Jones Creek Trail in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park,
just north of Medora, ND on I-90
Access: From the national park entrance in Medora, follow the single park road to the beginning of the paved loop where a left turn will put you on a route to arrive at the west Jones Creek TH parking area in a couple of miles.
Map: Park map, or USGS 7.5' quad: Fryburg NW
Trail: 3.5 miles between the two parking lots over gentle terrain, following Jones Creek. No shade or water along trail.
Fee: $10 for 7-day vehicle pass
Dogs: not allowed on trails
Weather: Current and recent weather from Painted Canyon Visitor Center
July 22, 2008
Since the wind was blowing monstrously by 5AM, it was obvious there would be no flying on the survey, so, Joe and I took advantage of the free time to check out the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We rolled into the park around 8:00, cruised the park drive, and stopped at the TH for Jones Creek. Under a cloudy sky, we watched as a herd of about 25 bison appeared from the sagebrush to the west of the road and crossed into the tiny parking lot where the truck was parked. They werenít but 30 feet away, yet seemed to pay us no attention. I hopped up into the back of the truck to watch them and snap a few photographs. In short order, they all passed by and went on up the trail that we were about to hike. In the distance, a few startled cries rose up as a group of casual hikers came up over a rise in the trail and into the herd of bison. They all beat a quick patch downhill off the trail and into the sagebrush. The bison cruised by, nonplussed. The hikers arrived at the parking lot about the time we had our packs shouldered and ready to roll. The encounter had been a nice excitement for most of them.
Joe and I headed off down the trail, which was wide and relatively flat. Either side of the trail was lined with grass and silver sage, while Jones Creek ran in a curvy cut-bank creekbed to the right of the trail. A think trickle of muddy water ran in the bottom of the creek over cobbles. Further away from the trail, the hills and buttes rose up higher, mostly covered with grass and shrubs, but some exposing slopes of bentonite clay looking like melted wax. Junipers and green ash dominated the draws and gullies. Itís quite a varied landscape. Crossing a gully, we looked to the north and saw three dark-colored wild horses with white faces on the ridge, watching us, calmly swishing their tails. The wind was still blowing pretty stiffly in our faces as we walked east, and eventually we came upon the herd of buffalo that we had been following at the junction of two creeks. On the hillside far above, a massive bull bison watched over his harem, occasionally flinging himself down and rolling in the dust. He was extremely large, with long, dark hair surrounding his head that tapered down into a long, drooping beard, and covered his front legs down to his hooves. Once the herd had passed a few hundred yards beyond the creek junction, we approached it, and went the other direction, following the trail. If they noticed us at all, they gave no hint of it.
On this trail went, under stubbornly cloudy skies, through a wide valley lined with more buttes and hills with grass slopes mixed amongst striped clay inclines and great chunks of red scoria lying around like modern art sculptures. We noted lots of hoofprints in the clay of the trail, and after walking up and over a few small rises, came upon a second herd of bison camped out in the valley. Once again, a giant male bison was watching over them from a spot halfway up a large hill. I never knew that bison operated in a dominant bull-harem model, but this was clearly the case with each small herd we saw. Long, prolonged grunts, more like growling, came from this second herd almost constantly. It would be hard to stumble upon a herd without realizing itís there simply because of all the noise they make. Since this herd was blocking the trail, we decided to hike up a draw to the left and check it out. We skirted the herd with a wide berth, and none of them seemed to notice us as we found a small path that led up to a small plateau at the head of the draw. The sun came out as we made our way up the draw, and it got hot in a hurry. At the top we encountered a large clay butte with runneled streamers of melted orange and white clay. The formations here are pretty spectacular.
We walked back down the draw, returning to the trail about 20 minutes after we had left it. All the bison were gone, so we continued east on the trail, which was often composed of 2 to 4 parallel tracks rather than just a single track. In less than a mile, we encountered the herd making their way south off the trail. We watched and waited until they were all safely on the far side of Jones Creek before heading by. Some of them stopped and watched us. We kept moving and they lost interest. Crossing by a short gully, we came suddenly upon a lone bull hanging out by himself, quietly, munching on grass. It was close enough to make us both nervous. We kept walking past him some ways to put some safety distance between us (probably not enough) and then stopped quickly to snap a few photographs from a distance of 30-40 meters. He looked up at his, chewing his grass, and we quickly resumed walking away, and he went back to his breakfast. Exciting stuff. I was aware from placards in Yellowstone that lots of people get gored by these seemingly benign animals every year, so itís worth reminding myself that they are not as gentle as they seem.
Before long we found ourselves at a trail marker that pointed the way to the east parking lot of the Jones Creek trail in 1 mile. We decided to continue on to the road before turning around. Near the road, the trail passed by another spectacular butte of hardened clay looking like melted wax, with orange and white stripes. The sky was filled with little puffs of clouds, which gave the whole landscape a depth it hadnít shown when we began the hike.
We sat at the parking lot for a few
minutes, sipping water, before heading on back down the trail. The hike
back went pretty quickly, with the heat building and providing incentive
to keep moving. We encountered no bison on the walk back, but evidence
of their passage was everywhere. We arrived back at the truck about 3.5
hours after we began the hike.
Page created 7-23-08