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Sunday, March 24, 2019
Chasing Badlands Bison in the Winter Posted on March 23, 2019 by Mike Hohmann
It has been a few years since I’ve visited the Badlands of South Dakota. I’ve hiked and camped there at least a couple of times over the past decade, but I’ve never visited in the middle of winter. It has always been hot and dry weather when I visit -which seems to be the most popular time, according to Park Rangers. Officially, it is known as Badlands National Park, and it includes the Badlands Wilderness Area, which can be viewed in the official NPS map. Badlands National Park encompasses over 244,000 acres, and the Wilderness is another 64,250 acres. Both are surrounded by Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the south. Half of Badllands National Park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation, the eighth largest American Indian Reservation in the United States.
Still hungry for more snowshoeing this winter, I thought it would be interesting to travel west for some snowshoeing, while searching out some wildlife… something beyond the local whitetail deer and wild turkeys here in MN. While sounding a bit dramatic, I thought ‘Chasing Bison, Big Horn Sheep, Pronghorn Antelope, Mule Deer, Coyotes, Eagles and Hawks…’ might make for some real fun -in addition to providing a great location for snowshoeing.
I decided to call my grandson Mikey, and bounce the idea off him -he’s traveled with me a few times in recent years and seems to really enjoy it! Most recently he’s camped, fished and hiked with me along the Rainy River in northern MN, on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) along the N. Shore of Lake Superior several times, and in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.
Before I could finish my pitch to Mikey, he agreed it would be great fun. Since Mikey is only 13 and in middle-school, I suggested he run it by his folks. I called back next day and he told me it was ok! I was surprised with his quick response, and called his mother (my daughter) to be sure we were all talking the same language… and we were! WOW, I thought! It was a GO! The rest is now history, and will be the topic of this post and another to follow in a week or two.
This post will cover several days we spent in the SD Badlands, while the second post will cover several days in and around Custer SP in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, plus a visit to Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation on our return to MN.
No camping and no radio-work on this trip -just sightseeing, snowshoeing and a bit of history. Winter radio work is tough due to the cold temperatures, snow and water and the fact we’d be traveling fast and hard with little time to do justice to making radio connections. Spring and summer are just around the corner, and will provide ample time for radio-games, so stay tuned for that as well.
Mikey and I departed home at 6 a.m. headed west, arriving at our motel in Wall, SD by about 4 p.m. We had made a quick stop at the Badlands NP Visitor Center to pick up a map, chat with a Ranger a bit, and snapped a few pictures along the Loop Road.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 1
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 2
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 3
Overcast weather made for good snowshoeing, but rather drab photos. Hopefully we’d see bright sunny weather, blue skies and some puffy white clouds in coming days. We’d been having the same bleak weather back home, accompanied by near-record snow and cold weather. Our fingers remained crossed, as we headed back to our room in Wall.
Next morning we returned to Badlands National Park in search of more good scenery and wildlife… and yes, some snowshoeing fun. We also stopped to visit an old friend of mine, Harold, who lives in Interior, SD -a couple of miles from the NP Visitor Center and Park HQ, both near the Cedar Pass Lodge. I’d last visited Harold a few years ago -both visits were ridiculously short… my apologies, Harold. Perhaps we can visit again soon, in warmer weather! I think Interior is actually located in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and is a few miles north of the White River. Always nice to see old friends!
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 4 Good snowshoeing areas.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 5 Good snowshoeing areas.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 6 Good snowshoeing areas.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 6b More good snowshoeing areas.
We’d tried snowshoeing in the Castle Trail/Medicine Root Trail Loop, however the summer trails were not marked in these areas for winter use -the Badlland’s Visitors Guide (official newspaper of the Park, dated Summer 2018) had a Hiking Map for areas near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center which included the referenced trails above, but it’s difficult to follow a summer trail in the winter, when it’s covered by a foot of snow and much of the surrounding summer vegetation is matted and dormant. However, all these short hiking trails are also used for snowshoeing in the winter.
The simple map in the newspaper didn’t include any topography or landmarks to help us navigate. The Ranger at the Visitor Center assured us the trail was marked, yet I disagree. Mikey and I returned to take another look but could find no trail markers. We went to two additional trailheads elsewhere in the Park, and easily found those trails were indeed marked. But I digress!
Hiking an undefined/unmarked/unfamiliar trail in the winter is dangerous, and it’s possible that a heavy snowfall could even cover your own tracks in the snow -preventing you from backtracking to the trailhead or your starting point (unless you mark it as you go.) At least we got in a bit of snowshoeing, but most of the day was spent sightseeing and looking for wildlife. The Badlands consists of tough, unforgiving terrain with little potable water available throughout the year, and the winter cold weather only adds to the danger… and the fun!
[It should be noted we carried a SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, personal locator device to stay in contact with family members and emergency responders, if needed. It provides our GPS location in a mapped message format. I’ve used it when hiking solo in the past, and it provides some peace of mind to me and other family members.]
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 7
Looking south, past the dropping bluffs, into the relative flatlands of the Badlands Wilderness Area and Buffalo Gap National Grasslands (above).
We drove the Badlands Loop Road checking various overlooks, then took the unimproved Sage Creek Rim Road down to the Sage Creek Camp Site where I’d camped in the past. This road was a bit messy -partially frozen, but also muddy. We’d found a few Big Horn Sheep along the Loop Road, and now we’d finally chased down our first American Bison/buffalo in pretty good numbers near Sage Creek. What a sight! The bison really are amazing animals, and I never tire of seeing them.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 8 Big Horn Sheep along the Loop Road.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 9 Big Horn Sheep along the Loop Road.
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 10 First buffalo sightings along Sage Creek Road
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 11 First buffalo sightings along Sage Creek Road
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 12 First buffalo sightings along Sage Creek Road
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 13 First buffalo sightings along Sage Creek Road
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 14 First buffalo sightings along Sage Creek Road
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 15 First buffalo sightings along Sage Creek Road
Sage Creek Road had gotten pretty muddy and we had a good drive back to our room, so we turned around and headed back to Wall. We went out for dinner and enjoyed juicy buffalo burgers, watched the evening news and weather forecast, then hit the sack early. Mikey dreamed fondly of his bison encounters on day 1 -only in Wall, SD!
Mikey’s bison dream!
Next morning, we got up with the sun and had a great breakfast at Wall Drug -a legend even in my youth! There was a heavy frost this morning, and we drove north out of Wall to get some photos before the it disappeared.
A frosty West River morning north of Wall, SD 3-19, 1
A frosty West River morning north of Wall, SD 3-19, 2
A frosty West River morning north of Wall, SD 3-19, 3
A frosty West River morning north of Wall, SD The ‘old homestead.’
After a few photos, we headed back through Wall and toward the Badlands -in search of those elusive ‘sunny skies.’
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 16 Sunny skies!
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 17 Sunny skies!
SD Badlands, 3-’19, 18 Sunny skies!
We only got in a few hours of snowshoeing, but all in all, it was a good sunny day! Upon returning to Wall, we realized we’d missed lunch, but managed to enjoy another great dinner, nonetheless. Somehow, dinner always seems to taste extra special after missing lunch.
Last Day in Wall and we’d had a BIG snow overnight, and the wind was howling, with little visibility -what a day! Plows were out and we made our way to get breakfast. Everything always looks better after coffee and breakfast, right? Wall was getting plowed out in amazing time -I was impressed! Mikey and I grabbed our gear, and headed back into Badlands NP. We followed a big plow up the highway toward the Park. The plow turned around to clear the road back the way he’d come, and we continued into the Park… as I looked into my rear-view mirror, I saw a Ranger step out and place several orange cones across the road, effectively closing the Park. I turned around and went back to talk with the Ranger.
They were closing the Park and we were advised to turn around. Worse weather was expected, including high winds and heavy blowing snow! Visibility was terrible! We headed back to our motel room to review our options. Returning to Wall, I noted that winter driving conditions were as bad as I’ve ever seen them!