Deer Haven and the Sage Creek Wilderness, Conata Picnic and Backcountry Access Parking Area, Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Deer Haven and the Sage Creek Wilderness - 6.0 miles
Conata Picnic and Backcountry Access Parking Area
|Round-Trip Length:||6.0 miles (distance will vary by route)|
|Start-End Elevation:||2,625' - 2,850' (2,850' max elevation)|
|Elevation Change:||+225' net elevation gain (total elevation gain will vary by route)|
Deer Haven and the Sage Creek Wilderness - 6.0 Miles Round-Trip
The Sage Creek Wilderness is located on the west side of Badlands National Park's North Unit. Though no maintained trails lead through Sage Creek, hikers and backpackers are free to explore this 64,000 acre unit. Sage Creek features archetypal badland terrain and abundant wildlife that includes bighorn sheep, buffalo and pronghorn.
You can legally access the Sage Creek backcountry from just about anywhere (and no permits are required), but formidable terrain makes one of two entry points the most efficient and safest options:
The Sage Creek Primitive Campground (west access) leads hikers into the open plains, where you may follow the south or middle fork of Sage Creek deep into the wilderness.
The Conata Picnic Area (east access) is an ideal launch pad for reaching Deer Haven, one of the Park's most heavily treed areas and a veritable oasis for wildlife.
Deer Haven sits atop a major uplift, which collects water that supports thick juniper forests and grasslands. Pronounced drainages originating from Deer Haven can be seen when approaching from the east. Dense timber, shade, moisture and shelter attract a variety of wildlife, and provide backpackers with (comparatively) good camping terrain.
If properly navigated, hikers can reach Deer Haven with relative ease. However, misreading terrain or private property lines can lead you on a much more demanding (and unnecessary) trek over the badlands.
While climbing the badlands is certainly a thrill, they are perilously unstable and erode easily. Routes that appear safe can quickly crumble and leave you stranded in very undesirable positions. Heavy backpacks compound these challenges, and rainstorms can make travel through the formations nearly impossible.
A topographic map and good backcountry instincts are invaluable for choosing the best routes, and avoiding the most difficult passages. Preparation and sound judgment are ultimately your best assets:
Head southeast from the trailhead into open prairie to circumvent steep badland formations. Avoid climbing whenever possible, and be mindful of rattlesnakes in the tall grass.
Once past the last badland formation, hook northwest into a flat, wide open valley known as Conata Basin (this should be clearly depicted on a good topo map).
Travel Note: There is an old fence near the last badland formation before turning into Conata Basin. This fence is not a private property marker, and can be legally crossed.
Once through the fence and in the basin, the route is fairly intuitive and clear. Deer Haven's green belt is visible from a distance, and offers reliable visual guidance.
Continue northwest through the basin and follow natural drainages right to the base of the uplift. Here you'll improvise a challenging scramble up to the green belt of Deer Haven (3.0 miles : 2,850'). Anticipate very steep grades and unstable terrain until reaching timber.
Beyond Deer Haven
Deer Haven's high perch (approximately 2,950') yields magnificent panoramas, and useful navigational insight for those traveling on.
The most efficient way deeper into the wilderness is along washes and creeks, which carve through this rugged labyrinth back into the plains.
High points over the plains and major drainages are ideal places to observe buffalo, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyote, fox and other small mammals.
Interactive GPS Topo MapKey GPS Coordinates - DATUM WGS84
- N43 50.513 W102 13.905 — Sage Creek Wilderness
- N43 50.563 W102 13.923 — Deer Haven
- N43 50.596 W102 13.921 — Enter wash below Deer Haven
- N43 50.711 W102 14.093 — Wash travel mark 1
- N43 50.786 W102 14.239 — Wash travel mark 2
- N43 50.860 W102 14.244 — Fork in wash - keep left
- N43 51.008 W102 14.581 — Wash travel mark 3
- N43 51.403 W102 15.330 — Wash travel mark 4
- N43 51.403 W102 15.330 — Fork in wash #2 - keep left
- N43 51.358 W102 15.355 — Exit wash and begin climb over butte
- N43 51.335 W102 15.782 — Sage Creek Wilderness view point
- Consult a Park Ranger before heading out, and let them know about your itinerary. It is your responsibility to know about park and private property boundaries. Though not required, it's advisable to sign the backcountry registry.
- There is no potable water in the backcountry. Any water found may not be reliably filtered due to heavy sediments. You must bring in all of your own water.
- Do not approach Bison. They are unpredictable, deceptively fast animals that may charge if threatened or agitated. Tread carefully through the grasslands. Rattlesnakes inhabit these prairies, and there are many hidden burrows that can lead to twisted ankles.
- Bring binoculars! Bighorn Sheep, Bison and Pronghorn inhabit this incredibly vast wilderness.
Directions to Trailhead
The Conata Picnic and Backcountry Access Parking Area is located off of Conata Road, approximately 1 mile south of Highway 240 (Badlands Loop Road). Conata Road is located approximately 19 miles West of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
From Conata Road, make a right turn into the Conata Picnic Area and continue to the far-west parking area. Here you will see a trailhead sign and backcountry registration for Deer Haven and the Sage Creek Wilderness.
Badlands National Park
25216 Ben Reifel Road
P.O. Box 6
Interior, SD 57750