Sage Creek Campground is a primitive campground (no running water, pit toilets) located in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. It is located on the west end of the park, opposite of the main entrance and visitor center. There are two ways to access the campground, you can either enter the park at the main entrance and drive through the Badlands or continue on Highway 90 and get off at the Wall exit.
Note that while there is no fee for camping at Sage Creek Campground (unlike Cedar Pass Campground which charges $22+), you still need to pay to get into the park. We happened to go on the free week which is something to check on if your plans are flexible. You can view rates and fees and free days for the park here. The only place to pay to enter the park is at the main entrance (first route pictured above). Traveling to the Sage Creek Campground via the main entrance is quite a pleasant drive through the Badlands and worth doing on your way to the campground although be prepared for a long stretch of sandy, gravel roads. You’d also be missing out on the true Badlands experience if you only stayed in the Sage Creek area coming in through the back entrance. On the drive through the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (main entrance route) there are several lookouts and trails. It is about 40 miles from the main entrance of Badlands National Park to Sage Creek Campground.
What makes Sage Creek Campground unique is that the area looks much different to the traditional Badlands as you get closer to the campground. It is more hilly and grass covered with a creek intertwining the area. The campground itself is a flat, open area with a looping road around the campsites.
The most exciting part of the Sage Creek Campground are the animals. If you’ve never seen prairie dogs (lots of them) or bison up close and personal in their natural habitat you’re in for a treat. We didn’t see these animals towards the main entrance of the park, only as you got closer to the campground. The bison are very large and can be seen most times around the campground grazing. They even like to come into the campground area to eat the grass that grows under the picnic tables and are often by the road as you enter (see pictures and video below). Their hoof prints and massive poop piles can also be found around the campground. The prairie dogs have an area with their holes and it is fun to watch them interact with each other including bowing to one another. Below is a short video I took of a Bison passing through the campground.
There is a creek that runs around the campsite hence the name Sage Creek Campground. There are no marked trails around the campsites, but exploring is easy to do and not get lost since most of the land is open. There are areas of beaten down grass that you can explore around the area. If you venture off further you’ll want a compass or be sure to mark your path. However, marked trails can be found towards the main entrance of the park. We did a few of the short boardwalk hikes (Cliff Shelf, Door, and Fossil Exhibit Trails) as well as the Saddle Pass Trail, which was a somewhat challenging, but short uphill trek. We also walked on the Castle trail which was a nice flat hike offering views of the Badlands and unique features of the area.
The campsites themselves are quite nice although you will not have any privacy. Shaded picnic tables mark the campsites and no open fires are allowed although camp stoves and contained charcoal grills can be used. Campsites are on a first-come, first-serve basis after 4 pm. We explored in late April and it was nearly full on the weekend (it was nice weather), and there were just a handful of people during the week. We were told in summer that the campsite can get quite full. On each end of the campgrounds are pit toilets. There is no running water but these were the nicest pit toilets I’ve ever seen and we imagine they were either built or renovated somewhat recently. You could tell they are cleaned frequently. There was plenty of toilet paper and a garbage in the bathroom. The campsite also has containers for recycling and trash.
Given there is no water you’ll want to be sure to bring your own. If you need to fill up water you can do so at the visitors center, but this is approximately 40 miles away so you’ll want to plan accordingly. The visitor center also has nice bathrooms which we used as we were passing through and also topped off our water supply.
I imagine the Badlands can get quite hot in the summer. We were hiking when it was 60 degrees and sunny and it felt very warm. Likewise with the campsite, there is a reason that the picnic tables have awnings to protect from the sun. Sunscreen and hats are a must. Throughout the time we camped we found the area to be generally pretty windy.
I highly recommend the Sage Creek Campground if you are ok with primitive camping. It was amazing to see new animals, especially the Bison passing through the campground and was a highlight of the trip to the Badlands. If you have any questions please feel free to ask them in the comments section below! We are always happy to help fellow travelers when possible.