Turkeys, mule deer, a hissing rattlesnake, barking prairie dogs, a fat porcupine, coyotes, a water snake, majestic bison, pronghorn antelope, and bighorn sheep. Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, and a wide variety of birds.
To my recollection, this was the most wildlife I had witnessed on any of my backpacking trips. I was surprised by this, as were most people that I told. I think that is because most people that go to Badlands National Park walk the short trails along the road, like the Window Trail, and see the baked gorges and mounds that appear dry and uninhabitable. Perhaps they made it far enough into the park to stop along the main road to photograph a prairie dog in the grassy plains.
The first day of our off trail adventure in the Sage Creek Wilderness area led us through seemingly endless prairie and left us to contemplate the plight of the pioneers that traveled west through this sea of grass. On the second day, navigation became much more challenging as the flat prairies gave way to a labyrinth of levels and gulleys and washouts intermingled among the spires, which made getting from point A to point B anything but a straight line. It became evident why the French-Canadian fur trappers called it “bad lands to travel through.” On the third morning it was clear we were getting close to the trailhead as we encountered a myriad of campers that had hiked up to Deer Haven for the night. This flat expanse of grass and trees nestled up in the peaks appeared to be the only one of its kind in the park.
Getting out beyond the roads, for even a couple of days, can expose one to the inner workings of a national park. I did just that last month, and while we were never more than 5 miles from a road or a ranch house, at times it seemed much farther, as for two full days we didn’t encounter another person, but saw plenty of wildlife.