Thankful to have a beautiful nation to explore

geiss wooden ladder
A unique feature to the Notch Trail at Badlands National Park is a steep wooden ladder made with thick logs. (Photo by Julie Geiss)

Morning came early in Badlands National Park near Rapids City, South Dakota. First light was before 5 a.m., and we were still adjusting to Mountain Daylight Time. 

Notch Trail

Since we had visited the park in 2019, we had a couple favorite trails we wanted to hike again. First on our list was Notch Trail, a short 1.33 out and back trail, perfect for the whole family. 

The trail is compacted clay and dirt surrounded by juniper and brush. The hike gains 125 feet in elevation as it traverses a badlands canyon. A unique feature to the trail is a steep wooden ladder made with thick logs. 

After hiking about a third of a mile, we waited in line for a couple minutes before a turn as Billy goats on the ladder. Hikers literally take it up a notch, going hand over hand on the 50 plus rungs. 

I was a little nervous on the rungs, but true fear struck me later when the trail followed a cliff’s edge. We followed the trail markers as it veered to the right towards the overlook. 

New view

The final destination was a massive overlook with breathtaking views of the Great Plains. We took our time to bask in the beauty before us. The geological formations carved out by wind and rain are so different from what we’re used to seeing in Ohio. 

I thought it looked like a giant had thrown sand in a colossal sandbox. An apparently hungry bystander remarked that the layers looked like frosting in a cake. 

The return trip proved to be a little more frightening. My family laughed with me when I had to hug the clay wall to alleviate my nervousness. I also took longer to descend the log ladder. 

The trailhead for Notch Trail is shared with Door Trail and Window Trail. Both of these trails have a boardwalk that makes walking easier. Window Trail allows hikers a glimpse into the canyon below, while Door Trail provides access directly into the canyon. 

The rugged terrain inside the canyon is like being on another planet. Crevices and spires dot the landscape. My kids loved that Badlands National Park is free to roam. Visitors do not have to stay on designated trails. 

The park is definitely beautiful on its own, but there is something about freedom that every person craves, especially children. 

Cliff Shelf

While the boys continued to blaze their own trail, the rest of the family went to explore the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. I was on the lookout for prairie rattlesnakes. Thankfully I did not see a snake, instead, birds and deer made the trail an incredible experience. 

The trail climbed 300 feet with sweeping views of the White River Valley. We were hiking as the sun slipped closer to the horizon, bright sunshine gave way to a tranquil sunset. We spotted deer snacking on shrubs and prairie grass while black-billed magpies flew over our heads. 

Some people think magpies are bad luck, but not for us. We enjoyed seeing their hidden iridescent blue feathers come into the light when they took flight. 

We could not find the herd of buffalo on this trip but did spot antelope in the distance. We slowed down to watch prairie dogs scuttle from one burrow to the next in their prairie town. I loved hearing the cheep cheep sound as they communicated with each other. Scientists have found their sounds to be an advanced and descriptive language. 

Headed west

Our stay at Badlands National Park came to an end with another early morning. We packed up and headed west. 

The landscape began to change as we approached the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Rolling hills gave way to larger mountains capped with granite and dotted with evergreen trees. 

We made our way to Custer State Park and located our campsite in Stockade Lake North campground. Around the campfire, we made a plan for exploring the Black Hills. I couldn’t help but feel thankful for our great nation and all the beauty found within its borders. 

Our patch of land in Ohio will always be my favorite place, but I treasure our time exploring and seeing different places too.


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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at



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