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Prairie Hiking: Wide-Open Spaces

It's the easiest hiking on Earth, and you get to sleep with buffalo, listen to coyotes sing, and bask in quiet so deep you can hear the grasslands growing. Welcome to the prairie.

Bullion Butte

Little Missouri National Grassland, ND

Like the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park 16 miles to the north, this sun-baked, wind-scoured land has been laid open by the elements, with its rough edges softened by the riffles of the Little Missouri River. Dominating the skyline is the 3,358-foot-high Bullion Butte, a sandstone landmark that anchors the still-wild Little Missouri badlands. Mixed-grass prairie spreads out from its base in wooded draws and rolling swells.

Prairie paths: You won’t find designated hiking trails, but climb the rocky slopes of the butte to its grassy, treeless summit and enjoy the spectacular view of the badlands. Or float the Little Missouri River in a canoe (call ahead to check water levels). Potential wilderness: 19,880 acres.

Contact: Medora Ranger District, (701) 225-5151; www.fs.fed.us/r1/dakotaprairie/medora.htm.

Sand Hills

Sheyenne National Grassland, ND

Oak savannas once spread over an estimated 30 million acres of the plains. Today, less than 1 percent of those acres remains, with the largest example of tallgrass, prairie-oak savanna being the 6,600-acre Sand Hills area in the Sheyenne National Grassland. At least 42 species of rare or sensitive plants can be found here, including one of the last large populations of the threatened western prairie white-fringed orchid. This is also the strutting ground of one of the last two sizeable populations of greater prairie chickens in North Dakota. The Sand Hills area represents our last chance to include the tallgrass-oak savanna ecosystem in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Prairie paths: Wander the open savannas or hike the 25-mile stretch of the North Country National Scenic Trail that winds among the sand dunes and prairie grasses. Potential wilderness: 18,120 acres total (when combined with the nearby 11,520-acre McLeod unit). Contact: Sheyenne National Grassland, (701) 683-4342; www.fs.fed.us/r1/dakotaprairie/sheyenne.htm.

Cow Creek Buttes

Thunder Basin National Grassland, WY

Tall buttes, sheer escarpments, spires, sagebrush, dust devils, coyotes howling-according to the Sierra Club’s Kirk Koepsel, this is “the real Wild West, the quintessential backdrop for old-time Western movies.” Of all the proposed wilderness grasslands, this one is arguably the most scenic. Mixed-grass prairie carpets the flats. Ponderosa pines fringe the mesa tops. Golden eagles soar overhead. Occasionally, elk tracks are found in the pine forests.

Prairie paths: With wide-open grasslands and long ridges, this land needs no designated trails. Autumn, when the cottonwoods blaze yellow in the creek beds, is a beautiful time to hike here. Potential wilderness: 18,180 acres. Contact: Douglas Ranger District, (307) 358-4690; www.fs.fed.us/r2/mbr/thunder.htm.

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