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Backpacking Sage Creek
Badlands National Park is a pleasant, scenic loop away from fast-paced Interstate 90. Most visitors enjoy short hikes among the formations or fossils on designated trails in the Cedar Pass area. But, unknown to many, the Badlands also offers a superb backpacking opportunity in Sage Creek Wilderness.
There is no designated trail system in the Sage Creek Wilderness [in Badlands National Park]; you merely need a compass, a map and a desire to explore. At 11 a.m. I started at the Deer Haven check-in point, just behind the picnic area on the Conata road. I decided to go through rather than around Deer Haven, so I checked the contour lines on my map and surveyed the land for the best way up. I found myself traversing areas with abundant mule deer tracks. I followed them because I figured they knew the terrain better. Their trail led me to a clay scree field, where I crawled up about 10 feet on all fours.
Once over the top, I headed west. There were a lot of drainages coming down through the Sage Creek area, all flowing where I wanted to go. Again, I noticed game trails, now a mixture of mule deer, bison and bighorn. Every time I needed to cross a drainage, creek or gorge, the game trail provided the easiest path. Where I had to cross an active stream, the game trail led through the shallowest point.
I stopped for lunch atop a small hill adorned with interesting formations, some of which looked like pyramids made of volcanic ash. I had my first bison encounter as I photographed a geological formation called a clastic dike. The bison stared at me, and I talked to him, letting him know that I was just passing through. I encountered another bison as I entered greener areas, closer to where I wanted to pitch my tent for the evening. I finally selected a spot, about six miles from where I started, on the edge of some rock beds. The sky was getting cloudy and the wind had picked up. I made dinner, eager to have a hot meal and hoping the weather would change. The sky opened just before sunset. I worked furiously with my camera and then retired to read my book.
When I arose at 5 a.m., the skies had cleared and there was a spirited exchange of howls and yips from coyotes to the west. I grabbed my camera gear and headed to a small hill I identified the previous day as a good spot to catch the morning light. In the distance, I spied three bull bison sitting on the same grass ledge where I saw them yesterday. There was another large bull about a half mile to the west – grazing in the middle of my planned path. As the light climbed, it washed across the landscape like a painter’s brush, selecting pastels to adorn the scene. I kept working with the light until its magical golden hue disappeared, then I went back to camp, made breakfast and was on the trail by 7:50.
Fortunately, the large bull was no longer on my path, and I found myself meandering along a landscape shaped by drainages and a creek that frequently changes course. Eventually I left grassy mesas and a stark, white-clay terrain, littered with rock piles and slides, washed and wiped over the centuries by flash flooding. Bizarre pedestal formations popped up intermittently, a reminder of the strangeness of this place.
I finally got around the end of an east-west formation I had paralleled all day and worked my way southwest. I found myself in the middle of what appeared to be the bison freeway. Sets of heavily traveled trails, exhibiting tracks from hundreds of animals, littered this gumbo clay area. By 1 p.m. I found a flat, grassy table – almost a small mesa. Even though it was early, I did not feel like hiking in the heat. I set up camp, took off my boots and crawled inside my tent.
I loved the rocks on that table. There were several large and unusual boulders covered with a variety of lichens, predominantly a vivid orange. As the evening concluded, I played the same song and danced with the skies. From hot, sunny and clear, it had turned cool and windy with thick, scattered clouds. I worked with those clouds and found some breaks of sunlight to photograph the landscape. I retired my camera for the evening and went inside to read. Sleep came as I lay there, completely alone in this broad landscape, listening to the soft sounds of the winds, accented by the occasional yip or howl of a coyote.
Realizing that light would not hit as early here as yesterday, I slept in until 5:15 a.m. and made breakfast while waiting for sunrise. Again, it was a clear morning with nary a sign of clouds, and I enjoyed the rare opportunity for solitude in a majestic setting.
By 7:05, I was on the trail toward Sage Creek Campground. Within a mile of my final destination, I stopped for a drink. Soon I realized that I was looking upon a large prairie dog town. What clued me in was the cacophony of back and forth chattering among the mounds. I took some photos, and then hiked to a small grassy hill, where I spooked several grouse. The encounter highlights how well camouflaged these birds are. I could not see them until they flushed and headed southwest.
On my final approach there was a hill I had been hiking toward for the last few miles that I thought was the last rise before the campground. I was about to discover the accuracy of my navigational skills. Around noon I reached the top of the hill, looked down to the left and saw the campground right where it should be. Then I saw two large bull bison in the middle of my path. I gave them a wide berth, watching them as they watched me, and then crossed the creek using a game trail that crossed a shallow, gravel bar area. I noticed people camping, so I chatted with them while waiting for my ride. In three days, I had not encountered anyone. Then at the end of my journey I found a man and his son enjoying the quiet and solitude that other visitors miss. I recommend taking time to do what 90 percent of park visitors do not – get off the road. You will discover a Badlands you have never visited.
Carl Johnson was the Badlands National Park artist-in-residence in May 2009. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his wife, Michelle. This Road Journal is courtesy of South Dakota Magazine.