Planning to hike the Notch Trail, Badlands National Park’s famous ladder trail? This post has all the tips and info you need to plan your trip. The minute I first read about the trail, I knew it was going to be a highlight of our visit, and it did not disappoint. Keep reading to find out where to start the trail, what to bring, and highlights along the way.
The trail itself isn’t overly difficult and a good stretch of it is on a pretty level path through a canyon. The wooden ladder set into the rock formations that makes the trail famous also increases its difficulty. As such, the trail isn’t recommended for small children or people with a fear of heights. If you don’t think you can handle the ladder climb, you can still walk the first portion of the trail and turn around there.
The Notch Trail is an out and back style trail (meaning you retrace your steps to return from the endpoint) that is approximately 1.5 miles round trip. Your total elevation gain is a little less than 200 feet and the entire hike can be completed in an hour without straining yourself.
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Hiking the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park
The Notch Trail starts with a gently winding portion through a small canyon. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow. Be sure to stay on the path as this is an area where rattlesnakes are known to hang out. About 1/3 mile into the hike, you’ll reach the bottom of the ladder.
The Notch Trail ladder is approximately 40 feet high, but it’s not your straight, nearly-vertical climb like you’d expect from a normal ladder you’d have lying around your house. It’s hung from cables and follows the edge of the canyon, so it changes angles with the natural slope of the rock. The bottom portion is at a low enough angle that you can walk up it like stairs and it’s only the top half that you really need to climb in true ladder-style.
Note that the ladder is essentially one-way traffic so you may have to wait a couple minutes for a turn to go up or down. Because the ladder is hung off of cables, each log rung isn’t affixed to the canyon and the whole thing jostles slightly with every step. The only time I felt at all uncomfortable was when a couple decided to climb up while I was heading down and started shaking the ladder. I was still on the steeper part when they got close so I just stopped and put one foot off to the side to let them pass.
Once you reach the top, the trail swings around to the left and follows a ridge in the canyon walls. There is a drop off to your left for most of the way so be careful and watch your step. You’re not at terrifying heights, but you could definitely do some damage if you fall off. This portion of the trail is well worn and there are trail markers on metal stakes marking the way as well.
One one section along this stretch – more of a challenge than the ladder – there was an area with a sign warning “Dangerous cliff – keep right.” It was obvious that plenty of hikers had squeezed around the narrow path along the edge, but we scrambled up to the much wider, higher ridge by climbing on rocks and boulders. It really wasn’t too difficult and was kind of fun.
When you approach the end of the trail, there’s a slight uphill incline, but nothing too taxing. Your reward for making the hike (as if climbing the fun ladder wasn’t enough) is a gorgeous view through a “notch” – hence the name Notch Trail – in the rock wall. It opens up and allows you to see out across the rolling rock formations, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, other trails, and all the way to the South Unit in the distance. Note that there is a pretty sharp drop here, so don’t get too carried away and get too close to the edge.
Once you’re done snapping photos and admiring the view, simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead. As with all ladders, I found climbing down the Notch Trail ladder to be harder than climbing up it, but take your time and watch your step and your grip and you should be fine.
Where is the Badlands National Park Notch Trail?
The Notch Trail is located on the eastern side of Badlands National Park’s north unit. The trailhead shares a large parking area with the Window Trail and Door Trail – if you’re entering from the east it’s the first major area you’ll encounter so you can’t miss it. This area does fill up during busy seasons, so try to arrive early. You’ll also enjoy cooler weather first thing in the morning if you’re visiting during the hot summers. The Notch Trail departs from the south end of the parking lot, so head that way once you’re ready to step off. If you need them before or after your hike, there are bathrooms available towards the center of the lot.
What to bring for the Notch Trail
- You can get away with just sneakers on the Door and Window Trails that share this trailhead, but you definitely want solid hiking boots for the Notch Trail. I use these Columbias.
- The Badlands get hot – especially on summer afternoons – so even though this isn’t a particularly long hike, you’ll definitely want to bring water with you.
- Pack some sunscreen. Parts of the trail are shaded during certain times of the day due to the rock walls, but you’ll still be picking up plenty of sun.
Other hikes near the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park
Door Trail – I loved this short, easy trail because you really get out into the fascinating rock formations. The first part is a boardwalk which is wheelchair accessible, but the last part of the trail that continues out into the rocky landscape is where it really shines. This is the best alternative to the Notch Trail if you decide the ladder climb isn’t for you.
Window Trail – This one is super short at only a quarter mile round trip. It leads from the parking lot up to a convenient natural “window” overlooking the eroded rock forms. It’s the fastest and easiest way to get a peek at the landscape beyond the rocky ridge that hides it from the parking lot.