Landscapes : Off-Season and Off-the-Beaten-Path in a Sedan in the Badlands
There is plenty that’s American about a hot summer at the Badlands, among the throngs of continental drifters and the din of the Harley Davidson Tabernacle Choir. The warmer months here jump with the sunny collective agita of road warriors on their way to graduated states of on-the-way-itude.
There’s much to learn from in that summer-swelter Badlands, from the naked heat of the sun, to the roar of engines, to a sudden flurry of fists and turning tables at one of the made-for-Swayze saloons of Scenic or Interior.
The Badlands crags and spires cast shadows so deep they have no max capacity on the mysteries they can hold. Still, when the Central Plains sun illuminates the Swatch-like bands of the 100 mile wall, grizzled patch-wearers and adorbs* prairie dog pups alike will come out to play. [*adorable]
What about the off season? There are joys to be found then as well.
Early spring, while not as off as say, winter, may be as good an off-ramp from the on season as any, when wildlife begin to eat freely and multiply, enjoying the pre-Memorial Day calm.
Your SDPB correspondent explored the relatively unpeopled park recently. An overdue rain came, and stuck around awhile, making some of the muddy saddle passes nearly impassable a full day later. Park residents didn’t seem to mind though. "Bad" weather around here is subjective. Fortunately the roads remained passable and the trails could be negotiated by the next day, if you don't mind some mud.
If you're here off season (or on) and want to get even further afield and far away from contact, you can explore the much less-visited Stronghold Unit of the park. While worth the trip, be warned that there are very few roads that actually cut into the unit from the paved-then-not-paved BIA roads that skirt the edge of the large "peninsula" of Stronghold. From the Sage Creek Road on the west side of the North Unit, you can get to BIA 27 after a quick jog on the 44. The 27 will get you to the Sheep Mountain Table Road. Depending on what map you have, you may have noticed a few unimproved roads in the Stronghold Unit. As of this writing, Sheep Mountain Road is the only one that’s not fenced off. I’ve been told it’s not certain whether the White River Ranger Station will open or not this summer, so it’s hard to say if this will change soon.
Sheep Mountain Table Road is about five miles, and drivable in a sedan — not too rutted, just watch for mud. (And maybe carry along warm clothes, water, food, sleeping bags just in you get stuck and can't get service to call AAA). Out this way, you’ll see some different looks, from Mars-like, meteor shower-pocked spacescapes to verdant rolling prairie scenes reminiscent of the Southern Hills.
If you get back to the 27 and continue south, you’ll reach the BIA 2, which will take you west to Red Shirt Table Road (BIA 41). You can take this north to the Red Shirt Table Overlook, a pullover on the east side of the road with one of the most spectacular vistas in the park. Off-trail hiking is allowed in the Badlands, and slow-rolling declines here, among the steep cliffs, can be followed deep into the canyon bottoms. There are also wildflowers.
At this point, if you’re traveling east you can get to Wind Cave National Park via backroads in about and hour and a half, or retrace your steps to get back to the North Unit, or stay here and meditate.
Back at the North Unit, your correspondent encountered buffalo along the Sage Creek Rim Road, prairie dogs at Roberts dogtown, as well as antelope, mule deer, birds, bighorn sheep and porcupine, on auto and foot travels along the Loop Road and on the Medicine Root, Castle, and Saddle Pass trails. A portion of the Medicine Root can be combined with a portion of the Castle Trail to create a four mile loop, which seems to be an epicenter of animal activity. The full Castle Trail is ten miles out-and-back if you're looking for something a little longer. Dusk and dawn, of course, are fortuitous times to be out. After dark, the owls hoot and the coyotes howl.
The song of the prairie dog at Roberts Dogtown
Some Badlands friends who might consider this the on-season