“Man! That was a good hike!”

We said it at almost the same moment. It was our goal to get a enormous supply of fresh air, sunshine and exercise in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park as soon as weather allowed. Caprock Coulee was the place to do it.

Black Long Horn in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Black Long Horn in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Bison at Rest, Winter in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Bison at Rest, Winter in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Sure, if we could get photos, that would be great. Maybe, if we go to the north unit, we’ll get some longhorns or bison photos. And some stimulating scenes from a hill tops are always rewarding.

But after a long fattening winter, we needed to burn calories. So, we did. More than 2,000 calories according to our fitness app.

 

 

What made hiking Caprock Coulee so good?

Steps Near the Trail Head of Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Steps Near the Trail Head of Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

  • No one got hurt.
  • Our timing was good.
  • It was vigorous,
  • We pushed ourselves.
  • We succeeded.

Not everyone can grasp the pleasure and the reward of a good strenuous afternoon exploring the Badlands. They don’t know about the endorphins (a body’s feel-good hormones), the satisfaction and the break from real-life; it’s satisfying, addicting. It’s not hard to do. For example, in the south unit a rewarding hike is as easy as this (click here).

 

Point of no return

We choose backcountry hiking because it is a challenge. Backcountry hiking forces us past the point of ease. That’s when good things happen.

We started planning this warm January hike a few days ago. The weather looked surprisingly like April, not January.

That’s when we decided to go. First, we calculated approximate weight of our daypacks.  I carried extra camera gear and tripod, adding to the weight and our regular daypack gear (blanket, flashlight, first aid, and water). My pack weighed 30 pounds.

Mary carried supplies, about 10 pounds, in her backpack.

An earlier hiker stacked a rock cairn. We found two of them, and added our contribution to one of them.

 

Of course, that extra weight helps increase the exercise and calorie burn. That was part of our plan – to increase our workout.

 

Weather

Days earlier, we watched the weather forecasts. It looked like the three favorable weather factors could come together.

  1. Mostly sunny skies. (Winter’s low sun altitude creates shadows and contrasts that you don’t see the rest of the year.  We like a few clouds to add interest to the rough landscape.)
  2. Low winds. (North Dakota’s winds are nonstop. A “calm” day seems to be any day winds are less than 10 mph.  When we hike the Badlands, even a 10-mph wind  gets extra strong when it accelerates down a canyon, or across a hilltop.)
  3. Moderate temperatures. (Backcountry hiking creates its own heat.  The layers of clothes we start out with are too many by the time we’re a half-mile down the trail.  That’s why we like temperatures between 40 and 60 degrees.)

 

Caprock Coulee Trail

Hiking Off Trail, Following Game Trails Near Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Hiking Off Trail, Following Game Trails Near Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

The trail is advertised as a moderate trail, about 4.5 miles long, a strenuous workout when you are out of shape like we are this time of year.

The emphasis here is on “coulee.” Much of it is along a valley floor.  The Park Service makes it easy with steps. It follows the lowland below ridges and hills. Petrified stumps and logs, bentonite slides and caprocks make the journey interesting.

Following Game Trails Over Bentonite on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Following Game Trails Over Bentonite on Upper Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

We intend some day to do the whole trail, but not this time. Daylight hours are short. So, we decided to find a hilltop for the rewarding views that welcome us from the top.

The challenge and the reward of getting off the Caprock Coulee trail

Finding your way on a wildlife trail is more difficult than following a marked hiking trail.

Getting off the trail is physically challenging, and requires greater attention to the terrain, the trees, and the earth. It means ducking under low hanging branches, sliding down loose slopes, and picking the best wildlife trail to follow.

Will it require jumps that only deer can make?  Or what if it leads through rabbit thickets? Will it go through mud or snow?

That makes off-trail backcountry hiking both mental and physical. It yields a reward of accomplishment because it requires greater awareness of the conditions, the terrain, and the landscape. 

Daylight ends early in the Badlands, so we tackled only about half the Caprock Coulee trail. Even though the sun was still shining and didn’t officially set for an hour or two, in the canyons and valleys, it got dark quickly.

That’s when the challenge increased. We got off the trail and cut back to the starting point.

Our legs were tired, so we gingerly stepped down, trying not to tumble all the way. Hiking staffs became our third leg, handrails, and brakes to help us ease down the slope.

Back at the Jeep

Back at the jeep, we unloaded our gear.  You know that feeling you get when you take a pack off your back, or your piggyback child gets down? You feel like you’re floating.  I guess that must be what it’s like to feel “high.” We felt airborne.

In the jeep, our conversation often returned to the glorious feeling of accomplishment – and the leaden feeling in our thighs.

Several apps help keep track of our hikes. Our favorite is free version of Under Armour’s “Map My Run” — good for hikes. (A previous version by Under Armour was called “Map My Hike.”)

It was worth it.

If we can do this every week, by the time spring comes, we hope to be in better shape than most springs.

Okay, now where’s my ibuprofen?

Coming Up

Calorie burning, healthy and visually stunning. We love introducing people to the options of hikes and trails in the Badlands to encourage people, from family explorations, or extreme trail runners.  

Coming up we’ll show you places to put on your 2021 calendar that will reward you with healthy moments you will remember forever.  Just subscribe to this blog and you’ll get a note in your inbox when a new story is published. You’ll be the first to know.

Take a virtual tour of the Badlands by scrolling through one of several photo galleries on www.mykuhls.com (click here)

We recommend starting with this gallery of images from the beautiful Badlands of North Dakota (click here)

People also like the wildlife of the badlands in this gallery (click here).

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the Badlands open in the winter?

Yes, it’s ranch country and ranchers do not shut down for the winter. And in the spring, when weather is good, you’ll see cowboys at work. So, in winter, roads are open, as long as there hasn’t been any bad snowstorms.  The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open, but the state park, Little Missouri State Park, north of Killdeer, however, is closed.  Small towns are open for business and there is mighty fine eating in Dickinson, Belfield, Killdeer and Watford City.

Is it dangerous to hike in the Badlands in winter?

Yes, you must be aware of weather conditions and avoid exposing yourself to changing weather conditions.  Cell phone service is nearly zero.  It’s miles of gravel roads to the nearest hospital.  So, you will want to be as cautious as your physical conditions allow.   One of the best apps to get recent reviews and information trails in the Badlands is called AllTrails.  Click here to learn more.

Can families explore the Badlands?

Yes, absolutely! It’s perfect for social distancing at these 10 locations (click here).  Both the north and south units of the National Park have short easy trails such as the East Entrance Trail or Wind Canyon Trail in the south unit.

In the north unit, families of all ages will enjoy the Cannonball Concretions or Little Missouri Nature Trail.

What is the difference between the North Unit and the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

We look at the differences more fully here in this story, (click here).  The main differences are the south unit is larger, right along the Interstate, and has wild horses

Though the north unit is smaller, it is more rugged, and has longhorn cattle and bighorn sheep.

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