Home TripsAcross the Country Hiking the Caprock Coulee Loop

Hiking the Caprock Coulee Loop

by Grant

Normally, I wouldn’t write an entire article about a single hike in a national park, much less a popular 4-mile loop like the Caprock Coulee Loop, but our experience on this hike warrants a bit more.

First and foremost, there is a reason this trail is popular among visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It has staggering views throughout the hike. Even before things got really interesting for us on the trail, this trail had already jumped into my top five of trails in a National Park. Yes, it has that much pretty packed into a relatively short, moderate trail.

Along the Caprock Coulee Trail
Along the Caprock Coulee Trail

So, let’s talk about our experience on this trail and what makes it worth its own post: close encounters of the bison kind. While this is not the first time we have hiked in areas with plenty of bison, it was, by far, the most interesting… and terrifying!

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The Basics of the Caprock Coulee Loop

This hike is located in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit, about an hour north of Medora, where the South Unit is located. Once in the park, it’s another seven or so miles down the scenic drive to the trailhead. 

Pro Tip: Were I to do this hike over again, I would recommend doing this hike first thing upon arriving in the North Unit. It makes the views so much more amazing if you haven’t seen some of them from your car.

Bonnie hiking on Bentonite.
Bonnie hiking on Bentonite.

AllTrails lists this a moderate hike with a 583-foot elevation gain. If you go counter-clockwise, the uphill will be long but gradual. If you go clockwise, the uphill is mostly in the first half-mile. While it is a bit steep, you get it over pretty quickly. 

Be sure to talk to a ranger about trail conditions as there are several sections that cross areas of Bentonite clay, which can be quite hazardous if wet.

The First Mile

We chose to do the hike clockwise to get the uphill out of the way. In hindsight, I would recommend doing the hike the other direction so you aren’t tired for the nature trail portion of the hike but either way is great.

Caprock Coulee Trail
Caprock Coulee Trail

Not surprisingly, the first mile was our slowest in terms of speed. We took a couple of breaks as we ascended but there were also quite a few trees to shade us and plenty of views to distract us. 

There were a couple of places we needed to scramble a bit but the reward was excellent views of the Little Missouri River in the distance. 

The Second Mile

Mile two had a bit of up and down as we made our way back towards the road and the River Bend Overlook, with its CCC-built shelter overlooking the river.

There are a couple of places along this section of the trail where it seems the trail heads in several directions at once. The AllTrails app came in handy here and we were able to correctly navigate the crisscross of human and animal trails. 

The Little Missouri River from the Caprock Coulee Trail.
The Little Missouri River from the Caprock Coulee Trail.

The trail skirts the parking lot for the River Bend Overlook. Be sure to head down to the overlook if you haven’t been there already. You spend the last section before crossing the road walking through dense vegetation next to the road. It almost feels like you are walking in an overgrown ditch but that quickly passes and you are out on the prairie just as you cross the road. 

The Third Mile

When we drove through earlier in the day, we stopped here to take pictures of a herd of around 30 or so bison and admire the views. By this point in the day, that particular herd had moved further west. 

Still, we were on our guard for bison. We had seen plenty of bison thus far that day and had no doubt there were more out there. We weren’t as worried about running into a large herd as an ornery bull.

Caprock Coulee
Caprock Coulee

It was about then that we spotted our first bison along the trail: a lone bull munching on grass downhill from the trail. Despite all of our hiking in Yellowstone National Park and Custer State Park, home to the top two bison herds in the country, we have never encountered a bison on the trail before now. 

I was thrilled! 

Bull bison along the Caprock Coulee Trail.
Bull bison along the Caprock Coulee Trail.

It is one thing to see a bison from the safety of your car. It’s another thing to be out on the trail with nothing separating you and the bison but air. It is just so exhilarating. I took some pictures as the bull continued to munch on grass, happily ignoring us in the distance. 

That is exactly the bison encounter on the trail I was looking for: close enough to get some good pictures but not too close to be hazardous. 

After a bit, we left the bull to his grass and continued down the trail. 

Knife’s Edge Ridge

Then we came upon what I regard as the best view in the entire park. The terrain narrowed to a knife’s edge ridge and the views in both directions were simply mind-blowing. 

We stopped here to take some pictured and admire the truly amazing views. The Park Service was so excellent to put a bench right there so you could admire the panorama.

Bonnie admiring the view on the knife edge ridge on the Caprock Coulee Trail.
Admiring the view on the knife’s edge ridge on the Caprock Coulee Trail.

In the distance, we spotted a small bison herd! Using the zoom on my camera, I was able to tell there were around 20 or so bison in a canyon below us. So cool! 

A bison herd we spotted in the distance... and got to see up close and personal later on.
A bison herd we spotted in the distance… and got to see up close and personal later on.

We began descending through a stretch of woods. The shade was nice but there were a few mosquitos. We avoided most of them by just keeping up our pace. That said, spraying down with some bug spray before the hike would have been good. 

As we finished the descent, the trail opened out into a canyon floor. There, a bit more than 100 yards away, was the bison herd we spotted earlier! 

Grant hiking through thicker brush on the Caprock Coulee Trail.
Grant hiking the Caprock Coulee Trail.

The Bison Herd

Once we stepped out into the canyon floor, the bison could see us and we could see them. We didn’t approach them. I want to make that real clear. We kept at least 100 yards between them and us. 

I took some pictures and Bonnie took a moment to relieve herself (we drink a lot of water when we hike). Once Bonnie finished, she joined me but stayed closer to the far canyon wall. I stayed in the middle, taking pictures. 

At this point, we were just trying to assess which way the trail continued and if the bison were in the way. It didn’t take long to figure out that yes, the trail continued right where the bison were hanging out.

Bison herd as we walked out of the woods on the trail.
Bison herd as we walked out of the woods on the trail.

The bison started moving around a bit more, then quickly took off to the left out of the canyon and up a hill. I commented to Bonnie that something must have spooked them. Then they came running back down the hill, still well ahead of us, and to the right into another offshoot of the canyon. 

“Huh. That’s weird. I wonder what caused them to run back to where they were running away from?”

Bison herd coming back and heading the other way.
Bison herd coming back and heading the other way.

Then they popped back out and started running towards us! At this point, I was basically in the middle of the canyon while Bonnie was closer to the canyon wall.

“Get up the wall, now!” I yelled to Bonnie as I ran full speed toward the wall. 

We scrambled up the side of the canyon wall, getting about 10 feet or so off the canyon floor. The bison thundered past. 

Bison stampeding by.
Bison stampeding by. I took this picture with my iPhone.

I have never felt that much power in my life. 

We watched as this small herd raced past us, leaving a handful of bison behind. As we sat on the badlands wall, the remaining bison just stared at us, still about 100 yards ahead, right on the trail. We waited, patiently, contemplating the experience, and how we would finish the hike and get back to our truck.

Eventually, a couple of bison headed off up the hill, well away from the trail and us. A couple more eventually passed by us to rejoin the main section of the herd.

Still, we could see a momma and a couple of other bison circling around a calf. Then it hit me.

The bison thought we were predators. This is classic protective behavior. 

One of the bison cows had a bloody nose following the stampede. We aren's sure why.
One of the bison cows had a bloody nose following the stampede. We aren’t sure why.

Damn. We really hate that we spooked this herd. As always, we had no desire to cause them any distress. We just came out of the woods and there they were, right on the trail.

As we waited, we watched the remnant of the herd standing on the trail watching us. It became quickly obvious that the bison did not appreciate our presence!

We thought about crossing back across the canyon to get out of sight of the remaining bison. On the one hand, this seemed like a good idea. On the other hand, we didn’t want to get caught out in the open if the herd decided to return.

Grant watching the stragglers in the distance.
Grant watching the stragglers in the distance.

We took a few minutes to sit down and have a snack and wait the bison out. As we munched, we could hear a bison grunting somewhere around the bend in the canyon wall. We could hear the grunting but could not see the bison. Then a lone calf came running by us.

Boy, are we glad we didn’t try to cross then! Eventually, though, it became obvious the momma bison and her calf were waiting on us to leave before rejoining the herd. We knew at that point we needed to get out of the bisons’ line of sight. Considering the bison were standing on the trail, we chanced the open ground and made our way across the narrow canyon.

This momma bison was quite concerned about her calf and would not rejoin the rest of the herd until we moved off. She was treating us like predators.
This momma bison was quite concerned about her calf and would not rejoin the rest of the herd until we moved off. She was treating us like predators.

We quickly crossed and scrambled up the other side of the canyon and got behind some trees and waited. It took a while but momma bison and her calf finally came walking by. We waited until they were well out of sight before scrambling back down to cautiously continue down the trail.

The Fourth Mile

I am not going to lie, this experience rattled us a bit. We were both excited and scared at the same time. Bonnie said she was really glad she relieved herself BEFORE the bison stampede. Otherwise, it might have been a bit messier.

Less than half a mile later, we got our next trial: a lone bull bison standing on the trail scratching his head on the trail marker. 

Great.

If we were on the open prairie, this would be easy to deal with. We would detour wide until we passed the bull and be on our way. Here, it was a bit more tight. The trail led into the woods and the woods were dense. We had canyon walls on both sides. The trail was right in the middle of a bottleneck, terrain-wise.

At this point, Bonnie and I had a miscommunication on what we were going to do. She wasn’t thrilled with pushing forward at all (understandably so!). I wasn’t thrilled about possibly running into the herd again by backtracking. I thought I saw a way. Looking back at Bonnie, I told her to hold tight and wait for my signal.

This big bull was using the trail marker to scratch his face.
This big bull was using the trail marker to scratch his face.

I swung wide left of the bison, hugging the canyon wall until I climbed a rise where I could see past the canyon and the bottleneck the bison was blocking. I turned back to see Bonnie crossing the open ground before I signaled to her.

My plan was to make sure we could skirt around the bison on higher ground (and we could) and then keep an eye on the bison while she crossed. Unfortunately, she did not hear me and thought I had just taken off not listening to her. 

She was upset (and rightfully so!) and a bit unnerved that the bull kept looking at her as she crossed. 

In our defense, we were keeping our voices down to not alarm the bison. We did not want to piss off this bull. That contributed to the miscommunication. Still, I feel bad that Bonnie thought I just walked off and left her. Later, Bonnie realized that she should have waited and trusted that I would not intentionally put her in a risky situation. Of course, we were both still rattled from the experience and not thinking clearly.

At the top of the rise, I consulted the map on AllTrails and found a way that paralleled the trail for us to take away from the bison. We followed this track for a bit and then cut back through the brush to get to the trail. It was muddy and the brush was thick but we made it through. 

This is one reason I suggest all hikers have basic land navigation skills. You never know when you will need to navigate around an obstacle on the trail and then find the trail again.

Whew!

The Caprock Coulee Nature Trail

We rejoined the trail just in time to find the posts for the nature trail. I am not going to lie, at this point, we weren’t really in the mood to learn about the various flora and rock formations along this part of the trail. That’s one reason I suggest going counter-clockwise… after four miles and our adventure, our hearts just weren’t into it.

Still, we stopped at a couple of the exhibits and spotted a rabbit. 

Then Bonnie asked me, “Ok, what other animals do you want to see on the trail?”

Spotted this rabbit along the trail. He was a welcome respite from the bison.
Spotted this rabbit along the trail. He was a welcome respite from the bison.

Since we had seen a couple of bears on the trail in Yellowstone National Park and a moose in Isle Royal National Park, I have had a list of animals I want to see beyond standing on the road, like a wolf and a mountain lion. I don’t want to have an up-close and personal encounter but just to see them from a distance while not in a car. 

“I still want to see a rattlesnake,” I replied. We have hiked together for 11 years in plenty of places with rattlesnakes and I had never seen one in the wild, surprisingly. 

Of course, we were hiking through prime rattlesnake habitat as I said this. “Shut up,” she replied harshly. “We aren’t done with this trail yet.” 

We turned a bend in the trail, nearing the end, and ran into another couple. 

“Watch out! There’s a rattlesnake in the grass!”

“Well, you got your wish,” Bonnie groused. Rightfully so, as she was done with dangerous animals on this particular hike. 

A rattlesnake in the grass. Believe it or not, this is the first rattlesnake we have ever spotted on the trail.
A rattlesnake in the grass. Believe it or not, this is the first rattlesnake we have ever spotted on the trail.

The snake was, indeed, right off the trail and the other couple used a stick to encourage it to move away from the trail. They didn’t hurt it but didn’t want it right next to where people walk. 

After taking a few pictures, we got in the truck to make the 90-minute journey back to Medora. We were spent.

“That was a great hike,” Bonnie said. 

“No, that was an epic experience,” I replied. 

Final Thoughts on the Caprock Coulee Trail

Wildlife encounters aside, this is seriously one of the best hikes I have ever taken in a national park. There are so many “Oh wow!” views that it seems like it can’t get any better. 

In particular, the view at the bench on the knife’s edge ridge was something truly special. 

View from the Caprock Coulee Trail.
View from the Caprock Coulee Trail.

In terms of our encounter with the bison, I feel like these particular bison were not that accustomed to humans. It stands to reason since Theodore Roosevelt National Park is not exactly the most visited park in the US and the North Unit is even less visited. 

Therefore, I understand the reaction the bison had seeing us come out of the woods more than a 100 yards away. I understand why they would judge us a threat. As I said before, we hate we had that impact on the bison. We wish we could have communicated we meant them no harm. 

Still, the important lesson when dealing with bison is you never know the comfort level of the animals around humans. We kept a safe distance and did our best not to surprise them or make sudden movements and still, they were spooked. 

The other important lesson is have a plan B. We made use of plan B a few times on this hike and I am glad it worked out for us. 

Still, it was scary… and exhilarating!

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