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