Important Tips for Hiking in Badlands National Park: Notch Trail and its Famous Ladder

It was Day 7 of our South Dakota road trip. We spent the morning visiting Wall Drug and exploring both the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and the Delta-09 Missile Silo before heading to Badlands National Park. After visiting the Big Badlands Overlook and filming a Movement Postcard, we set out to do some fun family hikes in Badlands National Park. After a fun time exploring the badlands, Buddy and I are sharing our Top 5 Important Tips for Hiking the Notch Trail and its Famous Ladder in Badlands National Park.

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Sign for the Notch Trail reads "Notch Trail Rough Terrain Wear Sturdy Boots." Brown sign with white letters on on log sign post with green prairie grass and the badlands in the background. MPA Project Travels.

First, the details. The Notch Trail is a short 1.5-mile round trip out & back trail rated as moderate to strenuous by the National Park Service. The trail’s most famous feature is the 50-foot log ladder that hikers climb about halfway through the hike on their way towards the notch. The trail abruptly ends at the notch overlooking the beautiful and expansive White River Valley below.

The Notch Trail in Badlands National Park is a fun, easy, and adventurous hike. Please note that this trail is not recommended for hikers with a fear of heights.


Top 5 Important Tips for Hiking the Notch Trail and its Famous Ladder in Badlands National Park

1. Where to park

The Notch Trail shares a parking lot with the Door Trail and the Window Trail. Although there is ample parking at this trail head, it can get busy both at the trail head parking lot and on the trails. Consider arriving early if you are visiting Badlands National Park during the summer months.

The Notch Trail begins at the south end of the parking lot. There are various signs guiding hikers to the different tailheads. After parking, walk south until you see the sign for the Notch Trail.

2. What to bring

When hiking the Notch Trail, or any of the many trails in Badlands National Park, these are the things we recommend bringing with you.

Sun protection

The sun can be intense in Badlands National Park, especially in the summer months. To protect you and yours from sunburn, bring adequate sun protection. This can be sunscreen, a hat, or a light long sleeve coverup. Anything to protect you from the sun.

As I mentioned in the post about hiking the Door Trail, even though I applied sunscreen, wore a hat and sunglasses, I got sunburned during my hikes in Badlands National Park! Even if the temperature is not too hot, it was a lovely 88 degrees Fahrenheit when we hiked the Notch Trail, protect yourself from the sun.

A water bottle

Because there is little share on the Notch Trail and the sun can be intense at Badlands National Park, you want to bring a refillable water bottle with you on your hikes. Given that the Notch Trail shares a parking lot with both the Door and Window Trailheads, it is easy to refill water bottles between hikes with a bit of planning.

During our trip to Badlands National Park, we kept two 2.5-gallon containers of water in the back of the car. When we hiked in Badlands National Park, we refilled our water bottles between each of the hikes. Topping off our water bottles after each trail we hiked. That day, we hiked the Window Trail, the Notch Trail, and then the Door Trail. To keep cool, Buddy would drop one or two ice cubes in his water bottle to cool down his water.

These are the water bottles Sal and I used on the trip. See us carrying our water bottles on the trail in the picture below.

Buddy wearing a read shirt and black shorts and shoes and Sal wearing a black long sleeve shirt and black shorts holding a blue water bottle hiking by a cliff of the Notch Trail Badlands National Park. MPA Project Travels.
Buddy and Sal on hiking the Notch Trail at Badlands National Park, SD.

Sturdy Hiking Shoes

The Notch Trailhead sign says, “wear sturdy boots.” It is especially important to have hearty footwear, especially when climbing the Notch Trail’s famous ladder.

We did see a few hikers in flip flops and sandals, which I do not recommend using on any hike in Badlands National Park. I wore my  Merrell Women’s Siren Spork Hiking Shoe and they held up nicely. I also have a pair of Merrell Women’s Siren Edge Hiker Shoe, which I equally love.

3. Be prepared to climb

The Notch Trail in Badlands National Park is known for its famous 50-foot log ladder that leads hikers up towards the notch. If you are hiking the Notch Trail, be prepared to climb!

Buddy in a red shirt looks back at the camera while climbing the log ladder at the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park. There are people in front of him on the ladder and at the top of the trail.
Buddy climbing the log ladder on the Notch Trail at Badlands National Park.

A few thoughts after climbing the log ladder:

  • If you are there during high season, chances are there may be lines of hikers waiting to go up and down the ladder. If your fellow hikers are so gracious, taking turns as family groups ascend and descend the ladder is a good option. Sometimes, there are younger children on the trail.

  • There is a section at the top that is somewhat steep, but the rest of the ladder is fairly easy.

  • For me, going down was worse than coming up. I am on the shorter side and the space between the log steps were wide for me. That left me reaching with my toes for the next rung on the ladder as I descended. It was a stretch, especially at the steep part near the top of the ladder, but I did not miss a step.

4. Watch your step

After climbing the log ladder, you will hike a section of the Notch Trail that is next to a modest cliff with sharp drop offs. If possible, stay close to the rock wall when hiking.

Also, watch your step at the end of the trail. The view is beautiful, but the area is surrounded by a cliff with abrupt drop offs. Watch your step.

When we hiked the Notch Trail at Badlands National Park, there were a few moments when Buddy was hiking the area next to the cliff when I felt a bit nervous. I kept reminding him to hike next to the rock wall! I felt more confident at the end of the trail.

Views of the White River Valley from Badlands National Park.
Views of the White River Valley from Badlands National Park.

5. Expect crowds

The summer months are high season in Badlands National Park. If you are visiting during that time, expect crowds. To avoid crowds, consider traveling during shoulder season in the spring and fall or arriving early in the day.

Given the masses that flock to the Notch Trail, to climb the famous ladder, please note that you may have to wait in line to climb the ladder or experience the notch at the end of the trail.

Of the three trails that we hiked in Badlands National Park on a warm afternoon in July; the Notch Trail was the most crowded. Alternatively, the Door Trail was the least crowded and the most family friendly trail of the three.

There was a line to climb both up and down Notch Trail’s famous ladder. The day we visited, we found that fellow groups of hikers were not so keen to take turns with the ladder and some hikers opted to climb the rocks next to the ladder to continue on the trail. We do not recommend this.

There is an alternative trail to get to the notch that avoids the ladder. That is a good option for avoiding any possible bottlenecks at the ladder. However, if climbing the ladder is a must do as a part of your experience of the Notch Trail, as it was for us, a little patience goes a long way.


Buddy’s Tips

  • The edge is very steep and there are no support rails so you must be very aware of your surroundings.

  • You also need to climb a steep ladder. It is not as bad as it may look, but since it is very steep, you may need to put your water bottle in your backpack or pocket to climb the ladder.

  • The views are amazing once you get up to the top.

Overall, we had a fun time hiking the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park. We are glad that we had the once in a lifetime experience of climbing the Notch Trail log ladder. In fact, we had so much fun on the Notch Trail that we did not stop to film a Movement Postcard. I did, however, film this avantgarde Movement Postcard at the Pinnacles Overlook in Badlands National Park.

Have you hiked the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park? If so, what was your experience of the log ladder? Let us know in the comments below.

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10 thoughts on “Important Tips for Hiking in Badlands National Park: Notch Trail and its Famous Ladder

  1. This looks like such a fun, family friendly trail! I guess it must be hard for smaller legs to make it up the log ladder to the Notch, but the kids must have been so pleased to make it up there!

    Great hiking tips!

  2. Great tips! I love that you share so many insights, so now I feel fully prepared for hiking in Badlands National park. Well done!

  3. These are all great tips! I also like to carry a water bottle and sunscreen when I hike too. I hope I can visit and will save your post when I go!

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