Camping at Sage Creek Campground
National Parks in the U.S.

The South Dakota Badlands in Late Summer

The main reason I wanted to visit South Dakota was for the Badlands that I have wanted to see for as long as I can remember. What I didn’t expect was all the other things the Black Hills had to offer. I expected the Black Hills to be something like the Smoky Mountains, but smaller. Not only was the whole area around Deadwood, where we stayed 2 weeks, beautiful and full of bright fall colors, but on the weekends we had a countless number of things to do and see.

The Badlands we held off on till our last full weekend in the area. It was about an hour and a half drive from Deadwood to Wall, SD, where we turned south into the park.

Bison Bull in the Campground in the Morning
Bison Bull in the Campground in the Morning

We had found that there was only really 2 official campgrounds in The Badlands and we chose the more rustic of the two, Sage Creek Campground. For some reason they consider it “primitive”, though has a pit toilet, which is actually a luxury when camping (to me at least). The campground is however 12 miles down a long well kept dirt road where you pass acres of prairie dogs, bison and amazing views. The campground is in a valley frequented by a huge bison herd, and fairly riddled with bison poop naturally, (most of it dried up) but for the most part the bison were about a half mile away in the distance, always visible during our time in the park. The campsites are in a loop surrounding an open pasture with 4 campsites for horse campers to the west of the loop.  We got to the campsite early in the afternoon and for the second time this summer, nearly didn’t get a spot. There was only one spot on the loop open and a couple horse camping spots that we weren’t sure we were supposed to use. It all worked out though because the horse camping sites filled up with trailers running generators all night by the time we got back from driving around the park.

Camping at Sage Creek Campground
Sage Creek Campground, Bison on Hill

After we set up our tent and left a few things on our table to secure our new territory, we decided to continue on Sage Creek Road to the west side of the park and back east through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. For most that drive we could see the real Badlands in the distance but the area was pretty and drive was nice. The loop around the park took so long that by the time we got to where the really interesting stuff started, we needed to head back to the campsite. The 12 mile drive on the dirt road would consume a good half hour and we didn’t want to eat our dinner in the dark.
We arrived back at the campground just as it got dark. It was chilly out but nothing we couldn’t hang outside in and it wasn’t supposed to get lower than 50 at night. Pretty good for late September. We had a couple beers and hung out , watching our neighbors have a good time and cook their dinners. We had brought wood for burning in case we could, and had hoped to make our food on that but since we were unable to, we had to use our back-country camp stove, which consists of a can of gel that catches on fire and a small aluminum grate. We, for some reason, bought some cheesy garlic ravioli and a rather bland garlic sauce, thinking it would make good camp food. It would have been OK if we didn’t have to use the stove which was almost impossible to boil water on. After the pasta was mostly warm, I then added some insane hot sauce that practically made it inedible. We horked down luke-warm hotter than satan’s spit pasta till I gave up and just had some chips and another beer.

Ross in the Badlands – Sage Creek Road

Once it got really dark, and everyone else had gone to bed, we sat up and talked and drank while I set my medium format camera up for a long exposure shot of our tent and the insanely starry night sky of The Badlands. The moon was bright at this point still but behind the camera. It wasn’t till I got up late at night to use the bathroom that I really saw how amazing a night sky can be. South Dakota is such an unpopulated state. With Rapid City at least 59 miles away and all the other small towns too small to corrupt the horizon with light, you can see more stars than you imagined existed and huge solar systems like clouds strung across the sky.

Not my photo but you get the idea (click image for source)

The next day we packed up and took the slow route through everything we sped past the night before. Hikes (as much as my leg would let me), viewpoints, canyons, fossil beds and tons of great places to stop and take photos. The weather was perfect for walking around in, sky was bright and blue with a few clouds (excellent for taking pictures), and we had a pretty good lunch at the Cedar Pass Lodge, where the other campground is located.

For wildlife, the Badlands did not disappoint and although you may not usually go on dirt roads on your road trips, Sage Creek Road has the majority of animals on it. Bison herds the like of Yellowstone, a prairie dog city,  pronghorn and hawks were regular sights on that long drive and is also has some of the best view points in the park. I’m glad they haven’t paved it because it keeps the majority of tourists away but if you are the adventurist type, take Sage Creek Road and turn around at the campground 12 miles in.

People are strange:

When we were in Sheridan Wyoming, we met a man as he got his 5th wheel ready to leave. We told him we were on our way to Dodge City and the Badlands and he proceeded to tell us how incredibly ugly the Badlands are. I was a bit shocked. Having never seen it in person I still knew it would be one of my favorite places in the country. I love strangeness, geology, history and the otherwordliness of places like that. He also considered the Sheridan area ugly. All he could see was dried, dead grass where I saw striking yellow and golden fields, rustic fences, old historic buildings and the awesome Bighorn mountains in the background. It’s hard to remember that some people just want to see green gardens and waterfalls while people like us are seeking out mars. To each their own, so I’ve heard.

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