Hiking with Bison

On Monday morning I awoke in my frozen tent about half an hour before sunrise. I climbed out from under my pile of blankets, put on my coat, gloves, hat, boots; grabbed my camera backpack and headed up the South Prong Trail. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, there were no clouds in the sky to make a glorious sunrise, but my general goal was to head up this trail, which ends in a steep climb to the top of the ridge where it connects to another trail that leads to an overlook. I would then make the steep climb down from there and take the road back to the camp ground.

The trail is easy to hike and easy to follow until it gets to the climb up the cliff so I was happily loping along waiting for the sun to rise and start illuminating the cliffs when I came around some trees and startled a bison. The bison took off at a gallop, thankfully away from me, but ended up in the trail directly in front of me. I had no choice but to stand back and wait until the thing decided to move. I took a photo with my phone (shown below) and stared at the bison as the bison stared at me. You are advised to keep at least 50 yards from the bison as they are unpredictable, large, and fast, so I kept my distance. This photo is with the long focal-length camera of my phone by the way.

Eventually the bison decided to wander off to the right of the trail and walked up into some trees from which it could glare at me through the branches. I slowly walked up the trail and the bison watched from afar as I continued on my way. Bison are a lot like cows and I think they are very wary of people and will keep a distance but can be panicked if you get too close.

The sun did eventually crest the horizon and shine on the cliffs. I lacked for an interesting foreground as I was still in shadows, so I focused on getting some close-ups of the high cliffs lit by the first light of the day. Below are some cliffs that I found interesting. I took a long vertical shot showing the entire cliff, but I like this close-up of the top better as this is where are all the interest is.

Cliffs of Caprock Canyons State Park at Sunrise

In the above photo you can see examples of the caprocks that give this park its name. A caprock is a rock that is more resistant to erosion than the surrounding material, so as the area around it becomes eroded it can form a table or pillar or in some places hoodoos. The canyons here are surrounded by beautiful, dramatically shaped cliffs thanks to this phenomenon. I also like the reddish color of the cliffs against the cool blue sky. This reddish color is accentuated by the warm light at sunrise and sunset as show above and below.

Caprocks at Caprock Canyons State Park at Sunset

Onward to the climb. The Upper South Prong trail ends in a steep and treacherous climb up to meet a couple of other trails that take you elsewhere in the park. The first part of the climb takes you to a lower cliff with a precariously perched boulder on the edge. I envision the coyote standing there with a pry bar waiting to send the boulder tumbling down on the roadrunner as he stops for birdseed at the bottom of the cliff. Below is a photo of the boulder from behind as I was hiding from the bright morning sun to take this photo. The South Prong trail winds through the valley to the left and back to the campground.

Cliffside on the Upper South Prong Trail in Caprock Canyons State Park

It was a lot of work processing the above photo. The sun is overwhelming and the sky to the left is quite white, though I did give it a yellow tint. I also worked a lot on the sea of yellowish-green trees in the valley, trying to get them just right. This might be my favorite photo of the entire trip, so take that for what it’s worth.

The climb to this cliff was the easy part. From this point the trail is much more difficult to follow and involves a lot of climbing on jagged rocks and loose pebbles. There are trail markers to keep you from getting too lost on your way up but I did take a few wrong turns before correcting my course. Wearing a 40 pound backpack made the climb that much more enjoyable, I might add. The iPhone photo below is pretty representative of the trail up this cliff.

I stopped to look around and rest a few times, but I did eventually make it to the top. At the top it was cold and windy to go with the layer of sweat that I had worked up climbing the cliff. But once on the ridge, it is pleasant hiking and the trail is easy to follow. There is also cellular reception on top of the ridge and below is a selfie that I sent to my daughter from the top of the climb. Please remember that it is shot with the wide-angle camera of my phone.

The trail eventually leads to a fork from which you can hike back down to a place called Fern Cave and then take the North Prong Trail along the other side or hike along the ridge on the John Haynes Ridge Trail to a scenic overlook and a climb down from there. I chose the trail to the scenic overlook instead of the scenic underlook. It is a little over two miles through the grasses and low trees across the ridge with many overlooks to either side of the trail. I saw no evidence that bison ever make it up here (and bison generally leave a lot of evidence) so I didn’t have to worry about them.

Eventually I made to the overlook, and quite an overlook it is. The view is vast and panoramic and I really didn’t know how to shoot it. So I ended up using a fallen park sign in the foreground to state the obvious. I rested up here for a while, not looking forward to the climb down the rocks. It was at this point that I saw my first humans of the day who had made it up to the overlook from the opposite direction.

Scenic Overlook on John Haynes Ridge Trail at Caprock Canyons State Park

I made the climb down and only slipped and nearly fell on my butt once. This was a much easier climb and probably the one that most people make. A lot of the stones had been arranged like stairs and there were only a few places that involved much scrambling. I eventually connected with the North Prong Spur which leads to a parking lot and road that I was to take back to the campground. It was here that I began developing more bison problems. As soon as I turned on to this trail I found another bison in the trail and this bison seemed to be an avid hiker as I ended up slowly following her back to the parking area.

After we made it back to the parking area, she went her way and I went mine, but once I had gone about half a mile down the main road, I found that there were a couple of large bison bulls hanging out in the road and they seemed to like standing in the road. There was really no way around these guys and they were a lot less afraid of me than I was of them.

Bison in the Road at Caprock Canyons State Park

So, I stopped and waited. And while waiting I want to point out that all three of the above images of bison were shot with a telephoto lens and I was not close to these animals. The bull on the road was shot at 400mm and he still looks far away.

Eventually a couple of park employees came up the road in a pick-up. The driver said that those bulls might stay there half the day and that they are “pretty ornery”. Much to my relief, he told me to hop in and he’d take me back to the campground. So, I hopped in and the last half mile of my hike was in the backseat of a pick-up truck and I made it back to camp completely un-gored.

I went into town for lunch and then I hiked another trail in the afternoon to scout out a sunrise location for the following day. Not sure if those photos are all that wonderful but I may post them next time. Thanks for reading.

34 thoughts on “Hiking with Bison

    1. I really enjoyed hiking there. It is just a long drive to get there from my house. There is another canyony park out there called Palo Duro. Palo Duro is closer to Amarillo and much more crowed. I wanted to try that park but couldn’t get reservations.

      Liked by 3 people

        1. I am told that the area is the second largest system of canyons in the United States. It’s no Grand Canyon, but it is a pretty area and worth the drive once in a while. It is a similar drive for me out to Big Bend, but a lot of that is interstate highway instead of bouncing though all of the little cow-towns.

          I don’t mind the bison that much. They don’t voluntarily approach people, but sometimes they just end up in the way. The park apparently has a lot more of them that were pinned up in a pasture somewhere during my visit. There are also a lot of prairie dogs and coyotes in the park. The most irritating animal out there would have to be the humans, though.

          Liked by 3 people

  1. The cliffside photo that you worked so hard on is my favorite. It does look like a beautiful place to hike.
    Glad that you saw bison but didn’t have to wait all day on them to get out of your way. Next time take a book with you in case the park rangers don’t come. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And thanks, I am not sure I like the way I edited that photo as the shadows still seem a little blue to me, but if I drop the blues it looks unnatural. I also struggle a lot getting the white area of the sky warm enough as it kept turning green on me, but it is maybe warm enough now.

      Liked by 1 person

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