There are 20 National Grasslands in America and each protects a unique prairie environment. Most of these protected grassland areas were established in the Great Plains after the Dust Bowl disaster during the Great Depression and they now serve as a living lesson in natural soil management. The grasslands also harbor unique ecosystems that are threatened by modern agricultural methods. Many well adapted plant, small animal and insect species that have disappeared in rural farming areas have found sanctuary in the National Grasslands, so a venture to one of these destinations can bring back memories of songbirds and butterflies that were once commonly seen many years ago.
The Buffalo Gap National Grassland is one of the most popular because of the location and the varied terrain. This National Grassland covers a vast territory between the Black Hills and the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, so as can be imagined, the terrain is far more interesting to view than a flat grassy prairie that stretches out forever. The Buffalo Gap region is composed of rolling grassy hills, creek fed ponds, small pocket forests and the bare rock badlands, which is a landscape that looks as if it belongs on another planet. The visual appeal is stunningly beautiful, so for many visitors of Badlands National Park, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland naturally becomes the second half of a grand tour.
One of the best places to take in the views of the Buffalo Gap Grassland can be found on the western edge of Badlands National Park. The Nomad View Dispersed Campground is the spot to look for and it is located where the grassy hills meet the barren Badlands. In fact, the campsites are literally perched atop cliffs facing both the Badlands and Steer Pasture, so the panoramic views stretch out to the horizon. Unobstructed views of the hilly grasslands, ponds and the heavily eroded Badlands slope can be found on the hilltop cliff campsite perches, so this definitely is a great spot for viewing wildlife.
On the downside, Nomad View offers no protection from the elements and this camping area is subject to high winds, so it is best to check the forecast when making plans. Based upon observation, RV or excursion vehicle camping are the most popular modes and there were no tents pitched on the cliff tops during my visit, so those who have a hard side shelter will have the advantage.
Car campers will also find unique opportunities at Nomad View, because some of the barren camping pads are located on hilltop slopes that are way too steep for an RV camper or trailer to access. This means that it is possible to have an entire section of Nomad View to yourself, if you can manage camping on a steep slope. Such was the case during my visit when I nestled a Jeep 4x4 on a campsite perch that few other vehicles could possibly get to. The other campers were a few hundred yards away, so it was a peaceful quiet spot and the high vantage point was perfect for spotting wildlife. The campsite perch also overlooked a pond in the grasslands that potentially was a wildlife watering hole, which practically guaranteed that there would be some photo opportunities.
After settling into the Nomad View campsite a couple hours before sunset, it did not take long to spot some wildlife. I was expecting to see a few bison or deer on the grassy range, but to my surprise a herd of Bighorn Sheep gathered near the base of the steep eroded slopes on the Badlands side of the hilltop perch. The Bighorn were too far away for close-up portraits, but it was easy to see that they were seeking the least populated area to crossover the ridge on the way to the pond where they could drink water before nightfall. Bighorn Sheep have a habit of stopping and staring for a lengthy time while trying to assess possible threats, so it took a while for them to initiate their next move.
Apparently, I was not viewed as being a threat, because the entire herd started climbing in my direction. As they approached, it was easy to see that this was a large group of Bighorn ewes with several young lambs in tow. The elder ewes tend to make the herd decisions and one of the oldest Bighorn climbed up top to my campsite, then laid down facing away from me while overseeing the group. This sign of trust signaled to the herd that it was safe to relax and before long the rest of the Bighorn climbed up to join the party. Before long, there were a few dozen Bighorn ewes and lambs hanging around my campsite. They all took turns going back and forth to the pond downhill in the grasslands, while the young lambs required some coaxing from the ewes to get them to the waterhole, because they were as curious about me as I was about them.
Needless to say, the Bighorn encounter was a golden opportunity to do some wildlife photography and the herd was so relaxed that there was no hurry when capturing images. In fact, I only spent about 20 minutes photographing the Bighorn, even though we shared the campsite for more than an hour. The camera and big lens made the lambs even more curious, so the once in a lifetime photo opportunities were practically endless. All the while, the elder ewes kept an eye on the overall picture to ensure survival and as the sun went down the herd moved on to a safer spot for the night.
Sharing a Nomad View campsite with a few dozen Bighorn Sheep for a precious couple hours definitely was a great way to end a long day of touring Badlands National Park! This wildlife encounter certainly was a memorable one and it was difficult to limit the number of keeper photos to a manageable amount. When a situation like this occurs, setting the camera down and just chilling out with the herd is best to do. A lot can be learned by observing the interactions, while the behavior of the curious lambs is genuinely heartwarming. For these reasons and more, be sure to keep the Nomad View Dispersed Camping Area in mind when planning a tour of Badlands and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland!
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