The Notch Trail is routinely highlighted as one of the top-rated hikes in Badlands National Park. Even though there are so many hikes to experience in the Badlands, during the heat of the summer it’s tempting to stay in the car and not venture too far from the comfort of air conditioning.
However, this trail has quite a bit to offer in a relatively short hike, making it great even in the summer.
If you can spare an hour in the heat, you’ll be in for an epic ladder climb, great views of the Badlands and surrounding area from above and the kind of rugged scenery that you expect in Badlands National Park.
NOTCH TRAIL DETAILS
- Difficulty: Moderate to hard
- Distance: 1.5 miles (round-trip)
- Trail: Out-and-back
- Elevation gain: 173 feet
- Peak elevation reached: 2,792 feet
- Best time of year to hike: Late spring to fall
- To beat the crowds: Arrive before 8:30 am or after 3:00 pm
- Footwear: Hiking boots
- Watch out for: Sun exposure
- Restrooms: Located at the trailhead, but not on the trail
- Pets: Not allowed
- Time needed: 2 hours
The Notch Trail is one of many things to do in Badlands National Park and the surrounding National Parks, highlighted in our 20+ page itinerary for Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave National Parks.
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD FOR THE NOTCH TRAIL
Finding the trailhead for the Notch Trail is very straightforward. Starting from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, head towards the northeast entrance of the park for 2.0 miles. If coming from the northeast entrance, the lot is 2.5 miles south of the entrance.
The parking area is on the east side of the road.
- Directions from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to the Notch Trail (this will take only about 5 minutes, even with traffic)
- Directions from the northeast entrance of Badlands National Park to the Notch Trail (this is also about 5 minutes, after you get through the entrance station)
If you can’t find a spot, just drive around and one should open up quickly.
There are restrooms in the parking lot, but none on the hiking trails.
NOTCH TRAIL: TRAIL SURFACE AND ACCESSIBILITY
- Trail surface. The trail has a short amount of boardwalk before a large log ladder. After the ladder, the trail is on sharp rock the entire way. Hiking boots are recommended.
- Accesibility. The trail is not wheelchair accessible and not suitable for hikers who do not have good balance or are afraid of heights.
THE HIKE TO THE NOTCH
Notch Trail map, courtsey of the National Park Service
The trail departs the parking area and starts off essentially flat. It passes though a couple of dry washes and winds on a path through the grasses. Make sure you stay on the path, as rattlesnakes are known to hide near the trail.
After about 0.3 miles, hikers come up on a log ladder. This isn’t a typical log ladder, but almost a carpet of nearly 50 logs that helps guide you up the hillside. The logs are large and easy to navigate, but the incline does get steeper as it gets higher up the hill. The entire family thought it was fun, and although it guides hikers up nearly 40 feet, we never felt unsafe in any way.
After the ladder, the trail stays relatively flat and this continues all the way until the last few hundred feet. Though flat, it’s not boring! We loved hiking along the hillside. The trail does get narrow at points and comes close to several short drop-offs. You’ll have to keep an eye on your kids to make sure they don’t venture too close to the ledges along the way, as it is possible to get scraped up pretty badly if you fall. The rock isn’t kind to skin!
The trail is well marked with metal stakes along the way. They are present through the entire hike, and while they in some cases separated by quite a distance, we never once got off trail or wondered where we were going next.
At the end of the trail, there is a short incline up to the two overlooks. The views to the south from the overlooks are phenomenal. The views from the nearby Cliff Shelf Nature Trail are also good, but this view is a bit higher up with better visibility.
HIKING BACK FROM THE NOTCH
Since this is an “out-and-back” hike, the hike back is very similar. However, we wanted to point out that the hike down the ladder is a little more challenging than the hike up. Take extra care when hiking down and be prepared for a potential queue of hikers! When we hiked the trail, we were on the trail by 7:30 AM. The crowds going up the ladder were non-existent, and the crowds going down the ladder were very manageable. We only waited about a minute before we were able to start our trip down.
NOTCH TRAIL: TOP LIKES AND DISLIKES
- Log Ladder. The log ladder is really cool. It starts off easy, but because it is “hung” by cabling, it bows and is steeper as you go up. This was a neat feature that we all enjoyed.
- Exploring. The trail keeps you engaged, but the small areas that you can go in and out of on the way were really exciting for our kids.
- Danger. We never felt unsafe, but we had to keep a really close eye on our kids to make sure they didn’t get too close to the edge or hike carelessly.
OTHER TIPS WHEN HIKING THE NOTCH TRAIL AND IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
- Beating the crowds can be a challenge, but you’ll get a head start if you stay in the park. We particularly enjoyed the Cedar Pass Lodge, which is right near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. These cabins are awesome, and were among our favorite places to stay in all the national parks.
- Carrying plenty of water is a must. We recommend using a water pack in your backpack, and our favorite is the Platypus Hydration bladder. You’ll want to make sure that you fill up your water at the Visitor Center if you are in need.
- The Badlands are rugged, and they will scrape you up if you fall. Make sure you bring a first aid kit with you, even if you don’t hike. We recommend this mini-kit, which can fit in the palm of your hand and can easily be carried wherever you travel in the park.
OTHER GREAT FAMILY FRIENDLY HIKES AT BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Badlands National Park has plenty of hikes for families. Many of them are short, contain a variety of scenery and even the opportunity to see wildlife. Our Badlands National Park itinerary covers the family hikes and their locations. However, we thought it would be beneficial to include information about a few of them here:
- The Door Trail is highly rated and quite easy. After starting off on a boardwalk (for 0.25 miles), the trail ends in a break in the Badlands Wall. This can be great during sunset. The total trail length is 0.75 miles (round trip), and dogs are allowed on this trail (which is rare for a national park!).
- The Window Trail shares a parking lot with the Door Trail and is only 0.25 miles round trip. The trail ends at a natural window.
- The Saddle Pass Trail is a short, straight uphill path that leads to a view of the White River Valley. Be careful going downhill, as it is very slippery on the loose dirt. At the top of this trail is the Medicine Root Loop, which heads through mixed grass prairie.
- The Castle Trail is 10 miles long, but heads through the rolling plains to the north and provides a nice contrast to the Badlands. This is a long trail, but very worth it if you have the time.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
- The Badlands Loop Road is probably the most important thing that you do. The drive takes about 2-4 hours, and has some great stops, like the Hay Butte Overlook and the Yellow Mounds Overlook, to name two. There are also several spots on the route to get out and hike as well as picnic. We recommend driving the road from east to west for better views, but both directions are incredible.
- Make sure you stop and visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, located on the eastern side of the Badlands Loop Road. Our kids enjoyed the exhibits and it is a good place to get out of the sun for a few minutes.
FURTHER BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK INFORMATION FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- The Notch Trail is one of many things to do in Badlands National Park and the surrounding National Parks, highlighted in our 20+ page itinerary for Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave National Parks.
- For a broad overview of what to do while you are in Badlands National Park, see our blog post on Badlands National Park. We discuss many more of the hikes and places to see while visiting the park. You can also see our blog on the Best Hikes in Badlands National Park.
- About two hours to the west is the amazing Custer State Park. For an overview of what to do while visiting Custer, see our blog post on 6 Reasons Why You’ll Fall in Love with Custer State Park. You won’t want to miss this amazing place!
- Just right near Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park, which is also worth checking out. Our blog covers what to see and do in Wind Cave National Park. While you’re at it, be sure to review our blog on what we recommend to do near Mount Rushmore National Monument.
- We create custom, vintage-style posters, postcards and note cards from your photos of Badlands National Park. Check out our process!
ADDITIONAL USEFUL INFORMATION ON BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
- The National Park Service has a lot of great information on Badlands National Park, including maps and information about the geologic features.