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.
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, store.usgs.gov)
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
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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, msrcorp.com).