Last updated: December 29, 2020
Nineteenth-century French trappers who described this area 'mauvaises terres a traverser' (bad lands to travel across) might regard the backcountry hiker of today with bewilderment. The spires, pinnacles, and ravines which frustrated earlier travelers provide a visual "gateway to forever" with views that can stretch over fifty miles, offering solitude and serenity. While in Badlands National Park, answer the call for those who seek to understand, firsthand, the dynamics of nature in this forbidding-looking place.
Preparing For Your Trip
- Permits are not currently required for overnight stays in the Badlands backcountry. Before setting out on an overnight trip contact a staff member at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center or Pinnacles Entrance Station for more information. Backcountry registers are located at the Medicine/Castle Trail Loop, Saddle Pass Trailhead, Conata Picnic Area, Sage Creek Basin Overlook, and the Sage Creek Campground.
- Topographic maps are strongly recommended and are available for purchase in the Badlands Natural History Association Bookstore.
- Twisted or fractured ankles are the most common serious injury sustained in Badlands National Park. Make sure you are wearing sturdy boots with good ankle support. The park is home to many burrowing animals. Watch your footing.
- Campfires are not allowed under any circumstances. Use a backpacking stove.
- Pets are not permitted on trails, in backcountry, or wilderness areas.
- The location of your campsite must be at least 0.5 miles from a road or trail and must not be visible from a roadway.
- There is little to no water available in the backcountry. The small amounts of water found are not drinkable or filterable due to the high sediment content. Always carry at least one gallon of water per person per day.
- All refuse must be carried out. Use the cat hole method to dispose of human waste. Dig a small hole 6 to 8 inches deep and a minimum of 200 feet from any water source. Since animals will often dig up cat holes and scatter the toilet paper, it is preferred that you pack out all toilet paper. If you must bury toilet paper, use a minimal amount and bury with at least 6 inches of soil. Strain food particles from wastewater, pack out food scraps, and scatter remaining water more than 200 feet from any stream channel.
- Check the weather forecast. Severe thunderstorms are common during the summer, so are days above 100ºF (38ºC). September and early October are the best backpacking months.
Common Backcountry Camping Locations
Badlands National Park is an open hike park, meaning that you are free to hike and camp off-trail as long as you stick to backcountry location rules: staying a half mile away from any roads or trails and staying out of sight. While the entire park is available to you, there are some popular routes for backcountry camping.
Deer Haven is a social trail leaving from Conata Picnic Area. Deer Haven is a 2.5-mile (one way) unmarked trail, although there is a relatively worn path to follow. The hike travels along the base of badlands formations, with buttes to the north and prairie to the south. At the end of the trail, there are a few locations to set up camp: in the prairie at the base of the buttes, on top of the buttes, or in Deer Haven, the grove of junipers halfway up the buttes for which the trail is named.
There are also many backcountry camping options in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, accessible from Sage Creek Rim Road. The park's bison live in this area and have created many game trails which are easy to follow from overlook parking areas or Sage Creek Campground. Follow the trail of your choice into the wilderness area and set up camp any time you're further than a half mile from a road and out of sight. Exercise caution when using game trails: if you encounter wildlife, be sure to maintain a distance of at least 100 feet.
Exploring the South Unit
We encourage anyone interested in backcountry hiking or camping in the South Unit to notify a ranger at the White River Visitor Center to ensure your safety and that you are not trespassing on private lands. Explorers must often cross private land to access the public land. Always obtain permission from landowners for vehicular or foot access before setting out for Cuny Table, Stronghold Table, and Palmer Creek. Be prepared with alternative destinations if land owners do not grant permission to cross their property. Hikers in the South Unit must be experienced map readers. Plan on a minimum of two days to hike in and out of the remote Palmer Creek area.
The White River Visitor Center is open seasonally, to contact please call (605) 455-2878.
Pets are permitted in Badlands National Park with some restrictions. Pets must be kept on a leash no more than six feet in length at all times. Pets are only permitted in developed areas, such as campgrounds and picnic areas, and other areas open to motor vehicles, such as gravel and paved roadways, roadway corridors, and parking lots. Pets are prohibited from hiking trails, public buildings (i.e. visitor centers), and backcountry areas, including the Badlands Wilderness Area, and areas with prairie dog colonies. Pet etiquette dictates always cleaning up animal waste and disposing of it in trash receptacles.