Badlands of South Dakota at Sunrise

Off the Loop: So Much More to the Badlands (Day 2)

I woke before 6 a.m. to try to catch the sunrise. The temperature this morning is a brisk 48 degrees and I have forgotten to bring gloves. By the time my photo shoot is over, my hands will be numb but my spirit warm.

I set up east of the campground where the bison had been the night before. They have moved out across the very dry Sage Creek river bed back to the valley. I can hear the many bulls directing and giving orders with their deep grunt.

As the sun rises, I see two bison on the crest of the ridge. Now I only wish I had a bigger lens. My 200 mm lens does a decent job but isn’t nearly as close up as I’d like to be. I’m also as far east as I dare to go. I do not want to run into the bison heard across the creek from me. I take what I can get and enjoy about 40 minutes of beautiful morning light and wildlife.

Note to self: buy a bigger lens. And don’t forget your gloves.

By 8 a.m. we have had breakfast and packed our bags for hiking. There are no real trails in this part of the park but I’ll give you my tips from our hike.

We started by going straight west of the campground and up a worn path that many a camper has taken up to the ridge. We are heading south and rapidly learn that staying high is helpful in many ways. First, you get the lay of the land and see how Sage Creek winds and forks in many directions. Many ravines cut back to the west from the creek. By staying high you won’t have to zig zag as much to get around them.

Next, by looking back on a regular basis you’ll see what the land looks like for the trip back. You’ll travel quite a few miles before you lose the ability to see the campground from the tops of the area bluffs. We were close to two miles away before we lost sight of it.

We traveled hill top to hill top overlooking the creek valley for a little over an hour. After crossing a shallow stream between two bluffs we find a barren bluff peak of smooth, dry dirt and rocks. Upon looking at a few of the rocks we see two of them have a distinct hole in them about 1/8″ deep.

We leave this unique hill top and head down into the river valley in a south eastern direction. We can see the familiar sharp, rocky spires of the Badlands. This is more typical of the park and less like the prairie landscape we are currently in.

Here is a tip that we used several times on our hike. Follow the buffalo trail. Wondering were to go? Most often the trails left by the bison will take you to easy water crossings and easier walking areas. But watch out for the buffalo chips. They leave those behind too.

We follow a buffalo trail to the creek and find an area we can walk right across. This late in the season much of the creek bed is dry with pockets of water still remaining. Year to year this can be different but usually this arid climate isn’t getting a lot of rain in late summer.

Speaking of water, you will need to carry a considerable amount with you. We were out for 5 hours in the hot sun and drank about 1.5 gallons of water. There is very little shade and you will want to stop often to drink and stay hydrated. The water that is available is very sediment heavy and won’t work well with a filtration system. Carry lots of water.

We cross to the east side of the creek and continue southeast. I can see several mounds peaking out that remind me of the Yellow Mounds area of the Badlands Loop. We head towards them, again stayed up high on hilltops to get the best view.

There are several areas where rain has created some deep crevices. In this area you realize prairie grass hides the same kind of rock and gravel as the rest of the park. Hundreds of thousands of years from now maybe it will be filled with hard, sharp spires piercing the sky.

After climbing over these colorful mounds, we hike down to find a twisted little Cottonwood for some shade and lunch. This lonely tree has had the attention of the park bison too. The bark is rubbed smooth and strands of bison hair still hang from the branches. A dead and fallen chunk of the tree makes a good picnic bench and the shade is notably appreciated.

After lunch we decide to head back to camp. We plan to move to Cedar Pass Campground for tonight’s stay and the day continues to heat up.

For the trip back we stay in the valley for a different view. We walk past hundreds of prairie dogs barking their warning that we’re there. We also scare some grouse from the prairie grass. We get a quick glimpse of coyote that we have also spooked as we come through. He’s too far away for me to photograph.

Here again, we pick up a buffalo trail and head west to the river. It takes us almost to the identical spot we crossed last time. It’s about noon by this point and getting pretty warm. To get back we’ll go back to that row of hills west of the creek valley since we know it presents less obstacles.

Our hike is close to finished when I spot a bull bison in the valley. He’s laying down. A magpie lands on his back and sits for a few minutes. The bison decides he’s had enough and swings his head back with a biting motion. It flies away leaving him to lounge.

Another bull appears close to the campground. He keeps moving north parallel to us and we keep a watchful eye on him.

We’ll pack up camp after a quick rinse of the legs and arms with the solar shower. It comes in handy for feeling a bit refreshed.

Again, we head out in the car on another path we’ve never traveled, Sage Creek road to meet highway 44 near Scenic. This gravel road is nice and wide. It wanders through more fascinating landscapes and through Buffalo Gap National Grassland. This route is a great scenic drive and helps you avoid all the winding roads in the park. And why not see the park from a different perspective. You’ll realize how expansive it is.

The AC of the car feels wonderful.

After this trip around the park we again enter by Ben a Rifle Visitor Center. We pull into the Cedar Pass campground and set up our camp. I wanted to set up in this area to catch sundown nearby and to try the other campground. This one has modern toilets, a shower house and far less wildlife neighbors. It is all a matter of what you prefer.

We meet some neighbors from Virginia, Minnesota and Wisconsin and make some dinner. Next, we look for the spot to enjoy a beautiful sunset. After a short drive, we turn back around at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. We head back to a scenic overlook facing east over an expansive are with small, projecting spires here and there.

I recommend taking a couple of chairs and watching a Badlands sunset. We get a beauty with purple, yellow, orange and red. Our presence alerts other cars to what we are up to and soon half a dozen cars and over a dozen people join us. It must have been the chairs and tripod that made us look like we know what we’re doing.

Back at camp we enjoy a comfortable evening with another full moon. Absolutely perfect.

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