Who doesn’t love free camping? To the north of Badlands National Park is the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. There is free camping allowed on most federally owned properties. Buffalo Gap National Grassland is no different.
The views here are stunning! We’re parked on top of a ridge overlooking the canyons. Our campsite is only about 10 feet from the canyon edge, (Yikes!) but I think we have the best view in the place. Sitting in lawn chairs and relaxing is our favorite pastime.
There are a lot of other campers here and it can be a busy place with everyone looking for free camping. However, there are acres and acres of places to park so no one is ever too close. Our closest neighbor is probably 300 feet away from us.
Don’t forget to follow the rules!
- Always camp in places where others have camped before so you don’t trample new grass and harm the natural ecosystem.
- Be aware of fire danger. Don’t start a fire without a fire ring and always, always be sure it’s completely cold before you leave. (You’ll have to pack in your firewood as there’s none to be found in a prairie.)
- Pick up trash, even if it’s not your own. If you pack it in, pack it out!
- Leave your campsite better than it was before you arrived.
- Leave only your footprint.
Getting to the Free Camping
Highway 240 is the loop that goes through Badlands National Park. Taking Exit 110 (Highway 240) off of Highway 90 and travelling south is the best way to reach the dispersed camping. Go about 6 miles south of the City of Wall and to the right you’ll see a hill with several cell towers. There are two entrances to the left and both have turquoise cattle guards. Turn in the gravel road and find a spot along “the wall” overlooking part of the Badlands. The second entrance is about a quarter of a mile before the Pinnacle Entrance to the National Park. Coordinates are approximately 43.89496, -102.229812.
If you want to travel through the Park on your way to your dispersed camping site, you can use Highway 240. Its slow going and a twisty highway but there are a lot of RV’s on the road. We preferred to set up camp and then take our car to drive through the Park. It was a little easier.
Buffalo Gap National Grasslands is just that: a large short grass prairie. There were wildflowers and different grasses blooming when we were there in June. Other than enjoying the views we took numerous hikes along the road.
The real reason you want to camp here is to see Badlands National Park. Just a quarter of a mile south of the dispersed camping area is the Pinnacle Entrance to the Park. The Highway 240 loop takes you about 26 miles through the Park. Entrance fees are now (in 2020) $30 per car. The Senior America the Beautiful national park pass has paid for itself in just two trips through the park. Jim drove once so I could look and I drove once so Jim could look. If we didn’t do that, we would have certainly ended up at the bottom of one of the canyons!
The views are spectacular and there are numerous places to stop and take pictures. There are a couple of hiking trails through the rock formations, but they looked a little too strenuous for an old Boomer like me. Highway 240 winds through the Park and eventually returns to Highway 90.
Wall, South Dakota, is also the home of the infamous Wall Drug Store. Wall Drug started in 1931 and their “Burma Shave” type signs along the highway have made them THE place to stop on your journey across the prairie. They long ago moved past being a pharmacy and soda shop. Now they have souvenirs, a restaurant, and things to delight young and old. It’s a true tourist stop.
There are signs on the road to watch for long horned sheep. Jim spent hours with his binoculars searching for some, but the only ones we saw were in the National Park itself. It did, however, keep him out of trouble for a while. The Park also had a small herd of buffalo.
A few problems
I should mention that we did encounter a few problems. If you don’t like the wind, this might not be the place to camp. What they say about the wind blowing across the prairie is true. The only time the wind didn’t blow was when it was 96 degrees and we really wanted a breeze. A note, I don’t think it’s usually that hot in June, but the weather is changing everywhere. We’ll have to adapt.
After a few days we noticed that we had a small, mousy nighttime visitor. After all, we are parked in a huge field and field mice abound. We’re traveling with our cat, Lucy. She contently watched him in the corner of the cabinet, but never even tried to catch him. I guess her only purpose in life is to sleep on our knees when we’re in bed so we awake all cramped up. Oh, well. We encouraged him to move out with a little well-placed mice poison. Poor guy! He should have stayed in the prairie grass.
Another disadvantage, if you can call it that, is that this grassland is commercially grazed. We had cattle visiting and depositing an occasional cow patty around our RV. I actually enjoyed watching the cows and their calves, which seem to have no fear about walking down the steep sides of the canyons. Made me nervous!
Finally, we experienced our first prairie thunder storm. We’re from Texas and thought Texas storms were bad but what we experienced in the Badlands was frightening. We had wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph and the wind came from every direction. The canvas coverings on our slides blew so hard they made a fearful noise and almost ripped out. One of our smaller windows actually did. We’ve been in heavy winds before but nothing like this. I was sure we were going over the cliff. Thankfully, the morning revealed little damage.
By the way, this place is pretty remote. The small town of Wall (pop.856) is the nearest town. It has a very small grocery store and an Ace Hardware, and, of course, several restaurants. The nearest Walmart is about 58 miles away in Rapid City.
Will we stay here again?
Free, free, free! This dispersed camping site is reasonably quiet, has great views, and did we mention, free? Yes, we will definitely stop here again in the future. The views were memorable.