Sean and I awoke in our tent in Juniper Campground in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was Saturday, September 13, our last full day in the Dakotas. The journey through three National Parks, two National Monuments and a National Memorial Park had been glorious, but had involved a great deal of time behind the wheel of our rented Jeep. This would be a day of hiking. I said to Sean, “I want to walk out of this campground, have an adventure, and walk back in.”
It had been another freezing night, but the sun was already warming us from the outside while strong percolator coffee warmed us from within. The camper nearest us, a fellow camping alone in a huge tent a few sites away, had already packed up and moved on, so we had the northern end of the campground to ourselves.
We wanted to do a solid, but not overly ambitious, day hike that could start and end at our campsite. We chose an out-and-back with a loop, sort of a trail lollipop. Our plan was to begin on Buckhorn Trail from the point where it intersected the park road at the entrance to the campground. We’d follow Buckhorn clockwise (northwest) for 1.6 miles until a spur trail heading west connected us to Caprock Coulee Trail, a 4.2-mile loop. Then we’d head back on Buckhorn the way we’d come. Our route promised to cross prairie, sagebrush flats, and woodlands, while climbing 400 feet from the river into the bluffs and the prairie table.
We were slow to get started that morning. Partly it was the weariness of the end of a long trip, and partly it was savoring our final leisurely campsite breakfast. I was somewhat dismayed, though, that the cloudless sky we’d woken to was becoming increasingly overcast.
We set off through the campground and crossed the park road. Our first stop, right at the trailhead, was the Cannonball Concretions Pullout.
From the interpretive sign:
The large spherical boulders in front of you are called concretions. They may have any shape, but most are round. Concretions are formed within rocks (shale, clay, sandstone, etc.) by the deposition of mineral around a core. More concretions will be exposed here as erosion continues.
After pausing with the cannonballs, we signed the trail register and set out across the mixed-grass prairie and sagebrush. The trail, as the warning sign at the campground had promised, was overgrown, but we didn’t have much trouble following it.
To our left, beyond the sagebrush, reestablished wetlands were drowning a distant woodland.
To our right was a wall of bluffs.
As we trekked along, multiple trails crisscrossed Buckhorn, but these were wildlife trails, mostly made by Bison. The actual trail, even when it was overgrown or narrowed, was indicated by occasional low wooden trail posts.
The air was fragrant with sage, and we ran our hands along it, transferring the fragrance to us, as we passed.
After about a mile, we came to a creek, cringingly named Old Squaw, that carved a steep, narrow channel through the sagebrush flat. The trail skirted it for a length, and we saw lots of wildlife tracks in the soft clay edging the water.
The trail climbed a low bluff, and we passed a clear trail-marking post. We descended, and in the distance we could see another trail post. But in front of us the trail appeared to dead end at the creek. We really weren’t sure what we were supposed to do. It wasn’t that we minded crossing the creek, we just honestly were baffled about what came next.
I went for it and climbed down the bank, crossing in a muddy section of creek bed and getting an extra moon boot layer of gumbo on my boots for my troubles.
Sean considered jumping the creek. He threw me his pack and almost attempted it. (Considering a misadventure he once had jumping across a creek in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with his friend, Matt Barnes, I think that his not leaping may have been for the best.)
Video: Brandon Hayes
Ultimately, Sean crossed much as I had, but at a different point. We started along the narrow trail, but soon it too abruptly ended at a twist in the creek. This time it was obvious that we had been on a Bison trail, not the actual trail. We worked our way back until we saw a broad trail. Surely this was it. But it too turned out to be a bison trail. We slowly discovered that we were on a little peninsula formed by the creek’s meandering. At the peninsula’s base was a low, steep bluff. We worked our way around it, and Sean, who was in the lead, spooked a trio of Black-Tailed Deer.
We back-tracked until we were staring across the narrow expanse between banks at the obvious trail with its marker that we’d approached on. According to both maps of the park we had with us, Buckhorn Trail crossed Old Squaw Creek once and and only once at this point.
We recrossed the creek and waded off through the sagebrush in a straight line toward the distant trail marker, which was on a small rise. We picked up an obvious trail near where a spur trail for the Long X Trail Pullout connects with Buckhorn.
Thereafter, the hike was easy again, although still pretty overgrown, as it is in the photo below.
After walking along a low ridge above a wetter area to our right, we reached the spur trail to Caprock Coulee Trail.
The trail led due west toward some bluffs north of the park road. These created the eastern side of Caprock Coulee. Coulees are narrow, steep valleys in the Badlands. Caprock Coulee Trail led directly up its namesake valley.
Sean took a guide pamphlet for Caprock-Coulee Nature Trail from the bin at the trail register and stopped to declaim its informative passages at the numbered posts along the nature trail (the first .8 section of the loop).
The “caprock” of Caprock Coulee’s name refers to the hard sandstone outcrops of exposed, harder rocks that erode much more slowly than the underlying clay.
After a while, we noticed petrified logs and large splinters on the opposite slope.
Then we saw a large chunk of petrified wood near the trail. We walked over for a closer look.
Video: Sean M. Santos
What’s ironic is that if we’d known we’d be so easily able to see petrified wood at the North Unit, we’d not have attempted the hike to the petrified forest at the South Unit.
The trail climbed from near the valley floor into a wooded slope. There was clear evidence that Bison used this human trail. Deep hoof prints pocked the path.
We arrived in a large clearing that marked the end of the coulee and the nature trail. We stopped to take a break and have a snack of trail mix.
After our snack, we continued on. The trail rose steeply to a flat above the coulee.
It then entered a thicker juniper and deciduous woodland, climbing steeply in switchbacks.
From the woods, the trail emerged on the slope of a windswept, grassy ridge.
Video: Sean M. Santos
From the top of the ridge, the Badlands stretched all around us.
Video: Brandon Hayes
The trail continued along the crest of the ridge, with Juniper woodland on the north side and windswept brush on the south.
Throughout this section of the hike, the wind whipped over the ridge. I pulled my hat tighter and lower on my head.
Eventually, the ridge broadened and joined the high mixed-grass prairie above the Little Missouri Badlands.
We crossed the park road some 400 feet higher than when we’d started and approached River Bend Overlook, which we’d driven to the evening before.
Just before reaching the overlook parking area, the trail ran immediately adjacent to, but didn’t join, the park road.
Video: Sean M. Santos
We stopped for lunch at the overlook, sitting with our backs against the wall of the CCC-constructed shelter, munching on peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches.
While we sat there, a woman with a small leashed dog approached and struck up a conversation. Her name was Kathy. It turned out the she and her husband Don were the campground hosts at Juniper Campground.
We told her we were in spot 22, and she said, “Oh you’re that little tent back in the woods.”
“Yes, that’s us.”
Kathy told us how she and Don were the hosts for August and September, as they’d been the previous year. Then in October, they’d take their camper and drive down to run the visitor center at a National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico for October and November. Then they’d head back to their home in Florida for the holidays before setting out on other adventures next year. Ah, retired life.
We chatted a bit about Bison, and Kathy mentioned that the herds had begun to make their way down from the high prairie areas to the valley of the river where they would spend the winter.
As we sat there, after Kathy and her dog had continued on, I kept feeling like the world was tipping forward and I was going to fall off the edge of the overlook. I had this sensation even though I was sitting on the ground with my back to a stone wall some four feet from the edge. I took a slug of water from my bottle, shrugged it off, and finished eating my sandwich.
We shouldered our packs and continued on the trail, which rose from the parking area and split off from the park road. The road switchbacked to the left to descend to the valley floor. The trail launched us to the right for views of the valley and the river.
Up here near the overlook, Sean had cell service. I asked if he could double check that it would take nine hours to get back to Sioux Falls for our 6:05pm flight the following evening. He was surprised, thinking that it would only be about three hours. I said that we were at our farthest point from Sioux Falls of the entire trip. He confirmed that it would indeed be not quite nine hours according to Google maps. Oof.
We’d noticed that “Will” and “Will’s friend” were also at the overlook. They overtook us, and we watched them follow the trail as it crossed a saddle and climbed a high bluff.
Video: Brandon Hayes
This saddle, comprised of bentonite scoured into fanciful formations, was a touch unsettling for me. The wind blew, and I punched my hat on my head to keep it from blowing off. On the steep trajectory up from the saddle (made more vertigo-inducing since it started adjacent to the drop off into the valley), I took a breath and forged quickly on and up.
Nothing here, though, approached the exhilaratingly steep and narrow trails we’d encountered at, say, Pinnacles National Park. But something unnerved me.
Then, up on that bluff, we approached a narrow section of trail that hit a blind right turn and my nerve collapsed. All my youthful acrophobia came back in a blistering rush, and it felt like my legs had collapsed beneath me.
I said to Sean, “Hold up. I need a moment.” I sat down on the trail with my pack to the upslope. A wave of fear came over me: I can’t go on, and I can’t go back because I don’t want to go back over that saddle. This is where I have to live from now on.
Then I felt completely stupid, stood up, and, pawing the upslope, continued on for a few paces. Then I was hit by another wave and sat back down. Poor Sean didn’t know what to do with me. And I was furious with myself. I’d been on much higher, steeper, narrower trails and thought nothing of them. But there was something about the wind, the fatigue of the end of the trip, the blind curve, that was completely irrational and terrifying.
I was also profoundly disappointed. I’d thought that I’d conquered my acrophobia, certainly at Pinnacles. But here it was right there in my head causing my to sit, mortified and immobile, on this trail.
Sean sprang into action. He counted his paces and disappeared around the turn. He came immediately back.
“Twenty paces. In twenty paces it widens out. Do you want me to hold your hand?”
“No, no. I’ll follow you.”
I pawed the upslope some more, grabbing handfuls of grass and wildflowers as I went.
“I’ll probably grab a rattlesnake,” I said.
And I was there. The trail widened into another saddle. The river valley was glorious to our right. And I could breathe again.
We crossed the saddle and stopped so I could collect myself. Looking back (above), it didn’t look so bad. I think it was a combination of wind and fatigue. But it definitely sobered me that my fear of heights can still find powerful expression.
I asked Sean if he would take my hat so I didn’t have the sensation of the wind pulling on the brim. He had also taken my camera before I made my way around the curve, but I was able to take it back now.
From that point, the trail descended rapidly.
Soon we were back at the trailhead. Caprock Coulee Trail loop completed, we headed back along the spur trail to Buckhorn Trail.
We approached Old Squaw Creek and were ready to head along the proper trail, when we noticed a huge bull Bison browsing about one-hundred yards away along the trail. We didn’t want to startle him by continuing on what we knew from experience was the actual trail. So we made a soft left along a bison path toward the bluff we knew the trail continued on. This caused us to leap a narrow section of the creek and then ford its muddy bed once more at the point we’d crossed it earlier in the day.
Our trouble kept us clear of the Bison and rewarded us with a handsome Leopard Frog.
We followed the trail swiftly across the prairie and sagebrush flats, pausing infrequently under the moody sky.
Then, after crossing a shallow draw, we spotted a mess of Mountain Bluebirds. They scattered as we passed, but then we crept quietly back and they returned to their trees. They were feeding and talking and preening, and flying about as the late afternoon sun finally came out.
We continued on. Ahead of us, the fast-moving clouds spilled sunlight across the bluffs on the southern slopes of the valley.
And the sun lit the cottonwoods of Juniper Campground in golden green.
We signed the register and said goodbye to the cannonball concretions with an extra pang knowing the trip was coming to its end.
As we approached camp, we took a quick detour on the Little Mo Nature Trail to see the river.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Back in the campground, we were in the midst of the golden light in the cottonwoods we’d seen in the distance.
And the river near the campsites on the western edge of the campground was unexpectedly dramatic,
Then we were back at camp. It had been a grand, challenging, and rewarding hike…the perfect conclusion to our trip. The final distance for the hike, according to my GPS: 11.35 miles.