Sage Creek is one of just two campgrounds in Badlands National Park and not only is it the picture of stunning natural beauty, it's free!
When planning our visit to Badlands National Park (our first national park!), I decided to give this free campground called Sage Creek Campground a try. Keep in mind, I had minimal camping experience to begin with, let alone any experience with free campgrounds, so this definitely felt a little risky. But, I figured the worst-case scenario would be that we find a paid campground nearby if this one didn't work out - like if it was full by the time we got there or because it felt too... primitive.
However, worst-case scenario didn't happen! We ended up staying for two nights at Sage Creek and it was by far one of our favorite campgrounds we stayed at during our 83-day trip out west! Here are all the details about this magical campsite tucked away inside the gorgeous Badlands National Park.
Sage Creek is one of two campgrounds actually within Badlands National Park, the other being Cedar Pass. Cedar Pass is a paid campground that usually needs to be booked weeks (if not months) in advance. Sage Creek, on the other hand, is totally free and its 22 campsites are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. I had no idea how this whole first-come-first-serve thing would actually play out, and if I'm being honest, I didn't have high hopes for our success. Considering Cedar Pass, which contains significantly more campsites, was completely booked up, I imagined we wouldn't be able to actually score a spot at Sage Creek.
But, we did! We arrived around 4:00 PM on a Friday in August and we didn't have an issue finding a spot at all. Like, at least 50% of the spots were still open! That kind of blew my mind. Especially considering it was a Friday in late summer! I forget exactly why we arrived at the campground so late, because I remember thinking while planning this, "Well, if it's first-come-first-serve, we better get there as early as possible to make sure we get a spot!" The issue with that logic though, I later realized, is that it doesn't necessarily give the campers from the previous night enough time to pack up and leave! So it turns out we arrived at the perfect time. If you plan on visiting Sage Creek, I'd recommend arriving sometime in the early afternoon because it did end up filling up by the end of the day.
Despite being in the middle of Badlands National Park, the campground is pretty remote. But it's not difficult to reach and it's a beautiful drive, albeit a bit long and bumpy. If you're coming from Wall, South Dakota, it'll take you about 30 minutes to reach the campground and it's about an hour from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the national park. No matter which direction you come from though, you'll have to travel along 10-15 miles of gravel roads. You'll have to take it slow, but there's plenty of scenic turnouts to appreciate the view! And it's easy to reach too - simply entering 'Sage Creek Campground' into Google Maps will lead you straight there. Just make sure you do it while you still have cell phone service because there won't be any at the campground!
It's so cool to watch the crowds and the number of cars get smaller and smaller as you drive to the campground - it's like driving into a little private oasis in the middle of one of the most impressive national parks in the country! And then when you finally get there, boy is it impressive. The majority of the campsites are spread around a cul-de-sac at the end of a road, maybe about a mile from the "main" road (if you can even call it that) surrounded by grassy hills and LOTS of wildlife!
For starters, there are tons of prairie dog mounds right around the campsites. You're practically sharing your tent space with the prairie dogs! It's so cute and cool. They're so fun to watch and, don't worry, they mind their own business.
But not only are there prairie dogs, there are also BISON. And I'm not just talking one or two here and there. When we pulled up to the campground for the first time, there was a whole herd of bison on a hill directly across from the campsites. And they stayed until morning! This was by far the coolest thing about Sage Creek Campground.
It was such a surreal experience because I don't think "herd" sightings like that are normal. Throughout the rest of our time in the park we encountered a few bison here and there but they were always alone! The fact that we were amongst maybe a hundred of them at once was mind-blowing. And we were extra lucky too because, by morning, the herd was gone! I felt kinda bad for the people who came to Sage Creek the next night because they had no idea what they missed!
As far as facilities go, I was super impressed. It was a REALLY nice and well-kept campground in general and the fact that it was FREE made everything even more impressive. There are two vault toilets which were shockingly clean. Not to mention they were well stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer! We may as well have been at a hotel! I loved to see garbage and recycling bins too - it's always great when you don't have to haul out your trash.
Each individual campsite had a picnic table which is such a pleasant surprise for a free campground! It seems so silly to even mention that the campground provided picnic tables, but it's honestly a campground luxury. About half of the picnic tables were covered and we were lucky enough to secure a site with a covered picnic table which was nice to have some shade.
I will say that the one important thing they don't have at Sage Creek Campground is water. But it's not a big deal at all as long as you're prepared ahead of time - just make sure you bring it in! You can get water at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (there's a spout on the side of the building) or in Wall, South Dakota. Keep in mind that Wall is only a half-hour away while the visitor center is closer to an hour. Our go-to water refill spot was the Wall Food Center because they had a place to refill up our gallon jugs, meaning we didn't have to buy new ones each time!
We spent the first night drinking some local beer and wine (Buffalo Wisdom red wine and Pile O' Dirt Porter if you were wondering) and finishing up a block of authentic Wisconsin cheese we picked up last-minute at Le Coulee Cheese Castle in West Salem, Wisconsin. The whole campground had a really friendly vibe and people didn't hesitate to strike up little conversations. So it definitely wasn't a super quiet night, but it was actually really comforting to hear the light chitter-chatter of other groups. I'm personally not into complete silence when camping - it's just too eerie! Sage Creek was that magical campground combination of beautiful natural surroundings and friendly, like-minded people.
After sleeping under the clearest sky with those bison still grazing close by, Ryan and I woke up before the sunrise and decided to hike up one of the hills surrounding the campground. It wasn't a super difficult climb, and it was SO worth it. Hardly anybody else was out and about so early, and we watched the most beautiful sunrise from our high vantage point.
There are plenty of well-treaded paths all around the campground; if you do stay at Sage Creek, you have to check out at least one of them. (You can't beat a nice hike at sunrise or sunset)!
Our second night was slightly less magical, though partially due to our own ineptitude. And actually, it wasn't even that bad. We just really got to know South Dakota weather. During the day, the weather was consistently great, but the evenings were prone to crazy lightning storms. And yeah, lightning storms are a thing. These aren't like typical thunderstorms because lightning just lights up the whole sky for hours at a time and you don't think it's going to rain but then... it does.
One of these storms happened on our second night, and knowing we didn't have a rain fly for our tent (we forgot to pack it), we ended up spending the night in the car! We packed up everything but the tent (we knew we'd need to get a new one anyway, so we figured, why bother?) and hurried into the car, just beating the downpour. It was a little disappointing that we didn't get to spend another beautiful night outside in the tent, but that was totally outweighed by the fact that we made it into the car in time to not end up totally drenched for the night. Plus, it was actually pretty neat to watch the lightning from the car!
Despite this not-so-ideal-but-still-not-that-bad ending to our short stay at Sage Creek, I'd go back again in a heartbeat. It's an incredibly beautiful campground with fantastic facilities (read: clean vault toilets) in one of my favorite national parks. If you're planning a visit to Badlands, consider staying a night at Sage Creek! It's a little unnerving at first, but words can't really explain how exciting it is to drive up to this wild and free (figuratively and literally) piece of land, claim a spot, set up your tent, and sleep among the wildlife and the stars - no reservations or credit cards required.