Why You Absolutely Need to Camp in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland
By Robbie DeGraff
A version of this article previously appeared on Robby Around the World.
The greatest, best, and most beautiful place I've ever car camped was on top of a cliff in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Here's what you need to know.
Over the past few years, I've been ever so grateful to cross-off several national parks, state parks, national monuments, national historic parks and sites, county parks, wildlife refuges- just about any slice of public lands I can break ground in with my hiking boots. But I've never been to a national grassland, and gosh I'm so glad I took the time to do so on a recent trip out to other worldly Badlands National Park and humbling Wind Cave National Park on the western edge of South Dakota, deep in the Black Hills National Forest. Again, more public lands open to exploration.
After camping in the developed campground inside Badlands National Park for two nights, Brenna and I were craving more solitude for our third night of our by way of wagon travels. So a few nights before loading up my black Saab 9-2x with outdoor gear, I hopped on FreeCampsites.com, plugged in our location, and found a jaw-dropping dispersed camping area called the Badlands Overlook, inside the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. It soon turned out to be the most incredible spot I've ever pitched a tent while not backpacking.
What is it?
Buffalo Gap National Grassland sits on 600,000 acres sprawled across southwestern South Dakota and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Its the second largest protected national grassland and dotted with endless miles of stunning prairie and chalk-colored geological formations identical to those found in nearby Badlands National Park. All of this, every single acre of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, is open for your to explore by foot, bike, or horse. It's a wonderful blotch of public lands for a day trip or a multiple-night backpacking expedition into the backcountry, where you don't need a permit. You'll witness vibrant colors everywhere, abundant wildlife, old homesteads and windmills, puzzling rock formations straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. National grasslands are incredibly important for the economy too, generating some $10.3 billion dollars as a direct result from outdoor recreation.
How much does it cost?
Like most National Forest land, unless posted, dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (and the 17 other designated national grasslands encompassing four million acres) is completely free. But, you should buy an annual national parks pass anyways because those are your dollars going directly towards supporting your public lands. Make Teddy Roosevelt proud.
How do I get there?
The enormous national grassland shares a southern border with Badlands National Park (see my piece here on Parks & Points, Why Badlands is My National Park.)
If you're coming from inside Badlands National Park, continue west on the main Badlands Loop Road. Right before the pavement ends, veer right towards the park's Pinnacles Entrance station and continue driving north on SD 240. At this point you will be in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (look for the sign). The entrance to the dispersed camping area we're talking about here, Badlands Overlook, is located on the right/east side of the road. When you start to see tall cell towers, keep a close eye out for dirt road #7170. When you arrive at #7170 seen below (or #7175), you'll immediately notice a barbed wire fence blocking the road. This is to control free range cattle, so you'll need to get out and move the fence out of the way, drive through, and then replace the fence, securing it tight. It is imperative and mandatory you follow this step, replacing the fence right after you drive through. The U.S. Forest Service occasionally will close this dispersed camping area if the barbed wire fence is neglected and not replaced. Don't be that one guy, or gal. Once you're piloting your vehicle, 4x4 recommended, down the bumpy dirt road, it's open game for setting up camp. Most will park along the tops of the cliffs that overlook into the Badlands. GPS coordinates are 43.890031, -102.226789.
What can I expect?
A pure, remote car camping experience like none other. Spending a night here, above a steep cliff in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland was one of the most memorable, surreal, and fascinating times I've had in the outdoors, blowing away all other car camping I've done at state and national parks in the past. We drove about ten minutes along a dirt road the skirts its way along the top of the cliffs to find the perfect spot, a peninsula like patch of land with drop offs in all directions just feet from our tent. Chances are you'll see very few other people that are "in the know" about this hidden treasure, and if you do, there's plenty of room to spread out. When we were there the last week of August, there were a few other camper vans, tents, and one or two bigger campers being pulled behind some behemoth of a heavy duty pickup truck. There's no noise, no sounds of generators, no artificial light, no commotion- just silence. With our Coleman Flatwoods II tent pitched and Yakima's new SlimShady awning they generously mailed me to review, deployed from the roof of my station wagon, we set up two chairs, a 'table' and cracked open a few cold Potosi beers. But before jumping into dinner, the most amazing sunset I've ever seen filled the sky. It instantly felt like a dream, as the sky exploded with reds and oranges, casting a soft golden hour glow onto Buffalo Gap's rolling prairies. We slowly ventured into the grassland towards the slow falling sun that brought out the shadows of the dark Black Hills, visible on the way distant horizon. It was a sight so good, it gave me the chills. The seclusion and solitaire experienced here at the Badlands Overlook was gripping, almost hypnotizing.
Anything else I should know?
Oh yes, there are a few important considerations you need to take into effect when planning a trip here:
First, there's no water anywhere, so make sure you have your 5 gallon jug filled up to the max.
This is about as primitive as it gets when camping. There's zero development, no bathrooms, electrical hook-ups, floating park rangers, trails, dumpsters for trash, nothing- just open wilderness for you to love and enjoy.
There are no fires allowed, so bring a gas stove.
It can be INSANELY windy. Yes, I felt childish spelling that out with my caps lock key engaged, but 'tis true. The closer you pitch a tent or camp near the cliffs, the windier it will be. When we were there, our tent was fighting a fierce battle with unthinkably strong gusts of probably 40-50 mph winds. No joke.
Buy a topographic map of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands online or at the visitor center in Badlands National Park. It's green, reliable, and will be your trusty friend.
Have an all-wheel-drive or 4x4 vehicle with decent ground clearance. You don't want to get stuck on some of the rough roads when navigating through the grassland.
Since this dispersed camping area is so under-the-radar, please consciously practice Leave No Trace. Respect this special national grassland and what it has to offer you.
Buffalo Gap National Grassland is located close to many other fantastic public lands you can easily reach, including Badlands National Park (~2 miles, 5 minutes) , Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (~29 miles, 30 minutes), Wind Cave National Park (~111 miles, 2 hours), and Jewel Cave National Monument (~113 miles, 2 hours).
I truly hope this post and its accompanying photos encourage you to get out and visit a national grassland near you. They're spectacular, should never be dismissed or ignored, and deserve the upmost appreciation and admiration that all of our national parks get.
Robby DeGraff is a journalist from Milwaukee, WI who writes about cars and the outdoors, with bylines on automotive sites like Hooniverse.com, Cars.com, PickupTrucks.com, and Scale Auto Magazine, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He frequently posts on his own travel blog, RobbyAroundTheWorld.com and is currently authoring a guidebook to all of Wisconsin's state parks, forests, and recreation areas. Whether it be backpacking, hiking, camping or skiing, Robby is always trying to get outdoors and explore this beautiful planet.