Boondocking in South Dakota

RVshare
Last updated on May 25th, 2021 at 08:24 am. Originally published on May 14th, 2021

South Dakota is the home of one of the United States’ most famous sites: Mount Rushmore. Away from these four famous faces, a remarkably beautiful landscape awaits. Hike the rock formations and forests in the Black Hills, or step into a wild and alien world at Badlands National Park. Boondocking in South Dakota gives you the chance to explore massive underground caves, watch archaeologists unearth the bones of woolly mammoths, and soak in a natural hot spring. Everywhere you go, you’ll see signs of Native American culture, Gold Rush history, and modern agriculture. Although South Dakota is one of the least-populated states in the country, just 5.4% of the state’s land is federally owned, which means that it’s helpful to locate free campsites in advance.

Heavily eroded pink rock formations descend from a plateau, on which two RV's are parked under a yellow, sunset sky.

Boondocking Sites in South Dakota

Buffalo Gap National Grassland

Relax in camp and enjoy views for miles in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The majority of this enormous public area is open to dispersed camping; you can get recommendations for sites and information about current closures or restrictions in the visitor center in the nearby town of Wall. One popular option is the Badlands Overlook, which offers views of the grasslands and the rugged landscape of Badlands National Park.

Little White River Recreation Area

The Little White River Recreation Area is part of the Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern South Dakota; it’s the only part of the refuge that allows camping. Look for the marked campsites along Little White River Dam Road, about 11 miles from the tiny town of Martin. The Little White River Reservoir offers excellent fishing. This area is also popular with hunters, so it’s a good idea to wear bright colors and stay alert when you’re exploring the wilderness during hunting season.

Black Hills National Forest

Some of the best spots for boondocking in South Dakota are located in the Black Hills National Forest. Here, wild rock formations peek out of evergreen forests. Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park are located nearby. You can camp anywhere in the forest as long as you’re 100 miles from water, 0.5 miles from a developed campground, and within 300 feet of the road. Make sure to bring a camp stove because the forest doesn’t allow open campfires. The nearest major city is Rapid City, but you’ll also find a range of small communities tucked into the hills.

Dude Ranch Lakeside Use Area

If you’re traveling across South Dakota on I-90, the Dude Ranch Lakeside Use Area is a convenient spot for free camping. To get there, take County Road 6 south from W Highway 16, just west of Oacoma. Follow the sign to the recreation area; the road dead-ends at a large, sandy parking area that’s open for camping. It’s nothing fancy, though you will find a dumpster and a vault toilet. The views of the Missouri River and the rolling green hills are spectacular. If you have a boat, you can launch it from the boat ramp.

Arlington City Campgrounds

The city of Arlington runs two different campgrounds. If you want to dry camp, sites are free. You can also hook up to electricity and use the dump station for $10 per night. Head to Maxwell Park to find four centrally located sites, and check out the campground in Nordland Park for the best views. The campsites offer level pads, so parking is a breeze. 

Hieb Memorial Park

Explore the southeastern corner of South Dakota from your campsite in Hieb Memorial Park. Located in the small town of Marion, this campground offers free camping for up to seven nights. Offering playgrounds, trails, and a lake, the park is beautiful, and you’ll find all of the amenities you need in town. The park is closed to camping in the winter months.

Where to Boondock in South Dakota

The Black Hills National Forest is one of the best places to find free camping in South Dakota. Pick up a current motor vehicle use map to identify forest roads, or stop into a Forest Service office to ask for recommendations. During the busy summer tourist season, free sites fill up quickly. You’ll have the best luck when you arrive early and stay farther from Mount Rushmore.

If you’re exploring the rest of the state and wondering where to boondock in South Dakota outside of the Black Hills, check out the state-run lakeside use areas. Many of the 60+ units allow free camping and free entrance, so you can pull in for a night or a week. Make sure to pick up a map and verify that you’re allowed to camp; South Dakota is home to large expanses of private land and nine reservations or tribal land areas, so usage rights vary. 

Free Camping in South Dakota

When preparing for your boondocking trip in South Dakota, it’s always helpful to have multiple campsites in mind. Most of the state’s best sites are located in the Black Hills National Forest, which means that you might need to try two or three areas before finding an open spot. When in doubt, stop by a visitor center in the nearest town; staff can usually make recommendations for dispersed camping. Free sites are the easiest to find outside of the busy summer months.

Once you’ve set up camp, boondocking in South Dakota is surprisingly easy. The tourist infrastructure is well developed, particularly in the Black Hills and Badlands, so it’s easy to find supplies. As long as you’re confident driving an RV on hilly roads, you’ll be just steps from gorgeous hikes and exceptional fishing opportunities. Before you head out on your trip, check out our blog for all you need to know about boondocking.

When you know where to look, South Dakota is a great place for dry camping. With these beautiful sites, there’s no need to camp in a parking lot. Enjoy a night in the wilderness instead. Don’t have a motorhome? An RV rental from RVshare is an easy and cost-effective way to try boondocking.

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