Saturday, November 23, 2013

Explore prairie dog town on day hike trail

Map of Buckhorn Trail, courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt NPS.
Black-tailed prairie dog
Families can day hike to a large prairie dog town via the Buckhorn Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Though little visited, the western North Dakota park offers several great trails featuring fascinating geological formations and fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities. Of the latter, the prairie dog town – a 2-mile round trip – is the highlight of many travelers with children.

June and early September mark the best times to visit, as you’ll avoid summer’s heat. On the downside, June is the park’s wettest month, which can make the clay trails slippery; bring shoes with good traction if visiting then.

To reach the trail, from Interstate 94 take U.S. Hwy. 85 to the park’s north unit. The park entrance is north of the Little Missouri River on the highway’s west side, and known as Scenic Drive Road. On Scenic Drive, pass the Buckhorn Trail’s two trailheads (one just past the visitor center and the other near the Cannonball Concretions Pullout), and park at the lot for the Caprock Coulee Trailhead.

Caprock formation
The trailhead is located at the center of lot’s north side and heads east for about 0.1 miles. At the first Y junction, go right/east.

You’ll pass close to some intriguing, badlands-like rock formations. The white and gray layers consist of sand, silt and mud washed off mountains to the west beginning around 65 million years ago. Volcanic ash covered those sediments, forming the caprock that resists erosion from above.

After 0.3 miles of skirting the rocks, you’ll come to the Buckhorn Trail. Go left/north. Watch for trails markers, as there are a number of unofficial paths cutting across the sagebrush prairie.

Also watch for bison dung. North America's largest mammal freely roams in the area, and while not a threat so long as you don’t antagonize them, their friendly reminders that they once came that way can detract from the hike if stepped in.

Prairie dog town
After about 0.5 miles of walking through the prairie with the caprock formation to your left, the trail reaches the prairie dog town. Officially known as a colony, the town stretches for about a mile.

Five species of prairie dogs exist in North America; this town consists of the black-tailed prairie dog variety. You’ll be able to spot them barking from their burrow entrances as they keep an eye out for predators. Hawks, coyotes and rattlesnakes are among the creatures hoping to make an unsuspecting prairie dog its dinner.

Most prairie dogs will be easy to see because they feed on grass, which keeps the blades low. This in turn helps forbs grow among the colony, and several larger grazing mammals, including bison, deer, elk, horses and pronghorns, feed on those plants. In June, watch for baby prairie dogs, as their mothers bring them into the sun after being born and raised in tunnels beneath your feet.

Don’t try to touch or feed prairie dogs. They can and will bite. In addition, fleas on the prairie dogs carry bubonic plague. They’re best enjoyed from a distance.

After walking a tenth of a mile into the colony, follow the same route back.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.