Badlands Trek: Giant Heads, Magical Caves, and the Ladder From Hell

Guest poster Keith Shaw continues his hiking trip through the Badlands area, encountering spectacular natural and man-made wonders. Did he survive Notch Trail and the ladder? Find out below!

Note: Bolded text is emphasis mine, noting what I find to be particularly noteworthy. I’ve also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Two: Fun and Frustration

This was a day of ups and downs. It was still cold and overcast this morning, so I decided to see Jewel Cave and points along the way. Hopefully the weather will clear tomorrow as the Main Event is to see and hike Badlands National Park.

I stopped at the Crazy Horse monument, an unbelievable undertaking of converting a large mountain peak into an image of the Indian chief Crazy Horse sitting astride a stallion. It is HUGE. The entirety of Mt Rushmore would be smaller than just the Chief’s headdress. They have the face done and are working on the outstretched arm. This morning the Chief’s head was literally, as well as figuratively, “in the clouds”.

The museum is quite impressive with an extensive collection of all things Indian: culture, attire, artifacts and many photos. Then it was off to Jewel Cave.

The good news is that this is by far the most impressive, fantastic, magical cave I have ever visited, and that includes Mammoth and Carlsbad. The metal scaffolding is new and the trail brings you within inches of the array of bizarre formations. It is a challenging stroll in that it has 792 stair steps spread out over about a mile length, but it was worth every bit of the leg trauma. If you ever find yourself in South Dakota, you simply HAVE to visit Jewel Cave.

The bad/ frustrating news is the cave has virtually 100% humidity, and my camera objected. I tried rebooting, installing fresh batteries, but to no avail. So no photos. 😦 However, I have included a few courtesy of the internet for your enjoyment.

Within 10 minutes after leaving the cave, the camera woke up and behaved itself perfectly. This was most fortunate, as I was having day-mares of having to go out and buy a replacement camera in Rapid City.

A bit of blue sky and sun greeted my return from the depths, so I made a quick decision to redo the Needles Highway drive in the reverse direction before going off to Mt Rushmore. I really enjoyed this experience.

To be truthful, there are spots where the highway is wide enough, and even a few curves with guardrails. BUT, whenever you meet an oncoming car, Murphy always intervenes and selects only the narrowest spot for this to happen. Oh, and I did find the “Eye of the Needle”. Of course it is in a spot where you really have to pay attention to the wheel. I found a pull-off and walked back to get the photo.

My enjoyment of the Needles experience consumed more time than I thought, so it was a rush (what else?) to get to Mt Rushmore. Sadly I arrived just as the light faded, but did get this unusual view of George on the way there.

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather tomorrow so that I can report on the Badlands.

Day Three: Exhilaration and exhaustion

Finally the storms have cleared this morning, bringing sun, blue skies and cool temps. Perfect conditions for experiencing Badlands NP, which is about 50 miles east of Rapid City via I-90.

I always check in at the visitor station to learn about the park, get hiking maps, and discuss the trails with the rangers on duty. I had read about the Notch Trail in several books, considered to be the best, but also one of the most challenging. With due warnings, I decided to try it. After visiting a few overlooks, I arrived at the Notch trailhead. The sign announced,

“Notch Trail  –  Rough Terrain – Wear Sturdy Boots – Not for the Faint-Hearted”

The trail begins with an easy wander along the base of a canyon, until you come to the Ladder From Hell. It is made from 4-inch diameter wood and strung together with heavy cable to form a flexible ladder. It begins at a modest 30 degree slope, but ends going nearly vertical.

Once at the top, a break was needed to get my breathing and heart rate under control. Then the trail gets really scary, very narrow in spots with steep climbs that require both hands and very careful foot placement, along with relying on strong ankles and good boot grip. But the payoff was when the end of the trail comes to the Notch, gloriously overlooking the White River Valley far below, enhanced by a refreshing cool breeze. I stood at the edge watching various hawks and eagles playing in the updrafts. Wonderful!

A safe return was accomplished, but not without very loud complaints from my poor abused legs. As this was going to be the only hike of the day, I exchanged the dusty hiking boots for more fashionable footwear. However at the next overlook, I found that I could barely walk, so I forced myself to walk around a bit to work out the post-trauma cramps. One should never put a horse away wet…

Every overlook brought widely varying vistas. The range of geological formations is truly remarkable. Overall, the Badlands ranks right up there with Death Valley for the most alien landscapes.

A trip to the Badlands seems to require a compulsory visit to Wall Drug Store just to the North of the park. It is a huge sprawling building filled with everything Western and all things Kitsch. What a conglomeration!  That experience was balanced by returning to the Badlands to enjoy sunset at Pinnacles Overlook.

Until tomorrow, my friends.


2 thoughts on “Badlands Trek: Giant Heads, Magical Caves, and the Ladder From Hell

  1. Loved reading along with the journey. As a climber too, I can sympathize with the description of trail at the Ladder From Hell and narrow sections of trail that require good boot grip and both hands O_O

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