Prairie Dogs & Red Beds
~Wednesday, May 25, 2022~
Today was one of those days that you just want to freeze frame the entire day, or somehow bottle it up so it’s forever captured so you have a gift that keeps on giving. But why this day? Realizing it was one to be remembered, I tried to be completely present as the day unfolded.
For starters, just opening the door to an open meadow would be enough. But add songbirds and the squeaking of the nearby prairie dogs and you can’t help but be grateful for another day. In terms of location and the surroundings, this campground of Belle Fourche (pronounced foosh) takes the cake, moving into our top 5 of the entire trip. If you’re willing to surrender a few days without the amenities of sewer and electricity (though water is available), you too could soak up this beautiful landscape. Also, Fourche’s price at $20/night sure beats the KOA around the corner (known to be one of the best KOA’s out there), at a steep $110/night for full hookups. Crazy! And they don’t have quite the views that Fourche does.
The weather today couldn’t have been better. A few clouds, but favorable temperatures (low 70’s) and not a bit of wind. Perfect hiking weather. We decided to start with the South Side Trail that we could pick up right next to our campsite. It’s as if the trailhead was put there just for us. Within minutes, we were transported to Prairie Dog Town where hundreds of prairie dogs call this former alluvial plain, “home”.
Over time, the Belle Fourche River, much larger than what we see today, transformed this valley depositing silt, clay, sand and gravel to form a river terrace. The prairie dogs over time have gravitated to this area as the soft, sedimentary soil can be easily dug. Tunnels average 6 feet deep and up to 30 feet long (and that’s just one tunnel). Their network must have hundreds of tunnels (wouldn’t it be fun to send a remote camera down there?) And do they seem busy, flitting from one hole to the next. We could see even little ones in training. It seemed 1 adult was assigned watch duty, as he/she stands on their hind legs, alerting the others of incoming nuisances like us.
About a ½ mile in, after saying goodbye to the burrowing mammals, we connected to the Red Beds perimeter trail which also surrounds the perimeter Tower Trail Loop at the base of Devils Tower (basically a trail within a trail). The Red Beds Trail is gorgeous as you are surrounded by healthy ponderosa pine forests of the Black Hills (we haven’t seen such healthy looking forests as Wyoming’s) that merge with rolling pastures.
It’s a gradual climb with an elevation gain of 450 feet (much easier than our other hikes as of late plus we’re only at 4,250 feet-about 5,000 feet less than where we’ve been lately). We were trying to soak in the peace and quiet and the smells of Spring. We kept saying how much it reminded us of the beauty of Pagosa Springs minus the huge mountains. But it does have Devils Tower! From nearly every spot on the trail, we could see this Magma mountain seem to change shape from every angle; sometimes appearing more rounded and gradual, other times more flat and steep. Even its color seemed to change throughout the day, depending on the sunshine and clouds above it. One thing's for certain….had we only seen the views from our campground and not hiked up to the base of the tower, we would have completely missed this jaw dropping experience, especially in Spring.
About an hour into our hike, we came upon the Visitor Center with its modest gift shop/bookstore and a few exhibits about the Tower’s history and geology. Did you know that Wyoming holds two firsts….President Roosevelt proclaiming Yellowstone as the first national park followed by the declaration of Devils Tower as a national monument in 1906.
But what is Devils Tower’s origin? Several Indian nations share their beliefs. The Kiowa people, for example say:
“Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly, the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so, it began to rise in to the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Pleiades.” They named it Bear Lodge. Then came the expansion of the west where expeditions took place. A military scout sent to confirm reports of gold in the Black Hills, Col. Richard Dodge, named it Devils Tower in 1875, where the Native Americans named the tower Mato Tipila, the name was misinterpreted by Dodge’s translator as “Bad God’s Tower”.
The geologic story is that about 50 million years ago, molten magma was forced into sedimentary rock above and cooled underground. As it cooled, it contracted and fractured into columns (columns range from four to seven sides). Over millions of years, erosion of sedimentary rock exposed Devils Tower. It’s hard to imagine the land mass was once 2,000 feet ABOVE the tower and how much erosion has occurred.
The tower rises 867 feet from its base, is 1,267 feet above the river and 5,112 feet above sea level. The area up top is 1.5 acres. Up close, the Tower’s columns are huge. They are the longest and largest natural rock columns in the world. Some are more than 200 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
The Tower Trail (the one around the base) is what most rock climbers take to get to their starting points. And we could see a few of them about half way up. Some 5,000 climbers come every year from all over the world to climb its massive columns. We can’t even imagine attempting a climb like this (but then again, I find most rock climbing feats completely insane). The highest we saw anyone up the side was about ½ way. And there are an astounding number of climbing routes…..220 in all. The only time they are asked not to climb (completely voluntary) is during the month of June so as not to disturb the nesting behavior of peregrine falcons on the tower.
Continuing the trail, we saw numerous prayer cloths attached to trees that all hold special significance to the people that put them there. Out of respect, the park asks they not be photographed, removed or disturbed in any way. Duly noted.
After the tower loop, we got back on Red Beds Trail where we saw another part of the park, also stunning. It was utterly peaceful as we didn’t cross paths with a single soul. And we got an even better view of the Little Missouri Buttes which are on the northwest flank of the Black Hills uplift. It was very interesting to notice the color of the dirt trail we were walking on, begin to change from brown to red as we moved along; the path even more accentuated by the surrounding green grass. Pretty cool that we were moving through layers of earth, right under our feet. When we came to a junction, where we could continue on the Red Beds Trail leading us back to where we started, we decided to take a different trail called the Valley View Trail. It traverses the Belle Fourche floodplain (now a meadow) where we were met up again by those adorable prairie dogs on high alert.
When we returned to our campsite, Jeff decided to stay back while I tried to find better wi-fi. No luck. But I did happen to meet this very nice couple from Vermont….Alec and Denise. I was dropping off some recycling directly across from their campground when they had just arrived. We hit it off immediately and even invited them over for a campfire nightcap the following evening. So lucky to have met them. With no luck on a better cell signal, I decided to drive outside the park to the intriguing ranch just outside the park entrance. The other day when we arrived, we had noticed several Texas Longhorns and a few bison on a huge ranch at the base of the Tower, so hoped they would be in view and within camera range today.
And they were. It was as if they knew I was coming to take their picture. They were right along the fence, where I settled in for a few minutes to observe. Quite a sight to behold.
Now you see why it was a “freeze-frame” kind of a day between the location, the hike, the people we met and the wildlife. Oh and to top it off, I won both games of dominoes against my hubby. Woo hoo!