If you’ve ever read the Ideas on Free Camping page of my website, you know that I much prefer free campgrounds to campgrounds that charge a fee. Part of this is due to the size of my group (many campgrounds have limits as to how many people can camp in a certain campsite), and part is due to the “campground culture” that exists in most paid campgrounds and that we simply aren’t a part of. While most campers are partying all night and then sleeping in the next morning, we’re trying to hit the sack early and then get an early start on the trail. So suffice to say that paid campgrounds don’t fit our camping style very well. However, at some parks there are free campgrounds; these tend to draw campers who are less likely to be making noise at night and then trying to sleep the next morning. This isn’t to say these types of people never go to free campgrounds (believe me, I’ve seen them), but I’ve run into fewer of those types of campers at free campgrounds than those that charge a fee. One of these free campgrounds is in Badlands National Park, but is accessible to low-clearance as well as high-clearance vehicles. In this post I’d like to elaborate on the different campgrounds in Badlands National Park, focusing on the free Sage Creek Campground in the western part of the park.
There are two campgrounds recommended by the National Park Service in Badlands. The Cedar Pass Campground is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and a fee is charged per night (sites with electrical hookups cost more than those without hookups; see the national park website (http://www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/camping.htm) for the most recent fee information). The campground has 96 sites, and is managed by Forever Resorts. Group campsites are also available on a per-person fee basis. Group sites can be reserved in advance; however, the other sites are on a first-come, first-serve basis only. The advantage of this campground is that it is close to the visitor center and many of the trails, overlooks, and attractions in the developed area of Badlands. There is also running water (no showers), flush toilets, and covered picnic tables. The park website also glows about the great views from the different campsites. The disadvantages are that it is centrally located and near a lodge (so this would draw the type of campers I’m not fond of camping near—so this is an advantage to many), it may be crowded, and there are fees to stay there.
The second campground is Sage Creek Campground, which I believe is managed by the National Park Service. There is no fee for using this campground, but there are pit toilets and covered picnic tables. The sites are flat and grassy/sandy, so pitching a tent is no problem, as is getting your RV or van level for sleeping. Part of the campground is set aside for equestrians, and all sites are on a first-come, first-serve basis. The biggest disadvantage about this campground is that it’s quite a distance (about 35 miles) from the visitor center and the main attractions in Badlands. However, this keeps away many campers who don’t want to drive all that way every morning and evening, so although it can get busy, I’ve never really seen it full of people. The other disadvantage (besides pit toilets and no running water) is that it’s at the end of a dirt road in the northwest section of the park (see the map at http://www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=141403). The road is accessible to low-clearance vehicles, but closes at times during the winter and spring rains, when the road gets washed out. So, it might be a good idea to have a backup plan if you think this might be a problem. I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to talking about my own experiences in this campground and in telling you how to get there.
To get to the Sage Creek Campground, from I-90 take Exit 110 in Wall, South Dakota. Drive south on Hwy 240 for approximately 7 miles to the Pinnacles Entrance; keep driving straight for another 1-1 ½ miles to the Sage Creek Rim Road. Turn right. The junction is marked. If you find yourself driving past the Pinnacles Overlook or the Ancient Hunters Overlook, you’ve gone too far. Alternatively, from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, turn left out of the parking lot along the Badlands Loop Road. This will take you past virtually all of the pullouts and other attractions in Badlands. After about 22 miles, turn left onto Sage Creek Rim Road. Again, this junction should be marked. If you find yourself at the park entrance, you’ve gone too far. Either way, drive 12 miles down the Sage Creek Rim Road to the campground entrance road. This junction should be well marked, and it is obvious that most traffic goes to the campground, so follow the road more traveled. At the end of this road is the campground. A loop allows you to get to several campsites, each of which has a covered picnic table (very nice when the sun gets hot).
I first stayed in this campground in 1995 on our first cross-country trip. I’ve been back several times, and except for the pit toilets, it really hasn’t changed much. The picnic tables still have curving shelters over them, the ground is still dusty, and bison still wander through the sites from time to time. Sometimes whole herds will make their way among the campers, cars, and tents. My favorite was a big old bison who decided that near our campspot was the perfect place to hang out. He scratched himself on a post for a while, then lay down to take a nap right behind a “camping limits” sign. I guess he’s not bound by campground rules!
Several trails lead off towards the hills from the campground. These are mostly social trails, but I guess the view is pretty (I didn’t go with the other members of my group when they went exploring). In the mornings, I saw several photographers up and walking out to or back from photographing the sunrise. The sunset might be nice, too, although the campground itself is usually in shadow even before the sun has really set. The views from the campsites are nice enough, but aren’t of badland formations. Instead, you get to see the grassy hills that surround the area, and that would be formations if they didn’t have grass growing on them. It has its own rustic charm, if not the formations that are in the rest of the park.
The sites themselves are far enough apart that you aren’t right on top of other campers, which gives you some peace. It is probably accessible to RVs, but I’m not sure I’d recommend large RVs, as although the sites are large, they’re not really made for RVs to turn around in. It’s better for tenting and small RVs or vans.
And one of the coolest things to me: this campground was the very first place we stayed on our very first cross-country trip, as I mentioned above. And the last time we stayed there? The very same campsite we’d had on our first trip, only this was the last stop on our trip 15 years later! Sweet?
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?