Badlands National Park in western South Dakota is one of few national parks that allow you to ride your horse unguided on trails. You and your horse can spend days on end exploring the Badlands, watching wildlife, and searching for fossils.
Last fall, I drove from my Michigan home to spend five days riding in and around the Badlands. Indeed, spring and fall are the best times for horseback adventures there, with moderate to cool temperatures and few people. Every day led to a longer ride, deeper into the backcountry. Stabling a horse outside of the park meant long drives to trailheads, but it was worth it. I rode in complete solitude, enjoying the park's special qualities.
The Badlands is an area just east of the Black Hills in western South Dakota. The area gets only 16 inches of precipitation a year, with most of that falling as rain in June and as snow in winter.
The park is divided into three parts: the Main Unit-which includes the Sage Creek Wilderness-the Stronghold Unit, and the smaller Palmer Creek Unit. On this trip, I was able to explore only the Main Unit, plus a beautiful area west of the park-Indian Creek on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which is managed by U.S. Forest Service. I plan to go back to explore more.
The first day, I began at The Journey to Wounded Knee Overlook, and then rode south into the rounded Badlands hills and small washes toward the White River. A golden eagle soared above as I played hide-and-seek with coyotes and pronghorn antelope.
Though there's no trail, there's a boundary fence on the south edge of the area. Plus, two large ranges of impassable Badlands flank the area, so it was easy to "stay located," as they say. The grays, browns, and pinks of the Badlands beckoned to me as I explored dry washes and sage plains. At one point, I ran across an antelope skeleton the ravens had been working over. The area is below Bigfoot Pass, named for a band of Lakota Indians led by Chief Bigfoot (Si Tanka or Spotted Elk). The band traveled through the area in 1890 on its way to Wounded Knee. History tells the rest of that dramatic, sad story.
West of Bigfoot Pass is the Conata Basin. This is the site of the "big pig dig," where, several years ago, two visitors from Iowa discovered a large fossil deposit. For the past 10 summers, the site has been excavated by paleontology crews from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Found were fossils of hornless rhinos, hippopotamus, three-toed horses, and small deer of the Oligocene epoch, some 23 to 35 million years ago when the area was far wetter than it is today, and lush with vegetation.
As I rode, I watched carefully for-and found-small fossils that had eroded out of the soil. Their white, desiccated shapes stand out against the multicolored backdrop of the Badlands. Some were perched on top of small mud pedestals, as the surrounding soil had been washed from around the harder fossils during scant rainstorms. Aware these and other artifacts are protected by law, I took only pictures and left only hoofprints.
As I got used to riding in the Badlands, I began exploring more remote locations. Toward the end of the week, I was attracted to the Sage Creek Wilderness at the west end of the main portion of the park.
Sage Creek is characterized by grassy rolling hills inhabited by free roaming herds of bison and mule deer. I spent the next two days riding up the creek's three main tributaries to explore the high-desert Badlands at the headwaters. Nearby, the Park Service has released swift fox in an effort to restore this extirpated species to its former homeland. While I visited the park, 30 foxes were released. Each fox has a radio collar so park staff can track its movements. Next year, 30 more foxes will be released, if the project goes as planned.
This area is a horseman's paradise, with 80 square miles of easily traversable hills, long vistas, broken country with juniper and sage, and bison. There are only a handful of public areas in the West where you can ride through a bison herd and dream of a time when millions of these magnificent beasts roamed the vast Western landscape. With an appropriate amount of caution, I enjoyed watching them graze the rich bunch grasses.
The park maintains a rustic vehicle campground at the edge of the Sage Creek wilderness, where a few horsemen stay each year. The campground doesn't have potable water, so bring your own. Hitching rails are provided, but that's it. A portable round pen and barrels of water would've come in handy.
West of Badlands National Park is the long north-south valley of Indian Creek. Part of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland managed by the U.S. Forest Service, it makes for a beautiful ride of a day or two. Cattle graze on an ongoing allotment, so you don't see much wildlife. Indian Creek meanders through the wide valley, which is flanked by high Badlands and stream cuts of black volcanic soil. The creek is littered with flat pieces of rosy quartz that look like fragments of ancient frosted window glass. Cottonwood groves make a pleasant place to lunch in the shade, gazing out toward wilder lands of the Stronghold Unit to the south.
Even though these are the Badlands, water can still be found-even in the fall. Consult a topographical map, or ask park officials for the location of tanks or waterholes. Entrance to the park is $10 for a one-week pass. Camping at Sage Creek is free. TTR
For more information on riding in the park, contact Badlands National Park, P.O. Box 6, Interior, SD 57750-0006; www.nps.gov/badl. For information on the Indian Creek area, contact Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, Wall Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service, Box 425, Wall, SD 57790; www.fs.fed.us.