Badlands National Park: Sage Creek Wilderness Area

This 22-mile backcountry route weaves through pinnacled formations, serpentine washes, and expansive grasslands in Badlands National Park's Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
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This 22-mile backcountry route weaves through pinnacled formations, serpentine washes, and expansive grasslands in Badlands National Park's Sage Creek Wilderness Area.

The Old West lives on in Badlands National Park's remote Sage Creek Wilderness Area. Home to herds of roaming bison and pronghorn—and surrounded by pinnacled rock formations, endless prairie, and labyrinthine washes—the trailless expanse in the park's North Unit is the setting for this 3-day, 22-mile loop.

From the backcountry trailhead at the Conata Picnic Area, 12 miles south of Wall, SD, meander southwest through knee-high grass, skirting the base of the Badlands formations and the occasional pronghorn boneyard (watch out for rattlers). After 2 miles, pass through a gated barbed-wire fence and veer northwest toward Deer Haven, a juniper-covered oasis perched in the rock spires ahead. Nearly a mile later, climb crumbly mounds that slope up to the lush confines of Deer Haven. At the oasis, find a flat spot to pitch your tent and spend the night in an amphitheater of towering pinnacles.

On day two, weave through juniper stands and ascend .3 mile to a narrow ridgetop—and the route's highpoint. Descend the backside of the ridge into a steep-banked wash pockmarked with mud puddles and pancake-shaped bison prints. Follow countless, snaking bends northwest to a T-junction at mile 4.1 and turn left. At mile 6, bear left where a dry creek bed enters on the right; leave the wash .6 mile later.

The next 3.5 miles traverses the Sage Creek Basin, a vast grassland veined with more high-walled washes; scan the periphery for buffalo before rolling in and out of the sandy gullies. Stop for lunch at a grassy-banked pond 8.2 miles into the loop (the route's only water source). Two miles later, leave Sage Creek Basin and hike west over mounded formations into Tyree Basin; spend your second night here.

On the last day, navigate south-southeast through a maze of washes en route to Sage Creek Pass, a large gap in the Badlands formations. At mile 15.5, angle east past a private ranch; trace the fenceline for a mile before ducking under a north-south running fence that blocks the route. Just past the fence, squeeze through a gap in the formations and descend to the Conata Basin for the 3-mile stretch back to the first gate. From here, retrace your steps to the Conata Picnic Area.

Caution: There is no potable water in the Badlands backcountry. Hikers must pack in all of their water. Carry at least a gallon per person per day.

Permit: Badlands National Park has no formal backcountry permit or reservation system. Hikers are advised to visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for planning assistance, safety tips, directions, and regulations.

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; walldrug.com

Contact: Badlands National Park, (605) 433-5361; nps.gov/badl/.

-Mapped by Kim Phillips and Matt Vellone

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 35.4

Waypoints

SAG001

Location: 43.834314, -102.200277

Park your car at the Conata Picnic Area. The route starts at the backcountry trailhead, which is located at the end of the road.

SAG002

Location: 43.83472, -102.201573

Trailhead: Sign in at the register, then hike west. In 100 yards, the route bears south along the base of the formations. Caution: Watch out for rattlesnakes in the grass.

SAG003

Location: 43.831408, -102.203364

The route curves to the southwest. You may spot antelope bones in the grass.

SAG004

Location: 43.828266, -102.215542

Bear left, heading west along the base of the formations.

SAG005

Location: 43.829899, -102.226818

Pass through a fence that runs to the edge of the formations. Next, head northwest toward the Deer Haven oasis.

SAG006

Location: 43.839255, -102.234542

Pass through another fence, then hike northwest.

SAG007

Location: 43.840354, -102.236216

The climb to Deer Haven starts here. Caution: Keep clear of the holes that have started to form in the crumbly mounds.

SAG008

Location: 43.840478, -102.234875

Drop your pack and take a break. This overlook showcases views of Deer Haven and the Conata Basin. In 150 feet, crest a grassy ledge and head north.

SAG009

Location: 43.841399, -102.234178

Deer Haven: A group of striking pinnacles tower above the juniper-dotted oasis. Spend the night at this grassy perch and savor the five-star views. Next day: Navigate northeast through the junipers. Pick the best route up the formations to reach the ridgetop (and the route's highpoint).

SAG010

Location: 43.842846, -102.230358

Crest the ridge and head northwest.

SAG011

Location: 43.842946, -102.23068

Descend the backside of the ridge and drop into a sandy wash. Pass intermittent mud puddles and patches of dried, cracked mud. As you follow the serpentine wash to the northwest, you'll pass bison footprints and scat. Keep an eye out for these massive animals as you round the numerous bends in the wash. Caution: Although bison appear mild-mannered, they're unpredictable and can charge you at speeds of up to 30 mph. Adjust your route to avoid coming face-to-face with wandering herds.

SAG012

Location: 43.847686, -102.237319

Turn left at the T-junction. Continue following the wash.

SAG013

Location: 43.85683, -102.255487

Pass a wash on the right and continue northwest toward a bend in the wash.

SAG014

Location: 43.853452, -102.260559

Pass a lone cottonwood tree, which provides shady respite from the sun.

SAG015

Location: 43.852417, -102.262738

Leave the wash and hike northwest into the Sage Creek Basin, a lush grassland veined with a network of washes.

SAG016

Location: 43.855801, -102.263845

The route veers to the northwest.

SAG017

Location: 43.858707, -102.274222

Hike across a broad wash.

SAG018

Location: 43.859819, -102.280684

Cross a wash.

SAG019

Location: 43.861933, -102.284142

Stop at this grassy-banked pond and admire the scenery (this is the only water source along the route). Scan the horizon for roaming bison.

SAG020

Location: 43.871153, -102.311511

This point marks the northernmost tip of the route. Descend into a wash and weave through a maze of formations, heading west toward Tyree Basin.

SAG021

Location: 43.868585, -102.330329

Pick up a horse trail and follow it south into Tyree Basin.

SAG022

Location: 43.863861, -102.329717

Set up camp near the base of the formations in Tyree Basin. In the distance, herds of bison and antelope roam the grassy expanse.

SAG023

Location: 43.858745, -102.322176

Walk through a prairie dog colony. Look south for views of Sage Creek Pass (a large gap in the formations).

SAG024

Location: 43.851427, -102.309934

Head south toward Sage Creek Pass.

SAG025

Location: 43.847318, -102.310524

Ascend and descend a series of washes.

SAG026

Location: 43.82753, -102.310095

Descend a wash and head south.

SAG027

Location: 43.820951, -102.305589

Hike east toward the fence that runs east and west.

SAG028

Location: 43.820987, -102.298279

Follow the fenceline east. Private ranchland extends to the south.

SAG029

Location: 43.820989, -102.276122

Duck under the fence that runs north and south and blocks the route. Next, descend the formations on a steep slope that drops down to the Conata Basin.

SAG030

Location: 43.824815, -102.267255

Descend a wash.

SAG031

Location: 43.830842, -102.258378

Duck under a barbed-wire fence that runs the length of the wash.

SAG032

Location: 43.831717, -102.242106

Duck under the fence and head east 0.8 mile to reconnect with Waypoint 5; pass through the fence, then retrace your route back to the Conata Picnic Area.

Badlands Formations

Location: 43.828908, -102.224522

Backcountry Trailhead

Location: 43.834689, -102.2015

Backcountry Trailhead

Location: 43.834709, -102.201516

Backcountry Trailhead

Location: 43.834728, -102.201543

Beware of Rattlesnakes

Location: 43.834716, -102.201527

Grasslands

Location: 43.830201, -102.204378

View of the Badlands

Location: 43.829403, -102.206642

Badlands Formations

Location: 43.826949, -102.213084

Badlands Panorama

Location: 43.827079, -102.214112

Badlands Formations

Location: 43.827534, -102.214974

Badlands Panorama

Location: 43.828892, -102.22302

Deer Haven

Location: 43.83179, -102.228244

View of the Badlands

Location: 43.83604, -102.231243

Nearing Deer Haven

Location: 43.836197, -102.231344

Ascending the Formations

Location: 43.840475, -102.236132

View across Conata Basin

Location: 43.840475, -102.236132

Deer Haven

Location: 43.840459, -102.235366

Scenic Viewpoint

Location: 43.840525, -102.23502

Campsite in Deer Haven

Location: 43.84146, -102.233311

Steep-Banked Wash

Location: 43.843283, -102.231646

Wash in Sage Creek Wilderness

Location: 43.844413, -102.232877

Bison Print

Location: 43.844413, -102.232877

Rock Formation

Location: 43.844833, -102.233143

Wash in Sage Creek Wilderness

Location: 43.846147, -102.236945

Nearing Sage Creek Basin

Location: 43.856206, -102.255542

Sage Creek Basin

Location: 43.854167, -102.264082

Grassy Pond

Location: 43.861958, -102.284377

Sage Creek Basin

Location: 43.861958, -102.284377

Bison

Location: 43.864155, -102.287577

Bison Herd

Location: 43.863867, -102.329171

Wash in Tyree Basin

Location: 43.837377, -102.311895

Lone Bison

Location: 43.837351, -102.311921

Views near Conata Basin

Location: 43.820966, -102.300525

Fenceline near Conata Basin

Location: 43.820989, -102.276063

Descent into the Conata Basin

Location: 43.821015, -102.275947

Starry Skies in Badlands National Park

Location: 43.833206, -102.203571

Starry Skies in Badlands National Park

Location: 43.83318, -102.203536