Wyoming has millions and millions of acres of national parkland, almost all of it designated for camping use in one form or another. Northeast Wyoming is breathtaking just to drive through, which for many people is enough. Camping gets you closer. The fifteen camping places on this list are all less than a day’s drive from Gillette. Some of these amazing places are just over the border into South Dakota or Montana which is just a short drive from Gillette Wyoming. Still within Camping range!
Here is the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the U.S. Underneath is one of the longest caves in the world, with the densest set of underground passageways ever found. Wind Cave “breathes” in response to changes in barometric pressure above ground. Water is scarce. Elk Mountain Campground has running water in the warmer months. Backcountry campers should carry their own.
Spearfish Canyon is a deep, narrow gorge with numerous falls and rock formations. “Dances With Wolves” was filmed here. There are several campgrounds in this part of the Black Hills National Forest. Hanna Campground is near the start of the Scenic Byway that runs the length of Spearfish Canyon.
Very popular with backpackers, Cloud Peak Wilderness includes the summits of the Bighorn Mountains, overlooking sheer rock faces and glacier-carved valleys. Wilderness regulations are strict: no fires above the treeline, no camping close to rivers or lakes, etc. In other words, leave no trace. Cloud Peak is blanketed with snow most of the year, so pack accordingly.
Shell Creek has carved its canyon out of sedimentary rock and granite. The reservoir that collects it is a popular fishing site. Shell Creek Campground is a drive-in site near thunderous falls. This site sees heavy use. You can go backcountry and leave everybody behind.
Thunder Basin is in the Powder River Basin. Rolling grasslands and sagebrush hide prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, coyotes and pronghorn antelope. Bald eagles and prairie falcons soar above. There are no developed campsites in Thunder Basin, but dispersed camping is allowed. Try Kelly Reservoir, which is a wildlife habitat. Weston Recreation Area is popular for its multitude of ATV trails.
Sundance Trail System is a great way to access some of the oldest trails in Black Hills National Forest. Settlers made these trails to access a waterhole or a mining claim. The trails cut through dense forest and travel across open ridges. The trail picks up at Sundance Horse Camp, which has corrals and stables. Sundance Trail is great for riding.
Black Elk Wilderness and Norbeck Wildlife Preserve are famous for their hiking and horse trails. You’re up with the mountain goats, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions and coyotes. All mechanical means of transport, including trail bikes, are denied access. The Grizzly Creek Trail is notable for its access to water, a scarce commodity in most of the Black Hills range. You can take a side trail to Harney Peak, the highest point around. Camp anywhere.
Extreme conditions test the spirit. The indigenous peoples of this part of Wyoming and South Dakota, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne and the Sioux, incorporated this maxim in their culture. Nineteenth-century French trappers called this area “mauvaises terres a traverser.” The Badlands today are open only to dispersed camping. You had better be sure to carry your water with you. The good news is, you can see forever.
Teddy Roosevelt came to the North Dakota badlands to hunt bison. He invested in ranches around Medora and wrote books about his love for the Western life. The ruins of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch are in a remote area of the park. Water and shade are limited on the trails, but backcountry hiking and camping are very popular here. There’s much wildlife to see, including wild horses, deer, elk and bighorn sheep. Bison have been reintroduced to the badlands. Give them a wide berth, as they have a nasty temper.
This Montana state park shelters a series of sandstone pillars carved over time into arches, caves, towers and wind tunnels by the elements. The surfaces are covered with Native American rock art. The Medicine Rocks were sacred to the Plains Indians. The Crow in particular sought out the Medicine Rocks for vision quests. Primitive campsites are available at the park, where there’s a hand pump for cold spring water.
A little farther afield, but still half a day’s drive away from Gillette, is Halfbreed Lake. The refuge covers about a million acres and stretches along the Missouri River for over 100 miles. Given its remoteness, the refuge has changed little since Lewis and Clark tramped through. You’ll find prairie, forest, badlands, wetlands and river bottoms. If you’re there in the fall, you’ll catch the gathering of hundreds of elk at Slippery Ann.
This granite outcropping was known as Six Grandfathers to the Lakota Sioux. It was part of the spiritual journey Black Elk made that culminated at Harney Peak. At the end of the Black Hills Wars, the U.S. government annexed the sacred land from the Lakota and turned it into the tourist mecca it is today. You can’t camp at the memorial. You’re in the Black Hills, though. There are a number of established campgrounds around Custer in the national park.
The recreation area was created in the 1960s when Yellowtail Dam was built. The steep canyon cut by the dammed-up Bighorn River provides thousand-foot cliffs on either side of the lake. Wild horses run free on the plains above. The Bighorn River below the dam provides excellent trout fishing. Boating is also popular here. You can access Horseshoe Bend from Lovell, and there’s a campground there.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” provided a Hollywood take on the intrigue of this volcanic formation. The monolith rises above the Belle Fourche River and the plains of eastern Wyoming. Devils Tower is known for its cracks. Rock climbers have been tackling the tower for a century. There’s a campground there, and you can sleep under the stars. Maybe you’ll see a starship.
This listing is actually a plug for the Bozeman Trail. The trail runs east of the Continental Divide. It was a major route during the Gold Rush. It sparked a series of terrible wars between the U.S. government and the Plains Indians, with massacres on either side. The Bozeman Trail runs just south of Gillette. Following the highway, you can be at the north entrance to Yellowstone in half a day’s drive.