U.S. National Forest Campground Guide

Buffalo Gap National Grassland

South Dakota

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Grassland Information

Visit Date: 9/6/2011

Buffalo Gap National Grassland (NG) is located in southwestern South Dakota, surrounds the Badlands National Park and is comprised of 597,178 acres. It is administered by the Nebraska National Forest supervisor's office, Rocky Mountain Region. The grassland has no developed campgrounds.

The grassland is named for the only break in a ring of foothills around the neighboring Black Hills mountain range. Bison traveled through this gap in their migrations between the Hills and prairies and thus the name. A patchwork of federal, state, and private land, Buffalo Gap NG is composed of rolling prairie, woodland draws, and dramatic rugged badlands. It offers a range of recreational opportunities from hiking to birdwatching, dispersed camping to scenic drives, hunting to photography, and more.

The Buffalo Gap NG was settled in the 1800s under a variety of "Homestead Acts," which opened the land to people, generally farmers, and helped to settle the west. A prolonged period of drought in the late 1920s into the 1930s caused some homesteads on sub-marginal (a location receiving 15 or fewer inches of annual moisture) farmland to literally dry up. During this time, Congress established the Land Utilization Program (LUP) which bought homesteads from bankrupt private owners and returned them to public land status. In the 1950s, the LUP holdings were assigned to the USDA Forest Service that was tasked with management of these sub-marginal lands. Over the years the Forest Service has established some twenty National Grasslands, including Buffalo Gap, from sub-marginal lands. "The designation of the area as National Grassland is not a description of the area as much as a statement of policy and effort to restore the area to a multiple of uses and benefits."

One indicator of the Buffalo Gap NG success in helping the land's recovery is the reintroduction of the Black-footed ferret. The Buffalo Gap NG is said to be the site of the most successful Black-footed ferret reintroduction program undertaken by the federal government. Now, there are small but sustainable populations established in several Prairie dog colonies or dog towns on the grassland.

Visitors can spend hours watching a Prairie dog colony and the interaction of associated animals such as badgers, coyotes, swift fox, pronghorn, burrowing owls, golden eagles and numerous species of hawks. These colonies, while not welcomed by ranchers, are a natural part of the grassland and provide hours of viewing for visitors. A word of caution, although Prairie dogs are cute and fun to watch, they can carry various illnesses dangerous to both humans and our pets. Maintain a safe distance from these cute critters and NEVER touch one whether alive or dead. It is suggested, if you walk through a Prairie dog colony, spray a quality DEET product on your clothes and shoes as a repellent to ticks and fleas; fleas are the primary vector for plague bacteria.

One place that draws people to Buffalo Gap NG is the Indian Creek area. Isolation and solitude are prime features of this area, attracting backcountry visitors. The peace and quiet of this place are interrupted only by the scream of a hunting hawk and bawling of a wayward calf. Rock hounds, looking for Fairburn agates, and searchers of invertebrate fossils are discovering the possibilities of this location. Indian Creek offers many possible dispersed camping sites (see table, below) but the access road into the valley usually requires a sturdy, high- clearance vehicle.

The French Creek Picnic Area is the nearest thing the grassland has to a developed campground and it has plenty of space for all types of campers. A large adjacent flat field is great for horse campers with their trailers as well as RV campers with their big motorhomes. Basically, the difference between camping at French Creek Picnic Area and a dispersed campsite is the picnic area has a vault toilet, a few picnic tables, and some shade.

The whole Buffalo Gap NG has lots of wide-open spaces that lends itself not only to dispersed camping but to exploring on horseback as well as foot. However, the grassland has few developed and designated trails. One developed trail is the Prairie Bike Trail. This mountain bike trail has two loops totaling 14 miles across a rough native soil surface. Its trail head is near the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site at exit 116 on Interstate 90.

Over 100 species of animals are found on the Buffalo Gap NG. Nature has adapted these animals to life on the grassland. Each animal has the right coloration and behavior patterns to survive in one or more of the habitats found on the grassland. Some of the "watchable" wildlife include Prairie dogs, mule and whitetail deer, pronghorn, prairie vole, snakes, coyotes, badgers, jackrabbits, gophers, lizards, porcupines, Red fox and scores of birds. Simply put, wildlife and bird-watching are great and a photographer will have fun capturing Buffalo Gap's many personalities.

The Buffalo Gap NG doesn't have a lot of developed recreational opportunities and there are no developed campgrounds. A few suggested dispersed campsites can be found in the table below. However, most areas of the grassland are open to camping. The grassland's Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) identifies routes where dispersed camping with a vehicle is permitted and there are many. What this grassland does have is lots of space, few crowds, endless horizons, and recreation possibilities limited only by your imagination.


SUPERVISOR ADDRESS 125 North Main Street Chadron, Nebraska 69337 308-432-0300 RANGER DISTRICT ADDRESS Wall 708 Main St. POB 425 Wall, SD 57790 605-279-2125

Name GPS Coordinates Comments
Steer Pasture Overlook N43 54.741,
W102 13.568
Elev. 3000'
Located on rim between grasslands and Badlands; easy access to Badlands NP; high clearance vehicles
Railroad Butte West - 1 N43 54.578,
W102 51.430
Elev. 2800'
Popular off-road area; smallest of three sections; any size RV
Railroad Butte West - 2 N43 54.323,
W102 51.535
Elev. 2800'
Adjacent to ". . . West_1", popular off-road w/many trails, any size RV on flat, hard dirt area
Limestone Butte N43 10.320,
W103 10.837
Elev. 3400'
In the middle of nowhere; surrounded by grass and cows; some junipers but bring shade; tent & high clearance vehicles
Limestone Butte Reservoir N43 09.616,
W103 09.807
Elev. 3300'
On the banks of reservoir; good bird watching; tent or high clearance vehicles
French Creek Picnic Area N43 39.711,
W103 01.351
Elev. 3000'
nice picnic/campground w/shade trees; designated tent sites; vault; open field parking for RVs/horse campers; near Fairburn agate rock site(s)
Baja Off Road Area N43 42.669,
W102 06.069
Elev. 2433'
Well suited for off road enthusiasts, parking suitable for any size RV or tent adjacent to State Rt. 44.
Indian Creek Area - campsite 1 N43 45.097,
W102 39.866
Elev. 2600'
Scenic drive, rock hounding, geological sites, tents or slide-ins w/4-wheel drive vehicles
Indian Creek Area - campsite 2 N43 45.281,
W102 39.999
Elev. 2600'
Scenic drive, rock hounding, geological sites, tents or slide-ins w/4-wheel drive vehicles
Click on a site name for picture.

*The following are suggested dispersed campsites.  
However, subject to Forest Service rules, one can 
camp most anywhere on the grassland. 

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Fred and Suzi Dow