This is the coolest trail in Badlands National Park

There’s something distinctly eerie about the Badlands.

It could be the heavy silence covering the 244,000-acre park. Or perhaps it’s the otherworldly rock formations, carved away by water over the course of half a million years.

Want to feel smaller? Head to the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg
Want to feel smaller? Head to the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

Or maybe it’s the fact that people have been calling it, you know, the Badlands for hundreds of years. (Even Lakota tribes and early French trappers ended up dubbing the area with the same moniker.)

A stop in Badlands National Park is a quintessential road trip experience. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg
A stop in Badlands National Park is a quintessential road-trip experience. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg

Despite the sacred, slightly off-putting vibe of Badlands National Park, the stretch of dramatic canyons and pillars in South Dakota is undeniably beautiful.

RELATED: 7 national parks you really should take your kids to

One of the richest deposits of mammal fossil beds in the world, it’s scattered with the fossilized bones of long-extinct animals and the scuttling of still-alive ones. You won’t drive far before seeing bison, pronghorn, porcupines and prairie dogs.

And tourists — but it’s easy to escape the hustle of the camera-clad set on the Notch Trail, a slightly demanding and overwhelmingly beautiful hike that thins out the crowds and sets you off on a series of ledges and ladders. At just 1.5 miles, it’s perfect for breaking up the drive and worth a side trip to the Badlands.

Hike the Notch Trail

The Notch Trail is not for those with a fear of heights. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg
The Notch Trail is not for those with a fear of heights. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg
From the trailhead at the north end of the Door and Window parking area inside Badlands National Park, this 1.5-mile round-trip trail is rated moderate to strenuous, but anyone remotely in shape can handle the minimal elevation gain.

Hikers follow a twisting trail through a canyon bed and up a rope-ladder staircase to a dry ledge. If you have a fear of heights or trouble walking, choose a different trail.

The Notch Trail's end point offers a scenic overlook of a rocky valley and muted sky. Photo: Brandon Scherzberg
The Notch Trail’s end point offers a scenic overlook of a rocky valley and muted sky. Photo: Courtesy of Brandon Scherzberg
Walk through the towering canyon walls and eventually the trail will deposit you at the Notch viewing area, which overlooks the White River Valley.

RELATED: Epic mountain biking is just one reason to visit Spearfish, SD

There are no fences, boardwalks or warning signs, so use caution, as the cliffs are unstable in places, especially after rain. Plan your hike near sunrise or sunset for the best color and light for pictures.

Drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway

One of the top drives in the country, cap off your Badlands trip with this winding 31-mile trek through the stunning buttes and spires of the park.

Visit Crazy Horse Memorial

While Badlands seems quiet at first, wildlife abounds and you'll get a glimpse if you stay an hour or two. Photo: Johnie Gall
While Badlands seems quiet at first, wildlife abounds and you’ll get a glimpse if you stay an hour or two. Photo: Johnie Gall
Think Rushmore, but even more massive. Crazy Horse Memorial affords visitors a glimpse at just what a complex and arduous task it is to carve a giant statue into a mountain.

Stop by Wall Drug Store

East Coasters can compare this sprawling tourist trap to South of the Border. What was once a drugstore in a 231-person town has evolved into a $10-million-a-year business drawing in 2 million visitors annually. It’s kitschy fun that’s certainly worth a stop.