Cliff Shelf Trail
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,
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,
From the brochure published by the Badlands Natural History Society.
Return to Day 8
© 1995 Karen M. Strom