Badlands National Park, South Dakota


Feb 1, 2014
Back in 2011 I went backpacking with my kids in Badlands National Park. They were still in college at the time. It was Labor Day weekend and the plan was to do a 20 mile loop through the Sage Creek Wilderness. One daughter has a set of rules that she requires me to agree to when we go hiking together. One rule is that she gets to lead (so that she can set the pace). The other is that she has the right of refusal. Basically I think she's convinced that I'm going to want us to do something stupid (I can't imagine where she might have gotten the idea) and she wants to be able to veto it. I enjoy hiking with her so much that I always agree to the rules. The first rule was broken right out of the gate. At the trail head there is a sign indicating that rattlesnakes are resident and to beware. She decided that it would be prudent for me to take the lead this one time. She has rarely exercised the right of refusal, but this was one trip where she did and it occurred just a few miles from the trail head when we reached a cliff band. We were following a track I had down loaded from the internet and the place where the person had crossed the cliff band involved scaling a very steep, sketchy looking arroyo. I cast around up and down the cliff line and could find nothing better and so, of course, I wanted to try the climb - and she refused. Both daughters did. So, I honored the rule and we retreated to find a good camp site to spend the night. I have really good memories of that trip back in 2011. It was a relaxing and wonderful time with my kids and the last backpacking trip I've made with both of them together. From the treasured memories, the perspective of 6 years, and having made the cliff line now, I'm glad I honored the rule and we didn't try to climb the cliff.

But, I was still really disappointed not to have made the loop and ever since I've been wanting to go back and try again. The trip to do that fell together at the last minute. My boss gave me a couple days notice that he was sending me on a trip across the State the day before Thanksgiving. When I realized this would cover a lot of ground toward getting to the Badlands, I told my wife about my plan to go hiking. She said she would make excuses for me at the family event on Thanksgiving and the trip was on.

Badlands National Park is made up of two sections. The southern section is on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation and is jointly administered by the Tribe and the National Park Service. It's basically undeveloped and much less visited than the northern section but has some unique things about it. The main road accessing it is called Bombing Range Road. The road runs through an area that the U.S. Air Force used as a bombing range to prepare plane crews during WWII before sending them to Europe. You can clearly see on Google Earth where bombs exploded and how thoroughly they bombed the place. It's shocking that the terrain has not recovered in 75 years. Of course, hiking there involves the possibility of encountering unexploded ordinance. This section is also called "The Stronghold Unit" because this is where the Sioux would retreat when pursued by the U.S. Army during the 1800's. In spite of General Custer, the army was generally able to recognize when they were in terrain where they were susceptible to being ambushed and would almost never pursue the Sioux into the Badlands. Perhaps the army has a long memory and decided to get some measure of revenge by bombing the crap out of it during WWII. While some National Parks exist to commemorate historic battle sites, I doubt that any other National Parks were former bombing ranges. I suppose it says something about the power of government and how scenic unpopulated areas were viewed in the 20th century. Not to mention Native Americans, treaties, and reservation lands. Considering what's happening with National Monuments in Utah, maybe views haven't changed all that much.

My hike was going to be in the northern unit, but I didn't think I could make it to the northern unit before dark so I began looking at where I could stay in the southern unit. I decided on Sheep Mountain. There is a road going to the top of Sheep Mountain leaving from Bombing Range Road. The first half of the road can be negotiated by any vehicle but the second half requires a high clearance 4wd vehicle. The views were reputedly spectacular up there so I made my way there and was the only person up there that night.

There were dark skies at Sheep Mountain and a very visible milky way.
PB221028-1 Panorama.jpg

Sunrise from the same spot the next morning. PB231038-Pano.jpg

Another view of the sunrise from a different angle. PB231060-Pano.jpg

Same view a half hour later. PB231154-Pano.jpg

View from the road leaving Sheep Mountain PB233304-Pano.jpg

I saw more large wildlife than I've seen on any other backpacking trip. beginning with this herd of bighorn sheep along the road on my way to the trail head.
There are only a few trails in Badlands N.P. This technically isn't one of them. The loop I planned to do was from a GPS track down loaded from the Backpacker Magazine website in 2011 or earlier. I'm obviously not the only person to have done that. I ended up following this human trail which closely followed the GPS track for about 1/3 of the way, buffalo trails for about 1/3 of the way, and completely off any kind of trail for about 1/3 of the way. This picture was taken about a mile from the trail head.

The area in the middle of the bow where the treeline can be seen is called "Deerhaven" on the USGS map. The cliff line above the treeline is where we got cliffed out in 2011. I thought that maybe my chances of getting through it would be better by coming at it from the other side so I skipped Deerhaven on the front end of the trip PB233321-Pano.jpg

This is an up close view of the high peak on the left side of the previous picture. I needed to have put something in it for perspective. I think it's somewhere between 100 and 200 feet tall. PB233339-Pano.jpg

Almost no trees in this landscape. PB233350-Pano.jpg

This boundary line is not on my USGS map. Looking back now, I regret that I crossed under it onto private property to take a short cut to get back inside the park. PB233353.jpg

Back onto NPS property and following a fence line on my left just out of the picture. The fence line eventually came to this cliff line to cross it. I was astonished to see that the GPS track followed the fence up a very steep hill. I didn't think it was doable, but after casting around a little I decided that one hill was less steep than everything around it. I tried that and it went.PB233357-Pano.jpg

This picture was taken farther on at a ridge line between basins looking back at where I had come.PB233360-Pano.jpg

This picture was taken at the same spot looking forward. The goal is to get on the grassland on the other side of this erosion area. I don't know if I was on a human trail or a buffalo trail at this point but it delivered me to the other side. I quickly found out that buffalo trails follow the easiest route and even if they're headed for a cliff there will be a good way up or down as the case may be. PB233364.jpg

I saw this grave on the USGS map and purposely made my way here away from the GPS track I had been following. This was on top of a hill with a nice view all around, but it's in a very lonely location. The only regular visitors appear to be buffalo. The park service erected a barbed wire fence around it to protect it from the buffalo, but the buffalo were pretty much on their way to destroying the barbed wire fence.PB233371-Pano.jpg

This was the first water I saw. I saw a lot of puddles the next day but all of them were very muddy. All had numerous buffalo track and many had buffalo chips in the water. The Park Service recommends carrying all the water you need because they say that water in the backcountry can't be filtered. The sediment will not settle. I carried 8 litres for 2 days. I ended with almost 2. I had originally thought that the loop might take me more than 2 days to complete. If I had spent another night, I think I would have used it all. There were buffalo track everywhere at this water hole and several buffalo trails can be seen coming to it. PB233375.jpg

I set up camp on top of this little hill about a half mile or so from the water hole. PB233393-Pano.jpg

Sunset that evening. PB233484-Pano.jpg

It produced a nice glow on the hills behind me. PB233516-Pano.jpg


The Milky Way was again easily seen. I think the lights on the horizon were from Rapid City which was about 50 miles away.
PB233559 Panorama.jpg

There was a nice sunrise the next morning.

I had hoped to see some buffalo up close while I was hiking. While I was trying to make and eat breakfast in the wind I noticed a dust cloud forming in that area which was just over a hill. At the time I saw it, it reminded me of dust clouds on windy days in NM when I was a kid. But, pretty soon a buffalo came over the hill. Then there were 5. Then 10. Then 20. Then 30 and they were all walking right toward me. And they kept coming and they kept coming straight toward me. It began to freak me out and I started to think about what I could possibly do. There was absolutely nowhere to hide and nothing to climb. So, I started throwing my stuff in the pack as fast as I could when they finally broke a little to one side. They all went and stood on a little hill opposite me not very far away. This picture was taken when I first saw them coming.PB243705.jpg

Here they're going up on the hill just a little ways away. They all stopped and stood facing me but what really un-nerved me was that one big bull made a short charge down the hill in my direction. He came about ¼ of the way to me. That seemed pretty aggressive to me and so I really started pushing stuff into the pack. After I got home I was telling this story to friend who had some ranching experience with buffalo. He asked me what their tails were doing. I told him that I was paying more attention to the end with the horns. He told me that if buffalo hold their tails out straight they're disturbed, and if they hold them up they're about to come to try to kill you. When I showed him this picture he said (with a hint of disappointment in his voice) that they didn't appear to be even mildly bothered by me.PB243712.jpg

Even if they weren't even mildly bothered I was. They’re way bigger than cows and it’s a lot different seeing them when you’re not in a car and there’s no fence between them and you and they're not even a hundred feet away. After I got everything in the pack, I put it on and started around the hill I was on to the opposite side of them. As soon I as I started walking they did too and we walked parallel for a while. They went straight ahead and the terrain eventually allowed me to move away from them. I ended up dodging buffalo almost all day that day. PB243714.jpg

I eventually got on this buffalo trail away from the herd. PB243715.jpg

My last view of the herd I had been hiking with.

A lot of the Badlands formations are made of this combination of soil and rock. PB243721.jpg

I eventually turned the corner and could see the cliff line in the distance that had stopped me 6 years before. I went to the left around this erosion area PB243734-Pano.jpg

To encounter more buffalo. They're the dark dots on the grassland in the distance. PB243736-Pano.jpg

There was also a big herd of big-horned sheep PB243739-Pano.jpg

More buffalo. PB243745.jpg

More buffalo.

Typical terrain heading for the cliff line.PB243763-Pano.jpg

I thought that with all of the buffalo I should eventually come across the remains of one.

This is standing on top of the cliff line looking back the way I had come. I came up the creek bed in the middle of the picture.PB243806-Pano.jpg

This was taken standing on top of the cliff line looking down into Deerhaven PB243815.jpg

The way down was not very obvious to me. Failing to come up with anything better I ended up making an uncontrolled slide down the ravine into the cedar tree on the left. After I walked down to this point and looked back I saw this path going up to the cliff line. I didn't go back up to try it, but hopefully it's better than what I came down. I think that if there's one place on this route that you can't afford to miss, this spot is it. If there's another way through this cliff line I don't think it's nearby. Going down from here the bushwack through the trees was nasty. PB243816-Pano.jpg

Nice view once you get out of the trees looking left.PB243827-Pano.jpg

Looking right. PB243828-Pano.jpg

Back down on the grass. PB243840-Pano.jpg

Headed back to the trail head. PB243917-Pano.jpg

Sunset from the parking lot.
I saw quite a bit of wildlife driving out.
PB251330.jpg PB251370.jpg

Not so scary from a car.

Last views of the Badlands.
PB251347 Panorama.jpg


  • Badlands Day 1.gpx
    98.2 KB · Views: 51
  • Badlands Day 2.gpx
    111.1 KB · Views: 42
Last edited:


Jun 11, 2017
Wow, buffalo delight! What a fantastic place and your pictures are equally fantastic. Those guys are truly scary - have been up close to them, but it was through a hot-wire fence (buffalo ranch) and I was still scared to death.

So, now BCP has a buffalo whisperer to go along with @Cuberant, our moose whisperer. Thanks for sharing!


Formerly Cuberant
Aug 8, 2016
Fascinating area! Thanks for the great report and pics.

Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk


Colorado Plateau is calling...
Feb 3, 2017
That is such a sweet park (as is Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota).
Great TR!!


Feb 1, 2014
A couple of years ago my son and I did the same route you did. It was a great loop! We also came across that old grave, I looked it up after I got home.

We also drove out on the Sheep Mountain road and hiked the peak at the end of the road.

That was an interesting article about the grave.Compared to the picture in the article, the site has fallen into some disrepair. I did notice that someone had tried to plant at least one bush or plant at the grave but it didn't look to me like it took.

Did you have any trouble crossing the cliff line at Deerhaven?

I would like to have spent more time at Sheep Mountain but was anxious to get started with my hike. If I'm ever out there again I think I'll make a point to make time.


Colorado Plateau is calling...
Feb 3, 2017
Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota is on my bucket list. I'm hoping this year is the year I make it out there.
I've got friends who used to live near TRNP and they said the north unit is more beautiful than the south unit. I've only done a little bit in the south unit and it wasn't a long trail, but it was really beautiful and quiet.


Nov 23, 2015
I prefer the north unit to the south. I like the south unit, too, though.

Thanks for posting the pictures. Did you ever see any rattlesnakes? I'm worried about them, like your daughter.

I assume you carry a tripod, to get photos of the milky way. I'd love to do that. The two milky way photos were my favorites!



Feb 8, 2012
Did you have any trouble crossing the cliff line at Deerhaven?

We came up the same stream bed as you did. Once on top, we found a way down that wasn't too steep. Had packs on and was able just to hike down.


Feb 1, 2014
I prefer the north unit to the south. I like the south unit, too, though.

Thanks for posting the pictures. Did you ever see any rattlesnakes? I'm worried about them, like your daughter.

I assume you carry a tripod, to get photos of the milky way. I'd love to do that. The two milky way photos were my favorites!


Since this trip was at the end of November, it was too cold for them to be out. However, the other time, 6 years ago, was at the beginning of September and it was plenty warm for them, but we never saw any. I've done a lot of hiking in places where rattlesnakes were common and have never had trouble with them. I've rarely seen them and when I did see them, it was usually by accident and they were hiding or they were trying to get away and posed absolutely no threat. But the Badlands has Prairie Dogs and rattlesnakes prey on those. If I were in an area with Prairie dogs I would be on the lookout for snakes. Otherwise, I don't think you can ever predict where they might be.

I do carry a tripod. I used to have a really lightweight one but have misplaced it somewhere and can't find it so I carried a much heavier one on this trip. One unusual benefit of a tripod on a trip like this is that I hang my food on it when I'm in camp which is great in a treeless landscape like this. Rodents can be anywhere.


Feb 1, 2014
We came up the same stream bed as you did. Once on top, we found a way down that wasn't too steep. Had packs on and was able just to hike down.

Interesting. Maybe I should have looked around a little more.


Forever Wandering
Apr 8, 2015
Glad you got to do that hike Curt! I remember talking it over with you in the past. Someday I'd like to give it a try myself. As usual, very nice pictures.


May 16, 2016
I got to see a little bit of the badlands as we drove across SD, the half day we spent there was great, I'd love to go back and spend more time. Nice photos and report, thanks


I lava it!!!
Jan 19, 2012
I really like Badlands NP. Unfortunately, I only did a few day hikes when I was there camping in the park about 2 years ago.
But even with the day hikes it was a great experience.
And I saw a really big fat rattlesnake and was super happy about it because I love snakes.
Great images and trip report. This park really has a lot to offer
Similar threads
Thread starter Title Forum Replies Date
Ross Arizona/Utah road trip loop with sandstone/badlands/canyon hikes Hiking & Camping 14
R Badlands and black hills Backpacking 8
Ross Badlands Hiking & Camping 7
Noun Sequitur Lybrook Badlands Everything Else 0
C New Mexico badlands Trip Planning 1
piper01 Bisti Badlands Wilderness Area, New Mexico Hiking & Camping 5
ROKTAXI Bisti Badlands 3/2015 Hiking & Camping 5
futurafree government shutdown effects on national forests? General Discussion 21
BJett Packrafting the Obed National Wild & Scenic River - Tennessee On The Water 1
fossana New Baaj Nwaavjo I'tah Kukveni National Monument General Discussion 4
J York Fire, Mojave National Preserve. Aug 2023 Resource Discussions 3
Janice Field Trip - Washington Post podcast about national parks General Discussion 0
I Rescue Creek - Yellowstone National Park - June 3, 2023 Backpacking 15
scatman Rescue Creek - Yellowstone National Park - June 3, 2023 Backpacking 56
TractorDoc Cuyahoga Valley National Park (again!) 06/04/2023 Hiking & Camping 6
TractorDoc Cuyahoga Valley National Park 05/28/2023 Hiking & Camping 20
scatman Rescue Creek - Yellowstone National Park Meet Up (Members Only) 19
D Need suggestions -Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forrest, and Phillipsburg, MT Trip Planning 5
Ted California couple killed in Yosemite National Park rockslide identified by park officials General Discussion 0
NorthwestWanderer Backpacking Grand Teton National Park : Fossil Pass,Fox Creek Pass,Indian Lake,Alaska Basin,Hurricane Pass,Ice Floe Lake,& Snowdrift Lake Backpacking 19
fossana New National Monument planned in Southern NV General Discussion 3
canadug Hiker death in Zion National park :( Hiking & Camping 32
F Frontenac National Park, Quebec, Canada Hiking & Camping 2
J Mojave National Preserve Monsoon Aug. 3, 2022 Trip Planning 2
scatman Shoshone Lake Lollipop Loop - Yellowstone National Park - July 24, 2022 Backpacking 63
Absarokanaut Flooding in Yellowstone National Park and Adjacent Areas of Montana Today June 13, 2022 General Discussion 82
Dreamer El Yunque National Forest Hiking & Camping 3
Rockskipper pay-for-bot-scanning services for National Park campsites - interesting comments General Discussion 1
BJett Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area Packraft/Backpack Loop (TN) Backpacking 6
norwegianxplorer 7 days backpacking Breheimen/Glacier Home National Park in Norway Backpacking 2
pstm13 Rocky Mountain National Park Mid June with Kids Trip Planning 7
pstm13 Rocky Mountain National Park Mid June with Kids Trip Planning 0
Rockskipper Application Period Open For 2023 Private River Trips Through Grand Canyon National Park General Discussion 0
norwegianxplorer Backpacking SAREK NATIONAL PARK, Arctic Sweden, Camping Above RAPADALEN delta. Backpacking 7
balzaccom SAR in our national parks Trip Planning 8
S Mentasta Mountains, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve- family backpack Backpacking 1
Tim Valentine Point Reyes National Seashore December 2021 Hiking & Camping 14
scatman Grizzly Lake - Yellowstone National Park - September - 2022 Meet Up (Members Only) 149
norwegianxplorer Finding Hidden Glacier, 9 days backpacking Jotunheimen National Park Pt3, Norway. Trip Reports 0
P A short hike on the AT in Shenandoah National Park Hiking & Camping 0
norwegianxplorer Highest Mountain in Norway, Galdhøpiggen, the start of a 9 day backpacking trip in Jotunheimen national park Backpacking 0
norwegianxplorer 5 days Backpacking Rondane National Park, Norway Backpacking 3
norwegianxplorer Backpacking Norway, Femundsmarka National Park Pt 3, Grand Scandinavian Hiking & Backpacking Tour Ep4 Backpacking 0
scatman Gneiss Creek Part 2 - Yellowstone National Park - September 18, 2021 Hiking & Camping 0
norwegianxplorer Backpacking Rogen Nature Reserve, Sweden & Femundsmarka National Park, Norway Pt2 Backpacking 2
scatman Hayden Valley Loop - Yellowstone National Park - September 17, 2021 Hiking & Camping 34
scatman North Pitchstone Trail, Headwaters of Ouzel Creek, Bechler River and Mr. Bubbles(?) - Yellowstone National Park - September 13, 2021 Backpacking 36
norwegianxplorer 10 days Backpacking Femundsmarka National Park and Rogen Nature Reserve, Norway and Sweden Backpacking 8
scatman Gneiss Creek - Yellowstone National Park - September 8, 2021 Backpacking 20
TeamJenkins17 2022 Teton Wilderness/Shoshone National Forest Trip Trip Planning 0

Similar threads