Actually, it felt more like spring hiking. A nice warm south wind brought the mercury up a bit over the weekend and Amber and I got some hiking done.
On Friday, I didn't even need to wear a jacket as we explored a few miles of the Maah Daah Hey Trail along the Little Missouri. I began to attempt to open up the wire fence to climb through at the beginning of the trail, broke part of the wire, then realized I had a key for the gate right next to the hole in the fence. A small group of horses was grazing on the floodplain across the river from us. A magpie in a juniper on top of a hill across the river from the Cottonwood Campground caught Amber's eye. We decided to climb the hill, which just allowed us to see how much more hill was behind it. The view from there was nice, though, with a small forest of junipers in the shade behind the hill and a sweeping view across the Little Missouri floodplain. We followed feral cat tracks down the heavily braided trail through the sagebrush back to the car. The mixture of melting snow and flour-like clay soil thickened to a sort of muddy pancake batter that clung relentlessly to our boots and pants.
Saturday, we attempted a more ambitious hike, a 12-mile loop from the Jones Creek Trail, connecting with the Lower Talkington Trail, then the Lower Paddock Creek Trail, then followed the road back to where we started. I say "ambitious" because there was utterly no one out there for miles and miles, and we passed not one human for the duration of the hike. Weather was still warm, but cloudy and threatening to sprinkle. As we started the walk, a group of about a dozen bison was feeding on a hillside near the trailhead. A few miles of braided trail after that, I looked ahead to see another 20 or so bison about a quarter mile ahead. I hoped that they weren't on the actual trail, but sure enough, one was standing right by the post. We walked closer, cautious now that we were on foot and approaching an entire herd of animals that any one of which could smash our heads.
This was a different situation for me, a herd of potentially deadly and unpredictable animals. From my prior luck with mountain goats becoming aggressive toward me, I wasn't too keen on pressing my luck. I wasn't scared or nervous, but cautious. Amber reached her comfort zone before I did. I approached the situation like I have other large mammals - I made my presence known before I suddenly appeared at close range. The group scampered upslope near the trail, but not far enough for me to feel safe continuing on the trail. I was just thinking about whether more bison might be in the creekbed out of sight and whether I wanted to start going that way when another group of a dozen bison came sprinting out of the gully and across the flat toward the rest of the group. They all stood there staring at us. We gracefully skirted across the dry creek that had cut down sharply and through the junipers to keep our distance. Back there, I found a juniper tree the bison had been essentially taking apart - branches were on the ground and chewed on. They continued staring. We got back to the trail after circling around and continued down the trail without incident.
To me, the Jones Creek Trail was fairly boring. I suppose it's scenic, but it all looks the same after a while, and it's not anything better than what you'd see anywhere else in the park. Once we hit the Lower Talkington Trail, things improved. I spotted grouse tracks in the snow, and no sooner had I said something about it than eight grouse of one kind or another flew over the ridge to our left. We climbed a hill to the top of a plateau, which gave us our first expansive views of the surroundings after being in a valley the entire way. Eventually, the trail led us to a dried mud fortress of capstones and cracked dirt, topped off by a huge chunk of petrified wood. It's interesting to me to think that when that tree was alive 60 million years ago, the animals that lived in and around it would have been mostly unfamiliar to our modern eyes.
We stopped for lunch in a fairly scenic spot overlooking an expanse of badlands. It was utterly silent, except for one gust of wind that made the grass hiss. Four mule deer half a mile away trotted out of sight once they were aware of us. Farther down the trail, we encountered two or three golden eagles soaring overhead, a red-tailed hawk on the horizon calling "keeeeeer!" and two large mule deer bucks that bounded into the brush as we came around the corner. The broken, difficult terrain leveled out into a flat expanse on the Paddock Creek Trail. A falcon flew by at eye level. As we walked through the prairie dog towns, only a couple of their denizens greeted us with their barks; the rest remained unseen. A bull bison grazed far off the trail as we neared the end of the trip. Sore and relieved to be back, we collapsed into the car, mud drying on our jeans.