Badlands National Park: Choose Your Own Adventure Weekend

By Ken Ilgunas
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By Ken Ilgunas

I tilt my shoulders to squeeze through the slots in Spring Draw Creek. The narrow corridor winds through crumbly, chalk-gray badlands for a few miles before widening to unveil a wide-open grassland, home to pronghorn and mule deer. With no tourists, this feels like a forgotten prairie wilderness, not a national park. Badlands receives more than a million visitors annually, but I’m in its lonely South Unit, which, despite encompassing more than half of the park’s area, accounts for just one percent of visitors. I pull up on a grassy knoll that overlooks a prairie dappled with yellow and purple flowers. There are no trails here, so I happily blaze my own.

Trip stats
Distance: 16.2 miles
Time: 2 days

Turn-by-turn
From the Sheep Mountain Overlook
(1)
Walk 1.1 miles south on Sheep Mountain Rd. to Spring Draw Creek. The rocky wash is hard to ID, but it’s near mile marker 6 on the west side of the road.
(2) Turn west (hiker’s right) into Spring Draw Creek, and follow the drainage through a slot canyon. Be aware of a few steep drops, and make use of preexisting aids to descend.
(3) At mile 2, make a basecamp and continue dayhiking along Spring Draw Creek; reach the grassland near mile 2.5.
(4) From here, create your own lasso loop. The writer continued west out of the canyon and then looped 11 miles counterclockwise back to the canyon; to follow his exact route, get beta from the map here.
(5) From the grassland, retrace your steps through the drainage to your basecamp and back to the car.

Campsite
Plateau in Spring Draw Creek
(mile 2)
Find this elevated patch of soft grass (big enough for a few tents) next to a couple of spruce trees above the creek near mile 2. The creek passes nearby, but it’s unreliable; we recommend packing in your water (a gallon per person per day). There are no designated campsites; campfires are prohibited.

Weather
Be sure to check the forecast before you head out. Spring Draw Creek’s meager trickle can turn into a tent-drowning flood with enough rain. Also, the dirt becomes about as slick as a skating rink—what the rangers call “Badlands gumbo.”

DO IT
Trailhead 43.692720, -102.579015; 9 miles south of Scenic on Sheep Mountain Rd. Season April through October. The badlands can be muddy through spring, but should be dried out by June. Permits None Custom-centered mapbit.do/BPmapSouthUnit ($15) Contactnps.gov/badlTrip data backpacker.com/SouthUnit

Trail Facts

  • State: SD
  • City: Rapid City, SD
  • Distance: 16.2
  • Contact: nps.gov/badl
  • Land Type: National Park