Rising behind (and northeast of) the park headquarters and visitor center in the Cedar Pass area, Millard Ridge is one of the few ridges and peaks in Badlands National Park that you will find named on topographic maps. Note: Millard Ridge is not the series of formations immediately behind the visitor center-- those peaks are the Colored Mounds-- but is the formation that surrounds the popular Notch and Window trails.
Climbing Millard Ridge is not a journey deep into the heart of the pinnacle-studded prairie that is the Badlands wilderness-- it is but a short distance from a popular trail-- but it is a relatively easy and accessible introduction to the off-trail delights of the Badlands, which are countless, and it is a fun scramble, though a little dicey, as most climbing in the Badlands is.
I got here in late morning, and thus the color and contrast were not what they are earlier and much later in the day, but don't let my unexciting pictures here fool you; the area is spectacular.
From the northeast entrance at Cactus Flat near Exit 131 on I-90, drive about three miles to a major parking and trailhead area for the Door, Window, and Notch Trails. The Notch Trail begins at the south end of the parking area.
The Notch Trail is considered an adventure by most hikers, but climbers are likely to find it lame and a bit of an eyesore. The reason: there is a steep ladder in one section. It can be amusing to listen to the windshield warrior types talk about the challenge of that ladder and the scariness of the trail.
Anyway, the trail leads 0.75 mi through a canyon up to a "notch" in the wall of cliffs. Actually, there are a few notches to visit; just follow the use trails. There are great views from each notch.
About halfway along the trail, you reach Millard Ridge. According to maps, Millard Ridge is not the complex all around you but the ridge system on your left as you hike to the notch.
The pinnacles by the notch seem to be the highest on the ridge, but climbing them from the end of the Notch Trail is dangerous because the rock, which is basically hardened mud, is extremely slippery even for the best soles and crumbles under very little pressure; the climbing itself is no worse than Class 4, but those other conditions make it dangerous.
You can also access the ridge from various points along the trail. Just look for a slope or gully that looks right for you and follow it. Expect slippery footing and Class 3 conditions. If you are encountering conditions harder that Class 3 and don't want them, go back and look for something else; it does not have to be any harder than Class 3 to get up on the ridge.
Once up on the ridge, wander as much as you can. Expect more scrambling and exposure in narrow, steep sections.
Camping and Lodging
You can camp at Cedar Pass Campground (running water, flush toilets, store and restaurant nearby, no reservations) or stay in the Cedar Pass Lodge (2010 rates started at a little over $100 a night). There is no fee or permit required for backcountry camping, and you must be at least 0.5 mi from any road or trail, and also not visible from any park road. These requirements pretty much rule out backcountry camping near Millard Ridge, but the area across the road from the trailhead has a lot of possibilities.
Copied from the park website:
Private, non-commercial vehicle
$15 - Valid for 7 days
Individual - hike, bicycle
$7 - Valid for 7 days
$10 - Valid for 7 days
Badlands National Park Annual Pass
$30 - Valid for one year from month of purchase
Weather considerations: If it is raining or the ground is wet from recent precipitation or snowmelt, don't even think of getting on these formations. They will be a messy, treacherous gumbo that will impede progress, try to suck the boots from your feet, and prove dangerous to be on.
Other precautions: Look out for cactus and rattlesnakes, especially when you are putting your hands places while scrambling. Summer temperatures are often 90 and above, so have sufficient water even though this is a short trip from the car.
Artifacts and fossils: Badlands National Park is a well-known trove for animal fossils and Indian artifacts. It is illegal to disturb or remove them. Other visitors are often quick to report violators, and violators face stiff fines and possibly even arrest.