Saturday, December 14, 2013

Observe elk, bison on Wind Cave N.P. trail

Bull elk at Wind Cave National Park.
Photo courtesy Wind Cave NPS.
Map of Elk Mountain Nature Trail,
courtesy Wind Cave NPS.
Day hikers can spot elk on the prairies and foothills of a short trail in Wind Cave National Park.

While most visitors check out this South Dakota national park for it complex cave system, there are plenty of great hiking trails above ground. Indeed, visiting the caves requires that you join a tour group, anathema to the hiking soul, which enjoys roaming and lingering as one pleases.

The 1.2-mile Elk Mountain Nature Trail is among the park’s great aboveground trails. It heads through a mixed-grass prairie, a ponderosa pine forest, and crosses a creek and its riparian ecosystem along the way.

Bison and prairie dogs
To reach the trail, from Hot Springs, S.D., take U.S. Hwy. 385 north into the park. Turn left/north onto the park road, heading past the visitor center. Then take the only road going west into the Elk Mountain Campground, which sits at the base of foothills that turn from prairie to ponderosa pine forest as heading west. Park at the fee station and check in to inform the ranger that you’re hiking the trail rather than camping.

Continue by walking west down the campground road. The trailhead sits between Campsite No. 20 on the north side of the road and the path to the amphitheater on the south side. Walk the trail counterclockwise by going right/north onto it.

The trail loops northeast past several ponderosas destroyed by wildfire and into open prairie. Bison often can be spotted in the grasslands to the north, but don’t worry about them charging you. A fence separates them from the campground.

And though difficult to see in the distance, there’s also a prairie dog town about 600 feet across the fence. A spur trail takes you to a tree near the fence for a better view of it and the bison.

The main trail next swerves southwestward, heading back toward the campground then into the ponderosa forest. It loops south, crossing a creek that runs out of the foothills toward the park road. The high point west of and nearest the campground is Elk Knob, rising to 4,752 feet above sea level.

September's elk show
Elk usually can be spotted near the trail. The native subspecies, Eastern elk, disappeared from the area in the 1800s, and the Rocky Mountain subspecies was introduced to the national park in 1914.

They are an impressive sight. Bull elks can grow up to 1000 pounds and five feet high. An average set of antlers on one can weigh 30 pounds.

If hiking in late spring or early summer, those antlers might not look like much. Elk shed them each spring and grow a new rack. By mid-September, however, the antlers are immense, and you may be treated to two bulls sparring as the mating season begins. You’ll also likely get to hear the bull elk bugling, a series of screams that can be heard for miles.

Elk feed on grass and forbs, which are abundant in this area. Because only wolves hunt elk and there are none of the former anymore in the park, the latter’s population is large.

While elk don’t mind you watching them from a ways off, you shouldn’t approach or try to interact with them. At best, you’ll simply scare them off, spoiling the main reason for hiking the trial; at worse, they will defend themselves, and that can be deadly.

Pets welcomed
The trail, after heading east through the forest, swerves north for its last leg, ending at the amphitheater.

Nine interpretive signs can be found along the trail, offering the opportunity to learn more about the ecosystem. Leashed pets also are allowed on the hike.

Be aware that sometimes prairie rattlesnakes cross the trail, so you may want to instruct children in advance about how to avoid snakes and familiarize yourself with what to do if a bite occurs.

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