Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Overview
Visiting a National Grassland can be a novel experience. Each is different from the rest, but all have something In common. The primary vegetation is, naturally, grass, and the sense of openness is overwhelming. At first glance the space may seem "empty," but one only needs to look more closely to gain an appreciation for the rich diversity of life that has adapted to this unusual and often harsh environment.
The Buffalo Gap is located in southwest South Dakota, and includes over 591,000 acres of prairie intermingled with eroding badlands. The "east half" of the Grasslands extends from Kadoka, SD on the east to the Cheyenne River on the west, north to US Hwy. 14 and south to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A corner of Badlands National Park touches Buffalo Gap. Wind Cave National Park and Black Hills National Forest are both close by.
Hiking and camping are permitted on the Grasslands. Since there are no established Grassland trails for hiking, you may either follow a two track road or go cross country. The Indian Creek, located west of Scenic, SD, is a roadless area that offers a wilderness experience. You may camp anywhere on the Grassland, but remember it will be a primitive camp. You will need to bring everything with you and take everything back with you. When hiking or camping, you should take your own water supply. Camp fires must be carefully attended; a grass fire can start in seconds and spread rapidly because of the wind.
For those who enjoy "getting away from it all" the Grasslands offer an array of fascinating possibilities, from fishing the numerous stock ponds, to birdwatching or mountain biking the two track trails.
The vast open prairies of the Great Plains region contain a deceptive variety of plants and animals. This variety and the relative openness make the prairie a naturalist's paradise. Many species such as the pronghorn and black-tailed prairie dog, have made special adaptations to the harsh extremes of the prairie environment. Because there is no place to hide from predators, the pronghorn uses speed to survive. The pronghorn is the fastest animal in North America, having been clocked at 70 mph. The habit of burrowing is widespread on the grasslands. The most obvious burrowing animal is the prairie dog. Burrows provide excellent shelter from predators and the weather extremes. Prairie dog colonies, or towns, are great places to see wildlife since they attract a variety of other species including swift fox and the endangered black-footed ferret, for which recovery plans are underway.
Water is the lifeblood of the prairie. Annual precipitation, either snow or rain, primarily determines how productive the land is on an annual basis. Average precipitation is 15 inches, thus, grasses and other plants adapted to a semi-arid environment are the rule. Trees and shrubs are found almost exclusively along river drainages and intermittent creeks. The long, narrow fingers of woody draws are a sharp contrast to the open grasslands and provide critical habitat for many woodland wildlife species.
As with any outdoor activity, proper planning and equipment are necessary and can make the difference between a delightful experience and a disaster. Due to the typical temperature extremes of the summer and winter, many prefer the moderation of the spring and fall. Most areas of the Grassland are readily accessible by road or trail. Keep an eye on the weather, the clayey soil soaks up moisture and becomes a good place to get stuck and help is usually a long hike away. Whenever you visit be sure to carry plenty of water. Population is sparse and you may be a long way from help.
But that's the risk you take when you try to get away from it all.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication