Boland Ridge Trail, Wind Cave National Park

Located in the remote northern corner of Wind Cave National Park, Boland Ridge Trail crosses the wide open prairie, then a series of ridge climbs offer panoramic views of the Black Hills, the Red Valley, and the western South Dakota plains beyond. Because of the isolated nature, elk and bison are often seen along this trail. In fact, we had to cut this one about a mile short because of bison on the trail. My brother Dave and I hiked Boland Ridge Trail on Thursday, May 24, 2018 beginning about 10:00AM and finishing at 12:30PM. Our plan was to go to the end of the trail and turn around, but two groups of bison made it difficult to pass, so we stopped short.

Total Length: 3 miles Hike Duration: 2.5 hours

Hike Rating: Moderate. Climbing to the ridge tops will get your heart rate up.

Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: Numbered #8 stakes

Elevation Start: 3,721 feet Elevation Gain: 430 feet

Trail Condition: Very good. Mostly grassy prairie. Watch for wildlife on the trail.

Starting Point: Parking area off park road #6. Room for half a dozen cars.

Trail Traffic: We did not encounter any other people during our morning hike… but that isn’t the whole story.

How to Get There: From Custer, SD take Hwy 385 south to Pringle then east to the park. Approximately 18 miles total distance. Once inside the park take Hwy 87 to park road #5, then to park road #6. The trailhead is one mile on the right.

 

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As you drive the dirt roads through the heart of Wind Cave National Park, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Just in the few miles between Rankin Ridge and the Boland Ridge trailhead we saw pronghorn and buffalo grazing on the vast prairie. Keep your ears open too for the chirping sound made by the prairie dogs. Oh, and please don’t run over them with your car. They will come out on the roads.

The Boland Ridge trailhead is in kind of an odd place. It’s simply out in the middle of the prairie, miles from anywhere. There’s a sign there and a few parking places off the side of the road, otherwise it’s just as nondescript as the rest of the grassland.

For the first half mile the trail traverses the prairie, crossing a small creek once. There is an old trough by the creek, perhaps formerly used by cattle ranchers. The only grazing these days is by the wild animal variety.

This area is called the Red Valley, and you can see for miles in every direction. They call Montana Big Sky country, but you get the same effect here on the South Dakota plains. You can see from horizon to horizon.

There are two small hills to be climbed, each of about 200 feet elevation gain, neither particularly steep. On this day in late May there was a variety of wildflowers including phlox and puccoon.

The pines that line the ridges here were unfortunately damaged by a grassland wildfire that swept the area in 2010. Amazingly the pine needles did not burn, but they all turned an orangish/brown hue that detracts from otherwise delightful natural beauty. Black scars are a sign of the flames that licked the tree trunks.

As we topped the second ridge the wide expanse of the rolling hills came in to view. So too did an obstruction just 50 yards away, right in the middle of the trail. A small family of bison was grazing right where we were headed. There were six right in front of us, and another two about a hundred yards farther away. They didn’t seem threatening, but we certainly didn’t plan on walking right through them.

 

The trail curved right through this small herd of bison.

 

To our left was a small hill that would take us safely around the bison, while also offering a nice view of our surroundings. There also happened to be some nice rocks at the top of the hill, perfect for sitting, and a great opportunity to change to longer lenses on our cameras. We even found some rocks under a pine tree that made a perfect lunch spot.

As we photographed the bison and enjoyed our sandwiches, we looked ahead toward the next ridge on the trail. There was a dip into a small valley, then another climb back up to the level where we were. And… there were more bison over there too!

It was looking like if we wanted to hike to the end of Boland Ridge Trail that we would have to continue mingling amongst the giant mammals that outweighed us by ten times. Discretion became the better part of valor, and we decided it was best to just cut this hike short and be content with what we had seen so far.

The return was easier as it was mostly downhill. Even more flowers were popping out now as we entered afternoon, and there were several golf and tennis ball sized mushrooms growing on the prairie grass.

When we got back to the car we decided to continue out park road #6 northward where it enters the adjacent Custer State Park. To our right was a family of pronghorn, totally oblivious to our presence. The wildlife around Wind Cave are very accustomed to people.

In summary, this moderate hike of three to five miles will give you a good idea what the above ground terrain of Wind Cave National Park is all about. They say there are usually elk here. We didn’t see any on this day, but we sure got a treat with bison and pronghorn. Because of the remote nature of this trail, you are very likely to have it all to yourself.

I don’t normally promote businesses in my trail reports, but Dave and I had such an excellent experience at the Econolodge in Custer that I had to mention it. The staff that works there are all super friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. We stayed with them for six nights and were completely satisfied. The price is very reasonable and the amenities are all that we needed. If you’re staying in Custer, SD I highly recommend the Econolodge.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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