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Backpacker Magazine – November 2009

Rip & Go: Sage Creek Loop - Badlands National Park, SD

Explore off-trail in a wilderness with more bison than boot prints.

by: Kim Phillips

Trailhead at Conata picnic area (Kim Phillips)
Trailhead at Conata picnic area (Kim Phillips)
MSR Dromedary Bag (Courtesy Photo)
MSR Dromedary Bag (Courtesy Photo)
American Bison (Donna Ikenberry)
American Bison (Donna Ikenberry)

Take it With You
Download a printable PDF of this entire weekend.

GPS-Enabled Trip Report
See this trip on a map, download it to your phone, GPS, or computer, and more.

Do It
The frontier lives on in Badlands National Park's Sage Creek Wilderness Area. Bison and pronghorn roam freely on prairies riddled with labyrinthine washes and surrounded by rock pinnacles. And so will you on this three-day, 22-mile loop. From the backcountry trailhead (1) at the Conata Picnic Area, 12 miles south of Wall, head southwest through knee-high grass (watch for rattlers), skirting the base of the Badlands formations and the occasional pronghorn boneyard.

After two miles, pass through a gated barbed-wire fence (2) and veer northwest toward a clutch of rock spires. Just over a mile later, climb gravel mounds into Deer Haven (3), a juniper-lined oasis amid the spires. Camp on a flat gravel bench in this natural amphitheater (there are no designated sites on this route). On day two, weave through juniper stands and ascend .2 mile to a narrow ridge (4), the route's high point at 2,900 feet.

Descend into a steep wash pocked with mud puddles and bison prints. Follow several snaking bends northwest to a T-junction at mile 4.1 (5); turn left. At mile six, bear left where a dry creekbed enters on the right (6); leave the wash .6 mile later (7). Then traverse the Sage Creek Basin, a 3.5-mile-wide grassland veined with gullies. Stop for lunch at a grass-lined pond (the route's lone water source) (8) 8.2 miles into the loop. In 3.4 miles, hike west into Tyree Basin; spend night two here (9).

On the last day, navigate south-southeast through a maze of drainages to Sage Creek Pass (10), a large gap in the Badlands formations. At mile 15.5, angle east along a private ranch's fenceline before ducking under another north-south running fence (11) blocking the route. Descend to Conata Basin for the three-mile stretch back to the first gate and the trail to Conata Picnic Area.

Trip Planner

From Wall, take SD 240 south for 11 miles. Turn right onto Conata Basin Rd. In 1.1 mile, turn right onto Badlands Loop Rd. and follow it to the backcountry access parking area at the Conata Picnic Area.

USGS quads: Wall SW, Quinn Table SE ($8 per quad,

Gear Up
Nearby roadside attraction Wall Drug also stocks a variety of last- minute supplies such as white gas, duct tape, sunscreen, and batteries. 510 Main St., Wall, SD; (605) 279-2175;


Key Gear: Hydration Bags

Water sources in the Badlands are few and far between. And even if you're tempted to filter the chocolate-brown mud puddles and silty pools that dot the washes, it's a lost cause: The high sediment content of the water makes it undrinkable. To stay hydrated, hikers must pack in all of their water–at least one gallon per person per day–in heavy-duty reservoirs like the MSR Dromedary Bag ($30-$40,

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Reader Rating: -


Sep 16, 2012

Just went on this trip mid September. A few points

-The wash can be confusing and you can find yourself backtracking if you aren't paying very close attention. Make constant use of your compass and GPS in this area. There are many washes and many of them look the same. We had one area where a rock collapse caused a large back-flow of water. We had to use the terrain to move around it and found ourselves going down a wash a mere 5 feet away from the wash we were intending to return to. This led to a small detour but it was somewhat frustrating in the heat of the afternoon.
-I cant imagine camping in deer haven and being happy with the mileage one would have to put in the next day. Push yourself further (we camped in the hills about .5-1km before marker 013. The views are fantastic and the sites are numerous.)
-We ran into several buffalo up close in the wash. These are large animals and can be unpredictable. Try to give them a wide berth.
-Two of the days had highs of 90-93 degrees. The hiking from 1-3pm can become quite exhausting and can consume quite a bit of water as you are sweating a fair amount. Consider taking your lunch from 2-3pm in the shade to conserve energy and water.
-We did not see any rattlers, we did avoid tall grass when possible though.

This was a fairly tough trek, definitely not for amateurs. The views are amazing and you truly feel like you are in a wasteland at some points. Enjoy the trip and be mindful of your navigation at all times. Even with some of the issues, this was still one of my favorite trips I have ever taken. We packed in a gallon of water per day (3 days) and found it to be sufficient. I notice a few people tended to have a fair bit less and rationed their water. Not something I would recommend even if the weight can be a bit much.

Luis Orozco
Sep 10, 2012

My friend and I did this trek in early July. It was our first stop in a road trip that took us 8 thousand miles around the US from NYC. He used Backpackers guide to follow our way. We must confess that it was challenging since the heat was extreme and the place that is suggested here for camping was kind of risky to reach. (the rocks fall apart just from touching them). It was a total adventure that included a punishing sun, beautiful landscapes, and not a single soul during our 4 hours walking trip and climbing. My friend lost his engagement ring in the suggested spot from this magazine--- other than that, the experience was amazing, the landscape, I agree, from another planet, and the night sky with the most striking number of stars I have ever seen. If you find the ring contact me! ;) By the way, there is a parking area. We left the car overnight .

Robbie Helgason
Sep 02, 2012

There is parking at Conata. I did 2.5 days there. good stuff.

Kevin Wolff
Jun 20, 2012

there is no overnight parking at the conata picnic area.

Badlands National Park
Dec 22, 2010

Badlands National Park is very beautiful. If you wish to travel back in time then there is perhaps no better place to choose for the hiking trip than the Badlands National Park. It is in the South Dakota. Here centuries of the wind and the water have carved out deep canyons where the dinosaurs once roamed millions of the years ago and where scientists today enjoy some of the world's most extensive fossil deposits.


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