Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Mini Episode 3.5: “The Big Surprise”

For anyone following along on our epic 5 1/2-month road trip, you know I’ve been chasing a dream photo of a bighorn ram … a male with a magnificent head of “curls.”

bighorn ram with “curls”

We saw ewes on our first drive through the Badlands back in September.  And a juvenile ran across the road in front of us in Big Sky.  But even with a trip up to the Rio Grande Gorge, all we managed to spy were some fresh tracks in the mud.

bighorn sheep tracks at the Rio Grande Gorge

So, we decided to cut short our time in New Mexico and spend three nights in Rapid City, S.D. on our way to Canada.  A ranger at the El Morro Visitor’s Center had assured us that bighorn sheep sightings were almost guaranteed in the Badlands.

a ranger at El Morro assured us we would see bighorns in the Badlands

We’ve gotten into the habit of shorter drive days to build in time for sightseeing or weather delays.

Oscar and Maddie safely secured in the back seat

The wind gusts through northern New Mexico were 65+ mph, and we took our time carefully driving past blown-over semis.

we saw lots of blown-over semis in the 65+ mph winds!

Checking the map, we realized that a slight detour would take us directly through the Black Hills National Forest,

the Black Hills National Forest

And past the Crazy Horse monument. The on-going work is 100% privately funded and the expected completion date is 2050.

the Crazy Horse monument

The road heading into Rapid City is lined with attractions – most of them cheesy tourist traps. 

tourist traps line the road into Rapid City

And I had forgotten that fossils were such a big thing in this area.  The famous T-Rex “Sue” at the Field Museum in our hometown of Chicago was discovered right here in the Black Hills of South Dakota!

T-Rex “Sue” at the Field Museum in Chicago (photo courtesy of Chicago friend Mimi DeCastro)

Sunday morning was clear with a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine.  We arrived at the Badlands’ west entrance at 8:45 and headed straight to Roberts Prairie Dog Town.  On our way, we passed several bison standing close to the road.

bison close to the road

Just as we reached them, the prairie dogs were waking up and we got some fun shots as they popped out of their burrows into the early morning sun.

Good morning!

As we turned back onto the main park road, I spied something up ahead and quickly grabbed my binocs:  two bighorn sheep!

two bighorn sheep!

While we were photographing them, a third ram came over the hill.  Three bighorn sheep, complete with curls! And off in the distance, I spotted another pair – a ram and a ewe.  Make that five bighorn sheep within the first hour of our visit!

a ram came over the hill!

I could not have been more thrilled as we continued our drive. We stopped to photograph more of the prairie dogs that dot this section of the park. 

prairie dog burrows dot this section of the park

On the other side of the road, across a deep ravine, were three more rams.  Eight bighorn sheep! 

three rams were on this ridge!

As you drive east, the landscape changes from open prairie to iconic Badlands: high pinnacles and buttes, otherworldly rock formations with beautifully colored sediment layers. 

high pinnacles with beautifully colored sediment layers

We spied several groups of mule deer as we drove along.

mule deer

We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to chat with the rangers.  They told us that a year ago the park’s bighorn population had been decimated by pneumonia.  They lost 86% of their herd, which currently numbers around 50.  50?!? 

approximately 50 bighorn sheep are currently in the Badlands

I was grateful we learned this after we had spied our eight.  If I had known beforehand how truly rare they have become, I fear I would have given up before we even started.

We drove to the east entrance and then turned around to retrace our drive back west.  It was a beautiful day, and the park was almost empty.

we turned around and retraced our drive back to the west entrance

We stopped along the way to capture a little of the Badlands’ magic.

the park was almost empty, and we stopped to capture some of its magic

Just as we reached the Pinnacles Overlook, we spied our three big rams again – this time close to the road.  They were making their way across a ravine to the ridge on the other side. 

crossing a ravine

They seemed to be enjoying themselves, head-butting a little before standing side-by-side.

they seemed to be enjoying themselves

I turned around to see a group of six females and one male coming down the hill behind us!

six ewes!

What?!?  Without double counting the eight we had spied earlier that was five new females!  Thirteen total including six ewes and seven rams with full heads of curls.  What a BIG surprise!

As we watched, there appeared to be some drama between the two groups.  The rams across the ridge were on high alert, eyeing the female group. 

the rams were on high alert

A ewe left her group, crossed the road, and stood watching the three bachelors.

she crossed the road and stood eyeing the three bachelors

Her mate followed after her and gradually persuaded her to join the rest of his herd.

her mate gradually persuaded her to join the rest of his herd

The three bachelors made their move, crossing the road and approaching the herd from different angles. 

the bachelors made their move, approaching the herd from different angles

The valley reverberated with the sound of their magnificent horns clashing as they competed against each other.

head butting

We shared this special sighting with two women who were hoping for this type of action. 

we shared this special sighting with only two other women

Passing cars occasionally stopped to capture a quick photo but only the four of us were privileged to watch the whole story.

passing cars stopped to snap a photo or two and were on their way

Then, as quickly as the drama started, it ended. 

the drama was over as quickly as it began

Monday morning we awoke to snow, so we decided to leave any exploring for the afternoon when the forecast called for clearing skies.

view from our hotel room on Monday morning

Rapid City’s most well-known attraction is Mount Rushmore.  Here’s what TG had to say about our visit:

I find it ironic that when we visited The Badlands and all its natural magnificence, we were blessed with a stellar day of clear and sunny weather, especially for December. The next day, when we planned to visit the man made “wonder” that is Mount Rushmore, we get gloomy, overcast skies and snow, with fog surrounding the sculpture…”

Mount Rushmore on a foggy day

But Mount Rushmore isn’t the only place to see presidents in Rapid City.  Life-size bronze statues of every past American president stand along the downtown streets and sidewalks, and we stopped to photograph my hero, Teddy Roosevelt.  We found him wearing a knit cap and looking for all the world like Robin Williams in “Night at the Museum.”

Teddy Roosevelt with knit cap

I wanted a bighorn ram with full head of curls but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see thirteen so close and with so much drama!  Our three nights in Rapid City exceeded all expectations and were indeed a BIG(horn) surprise!

so many curls and so much drama!

You can view all of the photos from our unforgettable day in the Badlands here:

badlands prairie dog-9472-SharpenAI-Focus-DeNoiseAI-standard
hover on photo to arrow through the set or click on any photo to open a new tab in Flickr

Coming next:  Westward Ho(ly Cow)! Episode 4: “Christmas Lights, Northern Style”

Main Street Canora, Saskatchewan