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TR: Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands NP - May 28-31 2020

Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2020 7:31 pm
by Stanley Otter
Having spent ten weeks cooped up with my lovely daughters and my beloved spouse, I decided it was time for some much needed Family Distancing. Badlands National Park is a mere 750 mile drive from home and contains the Sage Creek Wilderness, for which no permit is required for backcountry camping. So I gathered my gear and headed out for a three night stay with the bison and other denizens of this remnant of mixed-grass prairie.

The wilderness is small by Sierra standards — only about 100 square miles — and it is bordered by ranches with their attendant fences on the south and a park road on the north situated at the edge of the bluffs, which means you can see moving vehicles from the creek basins below. (Currently there is also an earth moving machine being used for road repairs silhouetted against the sky like a modern day Sue.) Nevertheless, there are plenty of pristine viewsheds and secluded spots among the buttes.

There is no potable water in the wilderness unless it happens to be falling out of the sky. I have used the alum-as-flocculent technique to make Colorado River water filterable, but I don’t think it would work here. There is just too much fine silt in the water — I managed to fall into Sage Creek and emerged coated in watery clay. And when it dries, it adheres tenaciously and doesn’t just brush off. It reminded me of the contents of my slip bucket in pottery class back in junior high. Anyway, I brought my big pack and managed to start out with 13 liters of water in addition to my usual gear. Using four liters per day left me a bit thirsty even with moderate temperatures (70s-to-low-80s °F during the day) and overcast skies about half of each day. (One of the salutary benefits of becoming desiccated by the Badlands is the ability to drive from a fuel stop in Sioux Falls SD to my home in Oshkosh WI without even thinking about stopping to pee. 450 road miles & about 7 hours drive time.)

A short use trail extends from the Conata Picnic Area to Deer Haven on the southeast side of the wilderness. There is also a stretch of trail over Sage Creek Pass, but otherwise you get to choose your own path from Point A to Point B. You can make use of the enormous number of bison trails that criss-cross the prairie (clearly and frequently marked with organic cairns) or just walk through the grass. The bison seemingly go *everywhere* and churn up the soft earth, but it isn’t much lumpier than my backyard. Watercourse bluffs and the buttes themselves are the major landform barriers to travel — bison and bighorn sheep herds are the major zoological ones. Fortunately, I did not encounter any rattlesnakes which can also necessitate route alterations.

Day 1 — May 28
I left the Conata Picnic Area trailhead at about 9 AM and moved slowly westward under the burden of 27 lbs of water plus other gear. Skies were overcast and gradually cleared in the afternoon. I made the poor decision to cross a ridge without the benefit of a bison trail or a use trail. The footing was treacherous and I was forced to lower my pack at one point. At around 2 PM I gratefully shrugged off my pack and pitched my tent about 1.25 miles southwest of Sage Creek Pass. Let’s be clear about the scale here: the “pass” involved maybe 60’ of elevation gain. Under sunny skies I explored a half mile or so to the west and came back for a nap in my sunbaked tent. All sorts of birds were singing throughout the day. My birding skillset is quite limited and I could only identify swallows and red-winged blackbirds, but I assure you there are many others with melodious voices out there. Speaking of which, coyotes sang me to sleep.

Day 2 — May 29
I took a long day hike to the west with no particular goal in mind other than to weave in and out of the formations and get a feel for the terrain. The day again started out overcast but cleared starting around noon. In the morning I tried following a watercourse up to the top of a ridge where some deer were grazing, but it necked down quickly to an impassable crevice. I encountered a lone bison, a pair of bison, and a small herd of bison throughout the day. They were very skittish and tended to run away to maintain appropriate Bison Distancing which was just fine with me. I don’t think we were ever closer than 100 yards or so. I found some viewing notches in the south and west walls of the formations that looked out over Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The wind picked up as the sun came out from behind the clouds and built to a sustained low roar throughout the afternoon and into the evening. It blew grit and dust into everything back at camp where I partook of another sun drenched nap. And then thunderstorms rolled through and the grit and dust were no longer a problem.

01 Map.jpg
02 Conata Trailhead.jpeg
03 South of Sage Creek Pass.jpeg
04 Sage Creek Pass.jpeg
05 Near Base Camp.jpeg
06 Boone at Base Camp.jpeg
07 High Among Buttes.jpeg
08 Buffalo Gap NG.jpeg
09 Bison at a Distance.jpeg
10 Typical Watercourse.jpeg
11 Between Ridges.jpeg

Re: TR: Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands NP - May 28-31 2020

Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2020 7:36 pm
by Stanley Otter
Day 3 — May 30
Four bison were grazing near my tent in the morning as I packed up for a hike to Deer Haven. I was downwind from them, so I don’t think they were aware of me. The skies were overcast again with some darker stuff off to the west, but no troublesome weather developed other than the unrelenting wind. At one particularly blustery point, I was holding onto my hat and staggering about trying to stay upright as I walked around a bunch of holes in the ground while also trying to avoid a 25-member strong bison herd nearby that I couldn’t see clearly due to the wind-induced tears in my eyes and listening to a bunch of loud “birds” screeching at me but not seeing them either. Suddenly, the wind stops dead and coyotes start howling and as I wipe my eyes I see I am standing in the middle of a prairie dog town. Oh.

That was in beautiful Tyree Basin and the part I crossed consisted of gently rolling prairie with just a few shallow watercourses. I crossed over several ranks of rounded hills to start my way up Sage Creek Basin which was quite a bit more complex with deep creek beds. It was here that I had my closest “uh-oh” wildlife encounter when a herd of bighorn sheep took an interest in me as I was walking on top of a creekside bluff trying to skirt by them. Further up the basin I had to find routes around lone bison who were grazing in the main thoroughfares. Just at the creek junction that would take me to the ridge above Deer Haven I met a group of four hikers, so we chatted a bit. Then I followed the meandering watercourse up the basin — there was one of those comical stretches where I walked for five or six minutes and passed right by the spot on the other side of a five foot bank where I had been earlier. The climb down the ridge and through Deer Haven was straightforward. I set up camp and nursed my remaining water through the night.

Day 4 — May 31
A 1.5 mile hike out to the car followed by a 750 mile drive back home.

12 View South.jpeg
13 Last Ridge Before Tyree.jpeg
14 Tyree Basin Southeast.jpeg
15 Tyree Basin West.jpeg
16 Bison in Tyree Basin.jpeg
17 Between Basins.jpeg
18 Bighorn Sheep.jpeg
19 Lower Sage Creek Basin.jpeg
20 Mid Sage Creek Basin.jpeg
21 Deer Haven from Ridge Above.jpeg
22 Packing Up.jpeg
23 Last Look Back.jpeg

Re: TR: Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands NP - May 28-31 2020

Posted: Fri Jun 05, 2020 4:35 pm
by Wandering Daisy
Beautiful photos, as usual for your trip reports. Thanks. It is tornado season in those parts now- glad you avoided them.

Re: TR: Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands NP - May 28-31 2020

Posted: Fri Jun 05, 2020 9:00 pm
by balzaccom
Thanks for getting us out and into the natural world. Cool wildlife sightings!

Re: TR: Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands NP - May 28-31 2020

Posted: Sun Jun 07, 2020 6:15 am
by Stanley Otter
Wandering Daisy wrote:
Fri Jun 05, 2020 4:35 pm
Beautiful photos, as usual for your trip reports. Thanks. It is tornado season in those parts now- glad you avoided them.
Thanks -- I think we are fortunate to have such beautiful landscapes where it is easy to take decent photos.
balzaccom wrote:
Fri Jun 05, 2020 9:00 pm
Thanks for getting us out and into the natural world. Cool wildlife sightings!
Here are a few more photos. The prairie dog photo was captured along the main park road from my car -- the ones I stumbled onto in Tyree Basin were much too wary to let me get close. Cute little buggers, almost on par with the pikas.
24 Bison Skull.jpeg
25 Bison Skull.jpeg
26 Prairie Dog.jpeg

Re: TR: Sage Creek Wilderness, Badlands NP - May 28-31 2020

Posted: Wed Jun 10, 2020 11:45 pm
by windknot
This is cool -- never thought about backpacking in South Dakota! Thanks for the report and great photos.