You’d better like your hiking partners. Because that’s all the company you’ll have on this trek in the park’s trailless Sage Creek Unit. The three-day loop, of about 20 miles, weaves through the very hoodoos and spires that inspired 19th-century French trappers to dub this place “mauvaises terres á traverser,” or “bad lands to travel across.”
From Sage Creek Basin Overlook, follow a bison path into the basin, then walk upstream beneath occasional cottonwoods, ash, and elm. Watch for deer, pronghorn antelope, raptors, and, of course, bison—about 800 roam the park. Camp the first night at the foot of the Pinnacles, a quiver of tall, multicolored spires. On day two, hike southwest along the castlelike, 60-mile-long Badlands Wall, navigating around Hay Butte, the prominent finger jutting northwest from the wall (point 3,035 on maps). All the while, the labyrinth’s quiet corners will make you wonder if you’re the first person to set foot there. Good navigation skills are a must for this confounding terrain. Camp in the shadow of the Badlands Wall near Sage Creek Pass, a break in the wall at mile 13. The next morning, swing north seven miles to return, weaving your way through grassy Sage Creek Basin. Late May and June are best for primrose, mariposa lily, wild rose, and cactus blooms.
›› Magic Moment Listening to the wind blow through the knee-high grasses as you watch the sunset paint the Pinnacles pink and purple from your first campsite. Bison graze in the distance and, in your peripheral vision, you catch several mule deer slipping right past you.
›› Local Knowledge Chance of showers in the forecast? “Perfect,” says ranger Connie Wolf. “Brief summer showers transform the muted colors of the rock into deep reds and ochres that really pop.” Days of hard rain? Hold off: The clay-based soil sticks to boots like cement.
›› Do It Start at Sage Creek Basin Overlook on Sage Creek Rim Road, about 30 miles west of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center via Badlands Loop Road. Map Trails Illustrated Badlands #239 ($12; natgeomaps.com) Contact (605) 433-5361; nps.gov/badl
Go in August for the Perseid meteor shower, or late fall for a chance to see northern lights. “Sync your trip with a new moon,” says ranger Aaron Kaye. “The night sky will be even darker.”