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Lone Tree Loop - TRNP
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mini location map2012-09-12
10 by photographer avatarCharger55
photographer avatar
Lone Tree Loop - TRNPSouthwest, ND
Southwest, ND
Hiking avatar Sep 12 2012
Hiking9.10 Miles
Hiking9.10 Miles   5 Hrs   30 Mns   1.65 mph
 no routes
1st trip
Linked none no linked trail guides
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It's a long triplog, but if you want to read about gruff bison, noisy prairie dogs and rattlesnakes that sleep in prairie dog holes here you go..

This was not my original plan for the day. I had my heart set on doing Theodore Roosevelt National Park's 11.4 mile center loop. However, after pushing close to 17 miles the day before I decided to sleep in. An impromptu change of plans and a recommendation from the ranger led me to choose this shorter option.

The Lone Tree Loop is in the seldom-visited western section of TRNP. This is the area that lies west of the Little Missouri River and contains rugged badlands, high mesas, flat grasslands and even a petrified forest. Accessing the trails in this area will involve a river crossing. Since it was such a dry summer, I was able to make the crossing on the rocks without getting my feet wet.

The hike takes off from the Peaceful Valley Homestead. After crossing the river, I had a choice between going clockwise on the Ekblom Trail or counterclockwise on the Big Plateau Trail. The Big Plateau Trail went uphill so I decided to get that out of the way first. The trail narrows as you're basically going up a short but steep canyon. It was on this section of trail that I had an up-close encounter with a male bison.

I came around a bend and noticed this large solitary beast standing on the trail about 100 yards in front of me. Knowing that they can be unpredicatble, I came to a halt to asses my options. Staying directly on the trail meant coming face-to-face with him. That was out of the question. My options were to turn around or stick to the high grass and close to the treeline to my left.

Not being one to turn around I chose to stay close to the treeline. This would still bring me within thirty yards of the bull. It would also involve knee-high grass that's home to ticks and rattlesnakes. I lathered on the bug spray and tiptoed at a snail's pace. As I drew closer to the buffalo, he started kicking up dirt with his back legs. It's typical buffalo behavior. Kicking up dirt is a way to get rid of pesky flies, but it gave the appearance that he was about to charge. Thankfully, I passed this sentry of the trail with no problems. After rounding the bend to safety, I even took out my camera and managed a quick close-up of the bull's face. It came out pretty well, so I'll include it with some other pics.

Finally, the trail tops out on Big Plateau. The name is an understatement. The plateau is easily a mile long and a mile wide, offering great views of the badlands and North Dakota's Big Sky Country. I could see pronghorn in the distance. They bolted when they saw me on the horizon.

Big Plateau is also one giant prairie dog town. More like a prairie dog booming metropolis actually. These noisy little guys are everywhere. They scamper to their holes when they see you coming. As you get closer they start barking to alert their neighbors that you're in the vicinity. Get too close and they let out a short squak and duck down into the hole for safety. It's a comical routine and I couldn't help but amuse myself by intentionally walking toward every barking dog on the plateau.

While traversing the plateau, I also had an encounter with the parks only venomous resident - the Prairie Rattlesnake. He was sleeping in a prairie dog hole just a foot off trail. I already tempted fate with the bison, so I opted not to disturb the snake. I just snapped a few photos and continued on my way. Again, they came out pretty good, even with a point-and-shoot, so I'll include a pic of the snake too.

Big Plateau seems high up, but the trail climbs even higher to another mesa. It then intersects the southern section of the Petrified Forest Loop. The petrified forest itself is located a couple of miles further north. This section of trail is just flat grassland. Without the added entertainment of a prairie dog town, this was the a relatively boring section of trail.

At the 3.5 mile mark, I finally arrived at the Lone Tree Trail proper. Everything was downhill from here until I reached Knutson Creek in about four miles. I had another encounter with a bull bison on this section of trail, but he was standing well off trail and I was able to give him a wide berth.

When you reach Knutson Creek the trail turns east and parallels the creek until you connect with the Ekblom Trail and complete the loop. There were three creek crossings on this section of trail. The first two were dry, but muddy. Bison use these crossings and their long legs create muddy postholes in the ground. Eventually the creek starts to flow. The third crossing had some water in it. There was also a large turtle sitting in the shallow water at the crossing. I thought for certain there was nowhere for him to escape. I could get close and snap away and get some great pics. Of course, like the proverbial hare, I underestimated the turtle. I got off one semi-decent shot before the turtle saw me coming and dug his way under the mud and out of sight.

The final stretch of trail before reconnecting the loop and crossing the Little Missouri River again involves some beautiful badlands scenery and two more prairie dog towns. The first town was more of a prairie dog ghost town. There's lots of holes, but nobody home. It may have had something to do with the temperature being warmer at lower elevations (and later in the day) then it was on Big Plateau. The second town was more active, but I was a little "prairie dogged-out" by that point. My feet were hurting as I had now done close to 30 miles in two days. I was eager to put on my sandals and wade across the river.

Back at the trailhead I had an interesting conversation with a gentleman parked in an old pickup next to me. He drove logging trucks in Northern California for thirty years. I guess the treehuggers eventually won out in that section of the country. Tearing down trees has now been replaced by growing plants of a different kind - namely medical marijuana. He says he has introduced himself as being from Humboldt County to people from Europe and the first question they ask is about "Humboldt Bud". He's now in North Dakota trying to get a job driving an oil truck. Fracking is the process of using hydraulics to pump oil from underneath the earth's surface. It's huge business in western North Dakota and eastern Montana right now. He's waiting for his HAZMAT permit to arrive. In the meantime, he spends his days wandering the park and enjoying the scenery. It was an insightful converstaion and a good way to end a fun day.
"I've driven across deserts, driven by the irony, that only being shackled to the road could ever I be free"
- Frank Turner "The Road"

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