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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.

Red Shirt

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, SD

A scraggly juniper silhouetted against the sky high on the mesacottonwoods in the draws down lowcolorful bands in the rock cliffs in between-such is the scene at Red Shirt. Known locally as “Shoemaker Canyon,” Red Shirt is a bowl-shaped draw lined with small, often dry creeks. Two prairie-dog towns sprawl on the flats, and bison grazing in the far western portion lend the feeling that time stands still in this part of the plains. Red Shirt and Indian Creek (see page 68) are the only two of the 43 original roadless areas in the Northern Great Plains Management Plans Revision to be officially recommended for wilderness designation.

Prairie paths: The area has no developed trails, but is so wide open that you can hike just about anywhere. Try strolling along Red Shirt Creek, where you may find pools of water, even in high summer (a prairie rarity). Potential wilderness: 18,320 acres.

Contact: Fall River Ranger District, (605) 745-4107; www.fs.fed.us/r2/nebraska/bgng.html.

Indian Creek

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, SD

When summer sun bakes the rocks, Indian Creek shimmers in the heat. This area is known as the White River badlands, and unlike the terrain of nearby Badlands National Park, the land here is more rounded, and cut by three long ridges. Managed as a nonmotorized recreation area, off-road vehicles-even mountain bikes-are not permitted. Instead, you’ll see mountain plovers, coyotes, golden eagles, and bighorn sheep. Since wilderness recommendation for Indian Creek was not strongly opposed by ranchers, Indian Creek and Red Shirt have the best chances of becoming the country’s first National Grassland wilderness areas.

Prairie paths: No designated trails exist and hiking is rough. An old, two-track road that is used for “administrative purposes” takes you into the area. Since summer temperatures exceed 100:F and the area has little or no shade, spring and fall are the best hiking seasons. Potential wilderness: 24,670 acres plus a 7,650-acre proposed addition.

Contact: Wall Ranger District, (605) 279-2125; www.fs.fed.us/r2/nebraska/bgng.html.

Home On The Range

At first glance, a Great Plains grassland may look empty and lifeless. But take a closer look:

  • More than 7,500 species of plants and animals live on the prairie.

  • More than 130 species, from rattlesnakes to burrowing owls, make up a wildlife community centered around the plains’ prairie-dog towns.
  • Once upon a time, 50 to 70 million bison,

    50 million pronghorn, and more than a billion prairie dogs inhabited the plains. Their populations greatly reduced now, these creatures rely on grassland protection and restoration for survival.

  • Fifty-five threatened or endangered species, including the black-footed ferret (considered the most-endangered mammal in North America) and the western fringed prairie orchid, rely on prairies for their existence.
  • Another 728 plant and animal species in the plains are considered candidates for inclusion on the Threatened and Endangered Species list.
  • As many as half of the continent’s ducks use the prairie’s potholes for migratory stops or as breeding grounds.
  • National grasslands provide habitat for trophy mule deer, the largest bighorn sheep herds on the plains, and some of the best mating grounds of the greater prairie chicken.
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