Badlands National Park: The Notch Trail


After lunch, it was time to finally get out of the car and begin exploring some of the Badlands landscapes close-up. We began with the Notch Trail, a 1.5-mile out and back near the eastern entrance to the park. It begins at a major trailhead parking area for trails both short and long. It is also one of the first stops on the Loop Road for those entering the park from the east. On this Saturday afternoon, September 6, it was busy with retirees, families, and couples of various ages.

The Notch Trail is the most demanding of the three short trails starting at this parking lot. The trail began by winding its way into a wall of Badlands formations to the east.


Slowly, prairie grasses and some small stands of juniper gave way to more barren formations.


Water is undermining the formation in the image below, causing its base to erode away.


And in this one, rubble cascades down like a hard gray waterfall.


Up close, there was endless variety in the way erosion had shaped the formations.


The canyon between formations narrowed until we came upon some people standing at the bottom of a wall. They were waiting for hikers to descend a ladder of more-than-fifty logs held in place by steel cords. That was how the trail got hikers up to the top of the wall.


Soon it was our turn to climb up. It began easily enough, standing upright on the step grade, but soon we were bent over, and then climbing vertically to the top. A family with several young children were next in line behind us.


The view from the top of the ladder was already worth the climb, but the trail continued along a narrow ledge (to the right in the image below) above a steep ravine.

The sign reads “Dangerous Cliff Keep Right.”

Eventually the ravine leveled out, and the trail led to a broader valley between formations. It was a lunar landscape of gravelly Badlands rock and very little vegetation. But even here, we spotted a Rock Wren and a Least Chipmunk.


Twice we noticed cairns along the trail that seemed to be leading us on detours from the main trail, which was clearly marked with metal rods main trail.

Image: Sean M. Santos

One led to a small, open-roofed enclosure among the formations. We were uncertain whether the cairns were put there by the Park Service or by other hikers. At other parks, we’d have assumed that they were indicating paths to rock climbing ascents, but the Badlands mudstone is too unstable for serious rock climbing.


We half expected Captain Kirk and Mister Spock to come around the next corner fighting some hilariously costumed creature from the original Star Trek.


Suddenly, the trail led steeply up to a low saddle, the Notch of the trail’s name.


Beyond the Notch, the Badlands gave way to a dramatic vista of Cedar Pass, the town of Interior, the White River, and Pine Ridge Reservation beyond.


Video: Brandon Hayes


As is happily often the case, Sean and I were alone when we arrived at the end of the trail. But while we were sitting there taking in the view, a fellow sauntered up. We said hello, but all really any of the three of us could do was mutter about the sublime scenery and take more photos.


Eventually the family with small children arrived, and Sean and I decided to start the return hike. We said goodbye to the fellow, who looked like he was going to call after us for a moment, but then didn’t. He was cute, so we were curious what his story was. Later we would decide that his name was Louis and that he had stylish, but inappropriate shoes.

The return went swiftly. With more people coming up the trail, including a young woman who was slightly freaking out about the path above the ravine, we were glad to have had solitude for our hike. (Note the ladder in the image below, just to the left of center.)


I love the photo below because it’s like a cross-section of the Badlands geography with prairie on a small, flat table, cactus at the arid edge, and then an abrupt drop away, all at about my height.

Plains Prickly Pear

It was only about ten after two, so there was plenty of time in the afternoon left for a serious hike.

Note: This post is the 100th on the site. Quite a milestone, I’m rather glad that it fell during Badlands. That it’s my first revisited park feels appropriate. Thanks for reading.

1 thought on “Badlands National Park: The Notch Trail

  1. Pingback: Badlands National Park: The Window and the Door | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

Leave a Reply