Hike through a section of Badlands National Park to an overlook of the White River Valley.
Canyons, cliffs, ladder, dramatic views
1.5 miles round-trip
Moderate – Strenuous
The trail head to the Notch Trail is located in Badlands National Park 2 miles east of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. There is a large “can’t miss it” parking area with restrooms on the right (east) side of the road. There are several more trails accessed here (Door Trail; Window Trail) in addition to the Notch Trail. The Notch Trail is the closest trail head as you enter from the visitor center side of the road.
One of the first things I noticed was the sheer number of people here. This is because several nice views of the canyon are located on short boardwalk trails which are wheelchair accessible and kid-friendly. Also, there are restrooms.
We arrived mid-day after tromping through other sections of Badlands NP. It was around 100 degrees and dry. After locating the trail head, we began our hike.
There were literally no crowds on this end of the parking area. This could’ve been because of the heat, or because the Notch Trail, though relatively short in distance, has a reputation for packing a punch. The sign says it all.
I would say to make sure you carry plenty of water on hotter, drier days. Also consider there are rattlesnakes (unfortunately I didn’t see any), canyons, cliffs, narrow sections of trail, and a steep log ladder to climb.
After hiking around .50-.75 miles through a canyon, you’ll come to the most famous feature of the Notch Trail: the log ladder.
The ladder is built into the side of the canyon and is steep and has around 50 rungs. I’m guessing it’s anywhere from 80-100 feet high. We met a few other hikers here tackling the ladder one by one. I couldn’t wait for my turn, as I love technical trails:
Only the last 10 feet or so of the climb is what I’d consider steep, but when you’re at the top looking down, you get a different perspective:
The ladder leads up to a cliff and the trail continues here to the left. The trail skirts a cliff and has a great view of the valley below. I found this short section to have the highest capacity for danger. It’s narrow and well over 100 feet above the canyon floor. The dirt is loose and slipping and falling is a very present possibility. As a matter of fact, I witnessed someone slip and begin sliding down toward the cliff’s edge, but I grabbed his shirt and pulled him back up.
Falling hazards aside, there are some nice views of the canyon below.
Continue to follow the trail as it hugs the cliff beside you. Again, exercise caution as there are no cables to hold onto. The trail veers right, and then dead stops at an overlook, or “the notch,” which provides great views of the White River Valley.
After admiring the views and exploring, simply retrace your steps back down to the canyon floor and return to the parking lot.
I really enjoyed this hike! If you’re ever in South Dakota, and Badlands NP in particular, this is one trail you’ll have to hike. As I said earlier, it’s not a long trail, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in features and fun.
See you on the trail!