Cliff Shelf Trail

View from Cliff Shelf

Length of trail: One-half mile (0.8 km)

Leisurely walking time: 30 minutes

Accessibility: Parts of the trail are difficult for those with a walking disability. Steps and steep inclines limit wheelchair use. You may wish to rest on a bench mid-way along the trail.

Prairie rattlesnakes sometimes are seen on or closeby the trail. Non-poisonous bullsnakes and yellow-bellied racers may also be encountered here. For your safety, and for the welfare of plants and wildlife, please do not leave the trail.

Encircling a small slough, the trail winds through a unique spot in Badlands National Park - a wet place in a dry country - a garden hanging half-way up a cliff. Numbers along the trail mark points of interest discussed in this folder. Watch for wildlife! Especially birds, which are attracted to Cliff Shelf by food and water.

  1. Cliff Shelf formed when a block of stone broke loose from the cliff and slipped down the face. Why, and how fast, this great mass of material fell is not completely known, though water, working down through the soft rock of the cliff, was a primary factor. One can imagine a portion of this towering cliff, riddled by cracks, tunnels, and gullies, giving way and thundering down after a heavy rain.

    The chunk of stone, weighing thousands of tons, compacted upon impact. As a result, the slump is not as porous as before it fell. Drainage is relatively slow, and a small pond refills in the depression behind the front edge of the slump during the stormy months of spring and early summer. The water creates a home for plants and animals which could not long survive in the dry grassland below.

  2. Cottonwoods and cattails thrive in and around the pond. The evergreens in the area are junipers - Europeans settlers called them cedars, and cut them for fence posts. The Sioux Indians used juniper for ceremonies and medicine. They smoked kinnikinnik, a blend of juniper bark and herbs, in their ceremonial pipes. They relied upon a decoction of juniper leaves during an epidemic of Asiatic cholera in 1849.
  3. Rubber rabbitbrush grows in poor, dry soil throughout the Badlands. Its yellow blossoms brighten the autumn landscape. Indians made baskets from the tough, pliable twigs, and also chewing gum, yellow dye, tea, and medicines from other parts of the plant. True to the name, rubber rabbitbrush contains about 3% latex. Jack-rabbits, pronghorn, mule deer, and bighorn sheep browse on rubber rabbitbrush.
  4. The leaves of skunkbush sumac smell rather like the fluid skunks spray at predators. But birds eat, and seem to relish, the red fruits of this shrub which appear in autumn. From this fruit Indians made a lotion for treating smallpox.

    Are any birds in the vicinity now? The rufous-sided towhee, mountain bluebird, Say's phoebe, western kingbird, and brown thrasher all nest here in summer.

  5. Geologists say that about 27 million years ago a stream deposited the sands and gravels that compose the rock on top of the cliff before you. How could a stream flow in such a high place? During that time long past, the Oligocene Epoch, the surrounding land was higher than the cliff. The present ridge was then the low point of the terrain, rather than the high point. Sand and gravel left behind in the streambed were covered by material washed over the area later. Over the millenia they were transformed into sandstone and conglomerates. Sandstone is made of grains of earlier rock that have been cemented together; conglomerates are made of pieces of earlier rocks that have been cemented together.

    These tough rocks resisted erosion and formed a cap less easily washed away than the softer mud-rock under it. Thus, amazingly, the ridge we look at now once was a stream flowing across an ancient landscape.

    Eventually, the cap rock is so deeply undercut that it, too, falls. Do you see any sandstone or conglomerate boulders that may have broken loose and tumbled down from the ridge?

  6. The silvery-green shrub among the sumac and juniper is silver buffaloberry. The fruit ripens to a bright orange in mid-summer. Indians and settlers ate the berries raw, or dried them for later use. Today many people make an excellent pungent jelly from these fruits.
  7. Grass, the dominant plant type in Badlands National Park, grows on Cliff Shelf as well as in drier places. In the park, blue grama, sideoats grama, buffalograss, and western wheatgrass are among the most important to grazing mammals. Many birds and mammals eat grass seeds. Grass roots bind the soil and resist erosion by wind and water.
  8. Did you notice a change in the temperature when you entered this juniper grove? On a hot, dry day, the grove may be slightly moister and cooler than outside it. On the other hand, on cold, windy days the sheltering grove may seem warmer.

    Black-billed magpies seem to find Cliff Shelf to their liking. They build nests in the thick foliaged junipers where their young are shielded to an extent from the eyes of predators. Magpies are resourceful birds, ever alert for something to eat. They consume carrion, grasshoppers, and rodents. The men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition complained that magpies invaded their tents and stole food from their plates.

  9. Warning! Poison ivy! Did you notice the plant identifiable by leaflets in groups of three? Touching any part of a poison ivy plant may bring on severe skin irritation that persists for as long as ten days.
  10. The orange patches on the rock are lichens. They are made up of a fungus and an alga living together in a relationship beneficial to both. The fungus anchors the lichen to the rock with microscopic root-like filaments that also absorb water. The alga, containing chlorophyl, manufactures food from sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. Because lichen grows slowly, it is likely that rocks covered with lichen fell long before the rocks that are still bare.
  11. Do you see the pencil-size holes in the sandstone boulder with gray lichen on it? Historically, this type of rock was called "worm-hole sandstone." But now geologists write convincingly that the holes are fossil traces of plant roots that grew in a soil later covered by a thick layer of sediment. The holes are evidence of plants that grew millions of years ago beside the fossil river up there on the ridge.
  12. Here we stand close under the cliff. Imagine that we have been transported to some unnamed future time. A storm is drenching the cliff with rain. The water races through the cracks and spurts out in fountains at points on the cliff face. Suddenly the cliff shudders, and you had better run! Fast!
  13. The eastern cottontail is the animal species most frequently seen on Cliff Shelf. They seem to like this relatively wet spot. A few yards away, in the dry prairie typical of the Badlands, desert cottontails thrive. Walk this trail at dusk or dawn and you may meet with a mule deer, a coyote, or a bobcat.
  14. From this high point, we view the White River valley south in the distance. A line of trees and bluffs marks the course of the river. Beyond lies the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux. Flat-topped Eagle Nest Butte is 25 miles (40 kilometers) away, on the horizon to the left.
  15. Back of the oasis that is Cliff Shelf, the well nigh barren cliffs serve needs of some life. The least chipmunk is so well camouflaged that it is hard to see unless it moves. It is much paler than those least chipmunks which live in darker landscapes. If a predator cannot find you, it cannot eat you.

    Rock wrens resort to the cliffs, and broadcast their rolling, melodious songs from the tops of buttes. The wren may even perch on a piece of "worm-hole sandstone," and who knows? - it may find a meal there. Some modern day insect may be hiding in one of those holes.

  16. Talus is the name applied to the shattered rock piled up at the base of the cliff. The least disturbance sends the talus tumbling down, but despite this instability, a few shrubs and grasses have taken hold and may hang on for a time.
  17. The influence of Cliff Shelf reaches into the sky. Insects that hatch in the pond fly up to try their wings. Cliff swallows and white-throated swifts sail swiftly in pursuit. Toward dusk the swifts and swallows are replaced by bats which have snoozed away the day in caves and crannies and in sheltered nooks among the trees.
  18. There are several bat species here. Not the most common, but certainly the most spectacular, Townsend's big-eared bat breeds and feeds here.

    Hawks and turkey vultures crisscross the sky above Cliff Shelf in an endless search for carrion or prey on the earth below. In winter, the vultures are replaced in the sky by golden eagles.

  19. Though the Cliff Shelf detains water in its pond, it does not halt the journey of the rain frops from South Dakota clouds to the Gulf of Mexico. Tirelessly the water explores the cracks and crevices of the slump, eroding as it goes. Cracks become tunnels. tunnels collapse into sinkholes separated from one another by natural bridges. erosion triggered the slump, and erosion eats it away. Someday the shelf no longer will be able to detain the water and the oasis will die.
  20. Plains Indians made needles, thread, rope, mats, and even brooms from the prickly leaves of yucca. Yucca roots yielded soap to those who knew how to extract it. For this reason, the settlers called yucca "soapweed," and by the name soapweed this plant is called today.

    Soapweed, and all other yucca species, are partners with a small, silver-white moth in the crucial business of forging a link between one generation and the next. The female yucca moth lays eggs in the heart of the yucca flower and then gathers pollen which she rubs into the pistil. This assures the production of fertile seeds. The moth's eggs soon hatch into caterpillars which feed on a few of the developing seeds. When the caterpillars are ready to turn into pupa, they drop to the ground and burrow into the soil. There they spend the winter, slowly reorganizing their bodies by means of the biological revolution which turns them into moths. when the ground warms and the yucca readies its buds, the new moths push to the surface, and the cycle begins anew. Neither soapweed nor yucca moth could reproduce without the other.

Now that you have walked the circle of life that is Cliff Shelf, perhaps you should reflect with us on how our presence affects this fragile natural community. Our goal should be neither to add nor to subtract anything from this place. All things here - the prairie rattlesnakes, for instance - are protected by Federal law and by Park regulations. Litter dropped beside the segolily diminishes its beauty.

Common Cliff Shelf Plants and Animals

Trees:Eastern red cedar, Rocky Mountain juniper, plains cottonwood, yellow willow, American elm.

Shrubs: Skunkbush sumac, meadow rose, chokecherry, snowberry, silver buffaloberry.

Grass: Western wheatgrass, side-oats grama, blue grama, prairie junegrass.

Birds (summer list): Turkey vulture, rock dove, white-throated swift, western kingbird, Say's phoebe, cliff swallow, black-billed magpie, black-capped chickadee, rock wren, brown thrasher, mountain bluebird, yellow-breasted chat, rufous-sided towhee, lark sparrow. In winter look for golden eagle, Townsend's solitare, gray-crowned rosy finch, tree sparrow.

Mammals: Small-footed myotis (a bat), long-eared myotis, fringed myotis, Townsend's big-eared bat, big brown bat, eastern cottontail, desert cottontail, deer mouse, bushy-tailed woodrat, least chipmunk, mule deer, bobcat, coyote.

From the brochure published by the Badlands Natural History Society.

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© 1995 Karen M. Strom