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Badlands’ West End: Sage Creek Rim Road, Prairie Dogs

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The pavement may turn north, signaling an end to the loop drive through Badlands National Park, but it doesn’t have to be over.  A dirt road continues through the western end of the park’s North Unit.  The dramatic views of eroded canyons are fewer and more far between, but this part of the park offers something you might have missed, as you drove through the rest of the Badlands: wildlife.

After turning off the pavement and onto Sage Creek Rim Road, The first animals I encountered were bighorn sheep…

… even though these bighorn sheep certainly had very small horns. I must have caught them at the wrong time of the year.

Roberts Prairie Dog Town

If you need just one reason to travel out the dirt road, it’s the chance to see a Prairie Dog town.  Despite the fact that they’re rodents, these little guys are incredibly cute…

… and fun to watch, when they pop their heads out of their burrows for a look around.  They’re a bit difficult to spot at first, but once you see one, you’ll see a dozen more, or maybe a hundred.

They’re not shy, either.  Of course, you’re not supposed to feed them, but you don’t have to.  Chances are, they’ll come up to you, then hang around and pose for pictures.

Another park visitor showed me a trick, to get the prairie dogs to come closer.  Take a pebble, and toss it into the air, so that it lands a few feet away from you.   The nearest prairie dog will probably come over to check it out (probably thinking it’s food — which of course, is something you should not throw to them).  Toss another pebble even closer, and before you know it, one of the creatures will be about a foot away from you.

Prairie dogs are social animals.  It’s likely you’ll see several on the same mound, or sharing the same hole.  You may also see two of them greet each other with a sort-of “kiss”.

As you drive on from the official Roberts Prairie Dog Town wayside, you’ll notice prairie dogs popping up everywhere.  Fortunately, there’s so little traffic on Sage Creek Rim Road, you can stop wherever you want, to take pictures of them.

Badlands National Park is, indeed, a place where buffalo roam.  I only spotted one lonely bison, though, far away from the road.  It’s probably best, because just like the sign says…

… you should beware of bison.  They may look slow, but give them a reason, and they can outrun you.

Badlands Wilderness Overlook

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t as many overlooks in this part of the park, as there are along the scenic loop road — despite the fact that Sage Creek Rim Road does, indeed, run near the rim of a cliff.  Not far from the prairie dog town, the Badlands Wilderness Overlook gives you a view of what lies below.  The view is much different here, than at previous overlooks.  There’s less erosion, and fewer “sharp” hills clustered together, but it’s still a bizarre landscape.

The area south of Sage Creek Rim Road is the widest section of Badlands’ North Unit.  This part of the park is known as the Badlands Wilderness Area, consisting of more than 100 square miles of road-free prairie.

You can continue on Sage Creek Rim Road until it eventually takes you out of the park, and on to South Dakota Route 44 (which leads back to Rapid City, or the southeast entrance to the park).  There is also a campground on this end of the park, but not much else when it comes to developed park facilities.  I went as far as this curve, where the road dips down from the plateau, into a rolling prairie.  Then, I turned around, and pondered what to do next.

Dinner sounded good.  I could drive up to Wall and eat at Wall Drug, then head back to Rapid City.  Fortunately, I made a better choice: skip dinner, and spend the final hours of sunlight driving back through the park, with hopes of being someplace great at sunset.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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