Badlands National Park: Saddle Pass, Castle, Medicine Root Loop Trails

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After visiting the Notch, we were ready for more hiking. We drove to the Saddle Pass Trailhead west of the visitor center area on the Loop Road. Saddle Pass Trail was only 0.2 miles, but it climbed directly up the Badlands Wall. Saddle Pass then connected to a relatively flat loop combining a portion of Castle Trail with Medicine Root Loop Trail. Ultimately it would be a 4.5-mile loop hike.

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Common Sulphur Butterfly on Curlycup Gumweed
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The first half of the trail was steep and gravelly, but easy to follow, with blue metal posts leading the way up what was essentially the only reasonable route.

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Then, after the trail leveled off on a shelf, we couldn’t see the next blue post. We tried what appeared to be the most obvious way up, only to reach a crumbling shelf that didn’t seem right.

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We tried two other possible paths only to meet sheer drop offs or impassible wall faces. There’s Sean in the image below trying one of the options a second time.

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Ultimately, it took two hikers descending the trail for us to know for certain which path was correct (the original ledge). Even after hoisting ourselves up, it was two more blind curves before there was another blue post. Bad form, Park Service.

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At the top of the Wall, the southerly views were stunning.

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And Castle Trail led east through a transition zone between scrubby prairie and arid Badlands.

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Plains Prickly Pear

[Photography nerds: Beginning with the photo below (save for the obvious telephoto shot of the Bighorn Sheep), I shot the entire hike with a 50mm fixed lens.]

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Video: Sean M. Santos

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Aromatic Aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)
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Bighorn Sheep tracks
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Bighorn Sheep
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Bighorn Sheep
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I am stumped as to what this is. Any thoughts?
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It’s as if this formation is melting into sand.
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Great Plains Toad
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After two miles, we reached the junction with Medicine Root Loop Trail, on which we headed west. Although quite near Castle Trail to the north, Medicine Root Loop Trail passes through much more prairie proper, rather than through the arid patches near the top of the Wall.

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Invasive Common Mullein
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Prairie Blazing Star
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Buffaloberry
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We even passed through a semi-riparian area with a small creek, larger trees, and songbirds. Although soon after, we were passing through vegetation-less areas that may have indicated ephemeral, seasonal pools of standing water.

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Image: Sean M. Santos
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On the hike, we twice passed a young woman who was hiking swiftly the opposite direction we were on the Loop. Also, on Medicine Root Loop Trail, at one point we saw a very fast moving hiker in the distance, who may have been on the part of Castle Trail. A figure in black, he was ever-so-slightly unnerving.

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After another two miles, we reached the trail junction. It was time to descend Saddle Pass Trail. At least this time we knew the route.

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A hiking couple climbed all the way up onto the formation flanking Saddle Pass to the west.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

The slippery, gravelly terrain was worse on the way down.

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But soon we were at the bottom. Just before we reached the parking lot, we encountered a handsome, young, athletic fellow who was just finishing applying sunscreen before his own trek. He inquired how long the hike took us. We said three hours (although looking at the time stamps on the images it was really only about 2.5), and we warned him about the confusing start to the trail. He said, “Well you’re both smiling, so it must have been worth it,” and off he sauntered.

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Later, Sean decided his name was Jason.

Back at the car, we decided to drive to the store at the lodge and pick up a bottle of wine and some chocolate to have with dinner.

On the drive back to Sage Creek Campground, we stopped a few times to capture images of the setting sun on the Badlands formations.

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Soon we were back in camp. I was surprised at how many campers had changed over since the previous night. Friday night had been the night of children in camp. Saturday was the night of dogs (which had to be leashed at all times). It was amusing to watch a car arrive, the owner get out, the dog get out, and then the dog lose its mind over the bison a couple dozen yards away.

We ate our supper, read a little, wrote some postcards, and then were in bed not too long after the moon rose.

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Beginning with Virgin Islands National Park, we’ve been collecting a stuffed animal of a species we see in each park we visit. For Badlands, the obvious choice was the American Bison.

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Next morning, Sunday, September 7, it was time to break camp and move on. Had this been our trip to Pinnacles, it would be time to go home already, but this time we still had an entire week to go.

We broke camp, but spent some time bringing a bit more order to the Jeep, so that we weren’t constantly searching for things. It would set up the convenient, satisfying system for the remainder of the trip.

While we packed, the bison grazed. Sean quipped that they were like huge brown Weeping Angels. Every time you looked away, they came a little closer. Don’t blink.

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A katydid of some sort.

2 thoughts on “Badlands National Park: Saddle Pass, Castle, Medicine Root Loop Trails

    1. Brandon Hayes

      Anne,

      The red stem makes it feel like pigweed, but the succulent-like quality just has me stymied. I asked some of my Openlands colleagues, and they didn’t come up with anything either. Linda, who is our resident plant expert, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

      Wonderful to hear from you. I hope you and the General are loving retirement!

      Reply

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