery and dangerous. For your own safety, don’t ignore signs with arrows that prompt you to climb a little bit higher to avoid any potential falls.
In about 300 feet or so, the trail veers off the ledge and runs through the slightly elevated canyon until it stops at the “Notch” with the breathtaking views of the White River Valley.
TIP: Follow the arrows along the trail or you might hike farther up into the canyon and miss the “Notch”. Paying more attention to the hikers in front of us than an inconspicuous sign, Roshan almost missed the culmination of the hike.
Ending the Hike
Retrace your steps back to the parking lot or embark on another hiking adventure.
The Best Time to Hike the Notch Trail
The trail can be busy in the summer months. “Traffic” may build up at the bottom and top of the log ladder. Other than that, the hike that we did during the peak season never felt too crowded.
You can easily avoid any congestions at the ladder during the shoulder seasons – April through May and September through early October.
Even fewer hikers marvel at the splendid views of the Badlands’ spires and canyons from the Notch Trail in winter and late fall. But with seasonal icy and snowy covers, the unmaintained trail may not be ideal for easy hikes.