This was a fantastic day checking out the Badlands Loop and seeing Desert Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Dogs, and Bison in addition to all of the amazing overlooks and viewpoints within Badlands National Park. And then the bonus was going all the way to the end of Sheep Mountain Road, where few visitors attempt to travel, and getting to see more outstanding views of the Badlands terrain.
We went to the visitors center this morning to watch the movie on Badlands National Park. However, their equipment broke over the past weekend. So, we decided to drive through the park on the Badlands Loop Road and then on the more remote, gravel Sage Creek Rim Road.
The Badlands Loop is part of the 40 miles of Hwy 240 from I-90 at Exit 131 through the park and returning to I-90 at the town of Wall. But part of the road is closed for construction, so they are routing folks back through the town of Interior and across a few miles of gravel road ....
before returning to the pavement. Fortunately, we only missed a very short section.
For the next several miles there were turn-outs and marked overlooks with parking lots. View from the first turn-out.
Soon we came to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. It's a short little boardwalk trail ...
that has small display cases every few yards showing examples of fossils found in the park.
Moving on, we stopped at most of the viewpoints. This is the White River Valley Overlook.
After awhile you would think that all the rocks and formations would look the same, but there were just enough differences in terrain or colors to keep it interesting. Bigfoot Pass Overlook.
What's amazing is that all this continues on under the grassy plains surface.
As the surface erodes, more "Badlands" will be exposed.
Panorama Point Overlook.
Burns Basin Overlook.
This view from the Conata Basin Overlook included mauve-tinged yellow mounds.
The road descended and there was a parking area at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. We climbed up on top of one of the mounds for a different perspective.
Just past there, we took a left on Conata Road for a short detour to the Conata Picnic Area for a restroom break. That's also an access point for some backcountry hiking, thus another rattlesnake warning.
One of the things I love about the Badlands is the grassy areas among the rocks. The greens make a wonderful contrast and there is habitat within habitat.
That last photo was from a turn-out and the next one was from the other side of the road.
Ancient Hunters Overlook.
The next stop was the Pinnacles Overlook.
More views from the Pinnacles Overlook.
This next shot shows a lush green prairie in the distance.
You can see a sliver of road running through the dark green - that's the Sage Creek Rim Road. That gravel road runs 13 - 14 miles through another section of the park. It goes past Robert's Prairie Dog Town, and it is also where you are most likely to see the park's Bison. In addition, the Sage Creek Campground is 12 miles down that road from the intersection of the paved Badlands Loop.
I gave Linda one last shot to continue on the Loop and drive the 8.5 miles to Wall if she really wanted to. I was less than enthusiastic about that idea, but I was willing.
But instead, we turned left on the Rim Road. We immediately saw Pronghorn Antelope far in the distance. And before we reached the next overlook, we spotted a pair of Bighorn Sheep.
They weren't very close, but at least we saw 'em.
View from the Hay Butte Overlook.
As we drove on, I spotted a dark dot on the valley floor and it was the first of many Bison we would see.
Five miles in on the Rim Road is the prairie dog town.
But you don't have to make that drive to see prairie dogs - they are in several places right along the Loop Road. There are miles of prairie dogs.
That's also where a huge herd of Bison was hanging out, but I could only get a few of them in the shot.
They weren't close to the road, but through our binoculars we watched the huge animals roll in the dust and create clouds that could be seen for miles.
As we moved on, the landscape changed and after 12 miles, we came to the Sage Creek Campground turn. We turned left and saw more random Bison.
The Sage Creek Campground is very remote and has only pit toilets. There are no hook-ups and no dump station and there is no water, so you would have to haul water in with you. Unfortunately, it's just a single loop road with no sites to back in or pull through. You just park on the side of the road and there isn't room to do that around the entire loop.
There was one rental Class C and a few tents - it clearly wasn't designed with RVs in mind. There are little shelters with picnic tables ....
and it has its own prairie dog town. There was a lot of evidence that the Bison walk through the campground on occasion. And I bet the night sky doesn't get any better.
If you are looking for free camping in a beautiful, remote area, this could be for you. It's a long way from the main attractions of the park and it's a drive of at least 12 - 13 miles on a gravel road no matter which way you come in. But for a free get-away-from-it-all camping experience, it looks great to me.
We left the campground and continued on the Rim Road. This is the view looking back into the Sage Creek Valley with the campground somewhat visible in the left center of the shot.
From the campground road, it was about another mile or so to the western back entrance to the park (no guard shack or fee booth). We saw several more Bison in that short stretch.
After exiting the park, it's another 11 - 12 miles on a good gravel road to Hwy 44. Coming in from that way is probably the easiest access to the Sage Creek Campground.
When we reached Hwy 44, it was about 30 miles back to Interior if we had taken a left. However, we took a right and drove a mile to the town of Scenic where we took a left on 589. From there we drove 4 miles to the Sheep Mountain Table Road.
To that point we had spent all our time in the North Unit of Badlands National Park, but there is another huge, remote section called the Stronghold District (aka South Unit). It is comprised of lands on the Pine Ridge Reservation which is owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe. It is managed by the Park Service under an agreement with the tribe. There are few areas for public access and because of the private ownership of the land, individual property owners must be contacted for permission to explore most places.
One of the accessible areas is Sheep Mountain via a five-mile gravel road. We extended our day by driving through more formations and up the road.
The road isn't as well maintained as the Rim Road in the North Unit, but it's fine for pretty much any vehicle if you watch for sudden ruts and potholes.
Once on top of the table, there wasn't much to see until we got to the one overlook. More great views from there ....
but considering the extra driving, it was a bit anti-climactic.
However, where the road seemed to end there was a sign that said "High Clearance Vehicles Only Past This Point". Hmmm. I asked Linda "Are you up for some adventure?" Her response was "Not really". But it was pretty much a rhetorical question - we were going. To make it official, she acquiesced (def: accepted something reluctantly but without protest).
I think the Jeep was excited to do some terrain for which it was designed. It had been a long time.
The more spectacular views were definitely along this extra three miles of more primitive road.
We had a lot of fun driving back on the less accessible part of the "table".
Four-wheel-drive wasn't required, but high clearance certainly was. Still, I would want 4WD if it were wet.
Some of the best views of the day were from the top of Sheep Mountain.
This was one of my favorite spots.
These weren't designated overlooks. We just followed tracks and walked up to the edges. So we had to be really careful for snakes in the tall grass. Linda spotted one, but it wasn't a rattler - just a harmless green snake of some kind. It was gone before I could get a picture to identify it.
There were also lots of gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds.
But it was mostly about the many different wonderful views.
We finally reached the end of the road where there was another lovely canyon view.
I took a couple final shots ....
and we enjoyed the serenity.
We took time to appreciate what we were seeing and how lucky we were to be there in that moment. It was that type of experience in Alaska back in 2004 that ultimately led us to this current life we enjoy so much.
We eased our way back out the deep-rutted road to the point where it was a bit flatter.
We got back on the friendlier gravel road and headed back down.
Back on the valley floor, we had to stop for a few more pictures of the roadside wildflowers.
The photo ops were endless.
We made it back to the paved road and we began our 35-mile drive back to Interior. Even that drive along Hwy 44 was quite scenic.
Whew. It was a long but enjoyable day. We've packed a lot in during the last day and a half and we've seen most of the highlights of Badlands National Park.