Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Caprock Coulee Trail and What a Grand Send Off from TRNP

Wednesday July 30, 2014
Juniper Campground
North Unit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Dakota



It’s the morning of the last day.


Today is our last day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park so we plan to use what we’ve learned to get a cool morning start on a 4.5 mile hike on the Caprock Coulee Trail.  This is a loop that starts just a short way up the park drive from the campground, goes to River Bend Overlook with the CCC shelter and returns.

We don’t get to the trail as early as I’d like so I think I will just hike the first mile of it which is a guided Nature Trail and turn around for a 2 mile hike so I will miss the intense sun of a noon return.  David goes on ahead.

The trail follows the “coulee”, another name for a wash, all along beautiful formations and gently up hill.  There are 23 numbered posts which discuss the geologic features of the area.






The morning colors are just gorgeous as they change hues.  The hike is mostly in the shade or in the softer early sunlight.  I hike really leisurely since I have so much time to do this short distance.  I examine the formations up close from the base. It is cool in the shade of the junipers and of the formations themselves. The sage releases its scent as it brushes my clothing.


















I come to the last numbered post.  The guided trail is over.  It’s time to turn back.  But I’ve only been out just under an hour and the sun is still at a good angle. I’ll just look a little further down the path and see where it goes. 

Each time the trail steps out of the shade into the sunshine I consider turning back but then just a few feet ahead it slips back into the shade and I go on just a little further.





I’m not ready to turn back. I’ll go just a little further, until the trail breaks out onto the prairie.



Although there are no longer any numbered posts, the trail is easy to follow because of the trail marker posts along the way.  My one criticism of the trail system in this national park would be that the trail marker posts do not have the name of the trail on them.  Or anything on them for that matter.





It’s a nice gentle series of climbs, some with steps between the flat more prairie sections




In one treed section I notice a lot of white spots on the leaves and ground in this area.  I know what that means and look up to see the nest.   It’s not terrible high up in the tree right next to the trail. 

When I look down I see the feather.  But the owner is not around.   I’m thinking it must be an owl.  I look for pellets.  No luck. 

As much as I want to take the feather for good luck, I leave it for someone else to discover with delight.  I hope they will leave it too………take only pictures, leave only footprints.








At the top of a set of steps I find that I am up on a butte.   Hmmmm if I turn around now I can stay in the total shade on my way down.   How much further is it to the River Bend?   The views of the tops of the buttes are mesmerizing.   I keep walking.









Another up, another view.






I’m in the no shade zone but it is still very nice.  I know in my mind that it will turn on a dime to heat and here I’ll be with the entire way back to hike.  But I keep going.  Up in the sky two raptors are flying.  They come fairly close but are moving too fast for me to get good shots of them.




Boy does that look  like fun.  Judy, could this be a golden eagle?  Or is it wishful thinking?






I can see the river far down below.  I must be getting close to River Bend.

I meet two hikers coming from the River Bend and they say yes I’m very close.  I ask if they have seen a man up there and give them David’s description.  They say no.   So I figure he has already started back down.

Now that’s a problem since I have agreed to pick him up at 11:15 even though I knew there was no possible way he could finish the hike by that time.  It’s his persistent underestimating.  Part of the “unrealistic optimism” he seems to have despite years of experience to the contrary with regard to how long things take him to do.  Right Carrie?? <grin>   But, I did say I’d be there.




I come to the park road, cross it to the River Bend parking lot.  I walk over to look out to the CCC shelter to make sure he isn’t there checking on that rattler. 

At that point I’ve gotten turned around and am not sure exactly where I came in to the overlook.  Not intending to do the whole hike I didn’t bring a map but I did look at the one the folks I spoke with had and it appeared to them and to me that I would need to walk down the road a bit before I could connect to the return trail.  That seems a bit odd but that’s how it looked. 

Now the problem is which way on the park road.   I think I recall that I need to head back the direction I came so the trail will loop back to the same trailhead.


I start to walk down the road when I hear someone blow a whistle. It’s an odd sound out here, belongs on a ball court.  For an instant I think, could that be David?  He’s never blown a whistle before although we carry them in our camel backs in case we are ever in trouble.  I often whistle for him because I can whistle pretty loudly if my lips are in shape.  David never whistles.  He can’t make anything but an air sound.  It really is too funny. 





I dismiss the quick thought and walk on.   I’m looking around and glance up to my right and there he is going the wrong way.  I call to him.   He sees me, comes over and explains that although he has two maps, he took a wrong turn on the trail and ended up behind me by 10 minutes or so.   I’m amazed.  I had no map and had no trouble at all getting up.  He blew the whistle because the folks I had seen on the trail asked him if he had missed his hiking partner, having talked to me earlier.  He said no she hadn’t come but when they described “her”, he knew it was me so he thought if I was still in the area, he’d blow the whistle and it worked.  Well sort of.

So now to the second part of the loop - down.  We consult the National Geographic Map of the park trails which he has brought.  I HIGHLY recommend this map to anyone who is hiking in any National Park.  Pretty sure they have them for them all.  They are not inexpensive at about $10-$12 each but more than worth having.  They are waterproof and just wonderful maps.

The map shows that the folks I met on the trail were incorrect when they told me none of the trails out of the parking lot was the other end of the Caprock Coulee.  There it is and I am going the wrong way on the road.   Now there is a stroke of luck to have run into David when I did.  

He was worried about having to hitch hike back since there is no way he could make an 11:15 pick up.  Now he doesn’t have to and I don’t have to walk the road up to the next pull out to recognize I’ve gone the wrong way.




The trail back is different from the one coming up.  It was not shady at all until the very end but it does allow many views of the river.  It crosses over the rock faces at  points which is fun. 

I was expecting, since the way up had been gradually up, that the way back would be gradually down.  Not so.

Much of the beginning of this trip back is up again and the down that finally comes is more steep. 





But look at these fun paths over the rocks faces.  David is just amazed that they actually route you over the rock faces.  He has been worried ever since we’ve been here about people climbing on the rocks and damaging them.  But I guess the park service feels there isn’t much damage to these rocks that weathering and rain won’t erase.   Or at least I hope that’s their thinking.








Notice the trail back  is out in the open sky, no shade until near the end.










Yes the trail goes right between those two hoodoo type rocks.  Amazing to be up so close and on top of them.








It’s tough watching your step when you have such fabulous views all a round you.





Here are our wildlife sightings for the day.
I think we’re looking at a sagebrush lizard and cute little rock wrens.
Unfortunately, no bighorn sheep on any of the rocks.







David  starts down the final descent.   A long down and a steep down.



Since this leg is shorter, next time I might hike it in reverse to get the climbing out of the way during the cooler time and take a leisurely shaded trip back in the sun.  But either way it’s an excellent trail.



The trip back seems shorter in spite of  all the ups to more fantastic views.  The down is steep but not too long and we can see Ruby waiting patiently as always for us in the parking lot. (you “might be able to see that bit of red in mid picture here).

We are back in time to have missed MOST of the heat but are glad to get out of the sun for the afternoon when the high goes up to 94 degrees.





It’s the evening of the last day.


In true overdoer fashion, after dinner, David wants to take a last drive up to the top to look for Bighorn sheep on the rocks.  We set out about 7:15.  Again we stop at very pull out along the road and with binoculars scan the rocks and canyons on one side, the prairie on the other.  We reach Oxbow, the end of the road, turn around and do the same thing on the way back.  Drive, pull over, get out, scan, back to the car, repeat.

He’s not quite given up but he does admit that in 30,000 acres much of it canyons and side canyons, our chances are not great.   But he really wants to see a bighorn sheep.






We’re going down the road with David looking off to the side for the next possible stop when I see not one big horn sheep but a herd. They are crossing the road and he doesn’t even see them.

STOP! I shout. He does but they of course start running up the bank by the road.  But he’s quick and grabs his little Panasonic which gets these pictures of them hustling off the road.

Luckily they stop to watch us within distance for my erratic camera (that’s a story I haven’t told yet) to enable me to get some shots of them too. 







They feel safe enough at this point to stop and look back at us to find out perhaps what we are.













What a thrill to see this group of I think mostly females and young ones. They graze a while, eating the yellow clover, walk down a slope and then give us their backs as they leave. We are the only ones here to see this sight.








As we get back in the car, I look up and see one lone bighorn looking down at us.  What a picture!
David wanted to see bighorn sheep and he sure did.  Maybe not a ram with the quintessential horns but an entire herd of sheep not just one.







We have definitely gotten more than we came for and it is getting dusk as we move down the road where on the opposite side of the road are some of the bison also grazing.  They are a long way off but there is no mistaking it when you see a herd of bison no matter how far away.

We stop to watch them for a while before continuing.   Even though we have actually seen many bison since coming to North Dakota, I never tire of them.  They are fascinating noble creatures.   I am just thrilled every time I see them back on the prairie where they belong and from which we almost eliminated them.  My thanks to all those caring people at the end of the 19th century who saved them from extinction.






Then we come around a corner and there is a mule deer on the side of the road.  He takes one look at us and scatters.  We get out of the car to watch him. 

He’s hiding in the junipers watching us watching him.  Can you see him?  We out last him and finally he decides we are no threat and comes out more in the open.  He finally turns around to leave, looking back at us and then disappears into the deeper trees.  It’s getting darker.










On we go.   We are at the bottom of the canyon, not too far from the campground, when I look up and see one lone figure silhouetted against the darkening sky.  It’s just a magnificent sight.  This wild creature standing atop it all in complete freedom.  One of the most moving things I have ever seen.




I zoom in to get a close up and he seems to bow.



We think we are seriously on a roll so we head down to the Longhorn Pullout which says the small herd grazes here in the late morning and evening.   But no luck here.  We’ve had more than our share of luck for one evening as it is.   This has been our big animal day as our first day was our big bird day.  But every day here has been an amazing day


  We have so enjoyed our time here and really recommend that you come and see for yourselves.  Remember there are no hook ups anywhere and no dump station at the Southern Unit.  Also think twice about coming in the heat of July or August.  But do come.

As we head for home and call it a night, the sliver of a moon high in the sky over the buttes is a beautiful send off for us from the park.



Thank you to the natural world for such a glorious time here and such an extraordinary evening send off.
We love you all.


  1. Wow you are in such a beautiful area. The pictures of the animals and scenery are amazing. Glad David was able to see his sheep and neither of you got lost on your hike. Enjoy your new site.

  2. Wonderful, just so wonderful!

  3. Fantastic look at a beautiful park.

  4. I'm so glad you made the last effort and were rewarded with the bighorn sheep. What an amazing site to see an entire herd. I also love the picture of the single creature looking down on his world.

    I can't believe how hot it is up there...some 20 degrees than it was here yesterday in Georgia. Can't wait to see where you go next.

  5. Can't decide which I love more - your posts describing places I've seen and getting perspective through someone else's eyes OR being introduced to places I've never been and getting excited about going there. You manage to do both. So glad the hiking didn''t become a fiasco!

  6. Great sighting of the bighorns. Our best ones were in the Canadian Rockies ... mostly in the Banff area ... seeing the quintessential ram standing against a ridge was a highlight of our trip.

  7. Amazing... absolutely amazing!!! How fortunate that both of you managed to see the end of the hike together;o)) Then the last evening wildlife extravaganza sure was quite a final tribute to a beautiful place:o))

  8. No words can do justice to your terrific pictures of nature's wonders. A special place to spend time, with or without a map... ;c)

  9. Your hike description of "just a little further" sounds completely like me (especially without a backup trail map at map). Oh, think of the trouble we could get into together! How nice of the sheep to wait until the "golden hour" to make their appearance to you.

  10. So many sheep! So glad Dad was an over-doer for that! Nice hike and lucky you and Dad happened to meet up where you did! What lovely views and terrain. That's more than I gave North Dakota credit for :) 94 is HOT! Glad you got back to shade before that really hit! Great ending to the day seeing that lone figure atop the butte. Beautiful :)

  11. Glad you got to see the herd of sheep! Thanks for a great tour of TRNP.

  12. Gorgeous rocks:) Beautiful Big Horns:) Love those little ones with their curious looks. So glad David got to see the sheep before you left.

  13. a great ending to a great day indeed...

  14. I have no doubt that you two would always find each other :-). The golden eagle and the bison and even the bighorn sheep are so majestic. But the lone deer bowing at the top of the cliff.......she brought tears to my eyes. What a gift, that nod to your experiences in this place that not all would find as magical as you do. Hope you're headed somewhere cooler, but so glad you spent the time here.

  15. Wow, what a great day to end your visit at TRNP. We looked, but never were able to view any big horn sheep. You were fortunate.

  16. So glad you two finally found each other! :) Nice visit to a park we skipped. Shame on us.

  17. As I count every day as a lucky day to be alive, this one was particularly lucky and I can appreciate that all the more as I look back now and see it all as one, thanks to your blog post. Another great post.

  18. Now that's a wonderful way to end your stay and the day at TRNP. So funny that you both got kind of lost and then found each other. As much as I hate to say this, sometimes the trails are a sacrifice to protect the rest of the landscape. This Park has now gone on my list. But what's up with the camera?

  19. I'm so glad to read that you finally got to see bighorn sheep!! An eagle too! Sounds like a perfect day to me :-)

  20. When I told John that I wanted to go to North Dakota in addition to his choice of South Dakota, he questions me as to why. I just keep reading your blog to him and showing him your photos. He's convinced....finally. Thanks.

  21. All I can say is WOW! Those are some of the best pictures ever! The sheep are amazing and you got so many great close ups of them! Love the mule deer and I was moved by the deer on top of the hill and I wasn't even there! Absolutely fantastic and to think you saw all of that and there were NO people around just vast beautifulness!!! Thanks so much! XXXOOO

  22. very happy David was able to see the sheep. . .we had the privilege of seeing a herd at Rocky Mountain National Park.. .they really are magnificent animals. . .

  23. What a fabulous sighting of the bighorn sheep! We've seen a handful at Anza Borrego State Park, but never an entire herd! So cool. Very fortuitous turn of events that brought you and David back together on the trail!

  24. Wow, another fabulous adventure. Amazing sightings and great captures. We had our share of sighting of bighorn sheep on our way to AK along the Yukon territory.
    Thank you for sharing your adventures, ND has surprised and amazed me.


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