Badlands National Park’s Window and Notch Trails: The Window to My Sole

The morning after our Castle Trail hike, we were up and at the trailhead by 6:00am. Why? To see sunrise from the Window Trail. Was it worth it? Of course. I was in a national park – what else should I be doing? For those of you who like to sleep in on vacation, read on and see what your sleepy self missed. I will concede that our just-before-sunrise view from The Window was less amazing than the view from The Notch twenty-five minutes later. Still, the sky was stunning just before the sun broke the horizon, it’s just that the craggy and colorful terrain of the Badlands was shrouded in a pre-dawn gloaming that hid its finer qualities. Minutes later, when the sun broke, it imbued the landscape with warmth and the low angle accentuated every nook and cranny of the crags and spires..

We arrived at the parking area that morning with the intent to hike all three trails in the Badlands’ tiny-trail-trifecta. From

“Three hikes begin from this trailhead, Window Trail, Door Trail, and Notch Trail. Each penetrates Badlands Wall, an imposing 100-mile long ridge spanning across the South Dakota plains. The view … is pure badlands.”

Hikespeak sums this up nicely but is a little shaky on the details. These three hikes begin from the same parking area, but not the same trailhead. The Window and Notch trailheads are right next to one another, but the Door Trail is about a thousand feet north of them. It’s also important to note that the eastern terminus of the Castle Trail, where we enjoyed sunset just hours before (read here), also departs from this lot.

We started with the Window Trail.

The Window Trail is less than a quarter mile (round trip) and fully ADA accessible. As we strolled down the well maintained boardwalk, we enjoyed the desert flora and fauna. Rich purple thistle rose from the grass-and-dirt plains while brown-grey brush rabbits hopped to and fro in the weak, early-morning light. In a moment, we had reached a small observation platform overlooking “pure badlands”. Guess who else was out early that morning?

Ms. Narcissa Narcissist.

Narcissa had come to an overlook in a National Park at the crack of dawn to soak in the grandeur of one of America’s natural wonders talk loudly on her mobile phone. Immune to the majestic vista before her, she yammered into her phone about how others should behave, how she would have done it, and how she came out on top in several different scenarios, never acknowledging that unimportant others were present. We enjoyed the view as best we could and headed back.

As we turned our attention to the Notch Trail, a sign warned us that, in contrast to the Window Trail, this route was over “rough terrain” and appropriate footwear was recommended.

The first three-tenths of a mile were similar to the Window Trail, although we were scuffing our appropriate footwear on dirt and not composite decking boards. Suddenly, the trail turned sharply to the right, and we stood at the bottom of a sixty-seven-foot log ladder that rose twenty or twenty-five feet to a ledge above the floor of the small canyon through which we walked.

Once on the ledge, the trail wound its way up the canyon, often with very little real estate between canyon wall and cliff. There was some light scrambling required along the ledge. Three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, we arrived at a magnificent viewpoint.

The view from The Notch was every bit as stunning as from The Window, except now, the rugged and striated topography was illuminated in a pale gold light. The early-morning sun cast long shadows across the buttes and spires of the original Sunshine State.

Note: In 1992, South Dakota officially gave up the nickname “The Sunshine State” in favor of commemorating Mount Rushmore, arguably the most egregious violation of “Leave No Trace” in a U.S. National Forest.

When we had seen our fill, we retraced our steps to the trailhead. On the trip back, we looked down the valley through which we had just hiked, taking in some scenic panoramas we hadn’t previously noticed. We descended the log ladder and wound our way back to the parking area, passing a mule deer doe as we hiked. She seemed to find us more interesting than threatening, and after sizing each other up, we went our separate ways. When we got back to the parking area, we made the regrettable decision that we did not have the time to hike the Door Trail if we wanted to keep to our schedule. We still had to break camp.

Window and Notch should definitely be on your list if you’re visiting the Badlands. They won’t take up a lot of your time, and the views are worth ten times the effort. We spent a grand total of eight minutes on the Window Trail. True, we were put off by Narcissa’s persistent prattling, but the trail is quick work regardless. Conversely, we spent nearly an hour exploring the three-quarter-mile Notch Trail and considered it time well spent. The varied and exciting geography made the hike out every bit as rewarding as the watch from the Notch. The views from The Door would be similar we told ourselves. We didn’t miss much … right? If you know otherwise, please don’t burst our bubble. ♦

Date: July 6, 2022
Location: Badlands National Park, SD
Trailhead: 43.760308, -101.928077
Distance: 1.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 114 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, and Mnicoujou

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