These North Dakota Badlands ARE big enough. When the Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a flood of people interfering with solitude and enjoyment, there are options.

The Mild Mannered Explorers discovered the options are even better than expected.

No room, no space, no solitude


“No way!”

North Dakota Badlands National Parak

Traffic backed up at TR National Park South Unit.

The pair had planned for weeks to continue their regular hiking and camping trips in the Badlands. Now that it was past Labor Day and the official tourist season was over, the pair assumed the campground in the national park would be less crowded.

They never found out.

After waiting in line to drive through the park entrance, the got tied up in a traffic jam less than a half-mile from the entrance.  So, they turned around, headed to the visitor station.

“Is there something special going on,” he asked the petite woman wearing the Smokey-the-bear hat. “There’s more traffic out here than we see in the middle of summer.”

“Not really she said. It’s just been like this for several days.”

“But this is a Monday,” he said.

“I know.  And there are only five spots open in the campground.  But if you want to go backcountry camping, you might be able to do that. There are rules, though.”

He threw up his hands and as he turned to walk away, he said, “No thanks.”

Back in the Jeep, the pair sat quietly. They planned their hiking and camping trip to be during the work week away from the weekend, but it didn’t prove helpful.  “What do you want to do,” she asked.

They debated their options, turned the Jeep back around to rush from the madding crowd at the national park.  “I know a spot.  Remember a year or two ago, up north there. What was the name of that campground?” he asked.

Off to Elkhorn

Detail oriented. Precise. Prepared, she pulled out the U.S Forest Service LIttle Missouri National Grasslands map.  “Elkhorn.  It’s quite a long drive of gravel,” she said. The “National Forest Service Little Missouri National Grasslands” maps show Badlands roads, trails, watering holes, creeks, and campgrounds. They show accurate topography elevations of the rough terrain in the Badlands. 


National Forest Service Little Missouri River Grasslands maps show roads, trails, watering holes, creeks parks, campgrounds, picnic areas, and accurate topographic elevations of the Badlands.


The National Grasslands Maps are well-worn in their Jeep and in their pickup truck.  They keep them in the door pocket, easy to access, in their office and in a file so there is always one to grab when planning. The National Forest Service Little Missouri National Grasslands maps cost about $14.00 and are worth it.  One side of the map is the south portion of the Little Missouri National Grasslands and the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The other side shows the north portion of the Little Missouri National Grasslands and the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

ridges are tops for hikes forest service map

Green squares are public access and the Forest Service Map shows valley trails such as “Long X” and the ridgeline trails such as the closed “Summit Trail.”


They show roads, trails, watering holes, creeks, campgrounds and show accurate depictions of the topography of the rough terrain in the Badlands.

“I remember.  It surely won’t be like this,” he hoped. His patience had been obliterated by the congestion of campers and RV’s stalled in the traffic jam.


gravel road across the prairie on the way to Elkhorn

The drive to the Elkhorn Campsite is a long gravel road that puts travelers into the heart of the National Grasslands and gives them spectacular vistas they would otherwise never see.


The last few miles into the valley are exciting.  This video shows the drive the pair took down the winding road, down the hill to the river land.

YouTube player

Elkhorn Campground

An hour later, after a 30-mile drive on gravel roads, they pulled in to the campground.


Elkhorn Campsite in the middle of the North Dakota Badlands.

The Mild-Mannered Explorers camp in a tent. So, a treed site with plenty of protection from the weather is desirable. The Elkhorn Campground has six campsites in the trees. It also includes four pull-through sites for people with camper trailers or motorhomes.

At the far end was a camper trailer. Next to it a tent.  They surveyed the campsites carved in the trees and picked one away from the others. With experience and practice, they knew what to do to set up camp. A half hour later, the tent was up, their cooking area prepared, canvas chairs set.

Tip: Several of the campgrounds offer shaded campsites. Trees are rare in the North Dakota Badlands, so look for a treed site at one of these locations: Burning Coal Veins, Elkhorn or Magpie campgrounds. Trees provide shelter from weather and shade from the hot afternoon sun.

Elkhorn campsite in the North Dakota Badlands

The Mild-Mannered Explorers record their explorations with a large number of photographs, and pages of written observations and descriptions. It’s amazing what an explorer forgets until they go back and look at what they wrote at the moment.

Got outta camp by sundown

“Now what,” he asked. “The golden hour approacheth,” he mimicked a theater bard.

The golden hour is a photographer’s friend.  As the sun dips to the horizon during the last hour of the day, colors warm, shadows lengthen and contrasts pop.

We’re going to need firewood,” he said.  “I bet we can find some dead fall or driftwood down by the Little Missouri River.”

Do not cut the standing trees. Patrol watersheds and river banks and you will find deadwood on the ground that is the best firewood because it is dry and ready to burn.

She exacted the route and distance.  “I s’pose we should drive down there if we’re going to haul back some firewood.  It’s a long hike there and back.” 

Tip: Everyone loves a good campfire when they are camping, but there are restrictions. Open campfires are dangerous and outlawed most of the year when the fire danger index is high. So, know the restrictions for your safety and those of the entire region. Wildfires eat thousands of acres.

There is little reason to be an explorer, especially a Mild-Mannered Explorer if you do not record your explorations. Cameras and notebooks are essential.  Fall is as good of a time as any to capture the beauty of the North Dakota Badlands.

So, with cameras strapped to their bodies, the pair headed off to find firewood but kept their eyes open for sunsets and scenes to photograph.

The late day sun cast brilliant colors over the clouds and landscape of the badlands.

The Mild-Mannered Explorers arrived at Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in time to experience the pinks, oranges, and yellows of what had been white puffy clouds.

sunset and sun rays from the Elkhorn Ranch site.

From the Little Missouri River in front of the Theodore Roosevelt Elkhorn Ranch site.


By the time the pair returned to their campsite, they had several sunset photos and armloads of firewood, from thumb to wrist and arm-size dead wood.  They chopped and broke the longer pieces to fit the cast iron fire ring at the campsite.  They scavenged the hillsides for armfuls of tinder-dry grass. The standing dead grass wasn’t dry enough, so they didn’t grab any because it was still too green.  Instead, they parted the standing grass and found the dry stuff laying on the ground like a mulch.   

It only takes a spark

He piled up several handfuls of grass in the fire ring.  Then, they turned their attention to the wood they had retrieved and chopped down to firewood size.  They lay out the pieces in sequential order. They started the evening fire with the nearby smallest pieces.  He fluffed up the handfuls of grass and built a teepee of finger-size twigs over the grass. 

Tip: Be patient. Start with super-dry grass, add twigs. When you hear the twigs popping from the fire, then you can add slightly larger pieces. If you get in a hurry and skip a step, you will not succeed and will have to start over.

“Gee, you’re good at that,” she complimented him.

“It’s easy when you’re as hot as I am.” 

Keeping an eye on the growing fire, they went about making themselves at home, positioning their chairs upwind of the smoke.  Green sticks whittled down to a point provided the tools they needed to skewer a hotdog and roast it over the open fire.

campfire hot dogs in the Elkhorn Campsite in the North Dakota Badlands

Hot dogs for supper

The pair bent over the Forest Service map to look for their proximity to the Maah Daah Hey trail and other hiking areas.  Some of the nearby Badlands are private property, some areas are public.  The pair plotted a hike that would give them a challenge and elevation for tomorrow’s hike. 

Before the night gets cold

“Let’s get cleaned up and get to bed before it gets much colder,” she suggested.

campfire elkhorn camping

Setting a pan of water directly on the hot coals as they die down is an efficient way to get warm water for washing dishes or for a sponge bath before bed. Of course, a long stick is needed to lift the pan in and out of the hot coals.

“I agree.  Here. I’ll heat some water so we can clean up.”  Using a long and strong stick, he lowered a pan of water on to the coals where it heated up just as efficiently as on a gas stove.  “If it’s too hot,” he said when he lifted it out, “just add some cold water to bring it down to a comfortable temperature.”

The fire died down to coals.  Because they had selected pieces of dead ash and oak they found lying along the river, they had the right kind of wood to leave warm coals until morning.

The night’s sleep was warm and the pair slept hard because they had prepared for the cold night.  

Tips coming up

The Mild-Mannered Explorers continued their cold-weather camping the next day.  Tips for staying warm when the temperatures approached freezing. That story is coming.  Just tell us where to send the notice to you when that story is published.  Add your email address to the subscribe box up above.

Tasty Tuesday is coming.  Find out about very smooth drinkable Cowboy Coffee in the heart of the North Dakota Badlands.

Speaker Bureau

The Mild-Mannered Explorers are booking speaking engagements to show your group the beauty of the North Dakota Badlands, tips, tricks and insight into the region. Just leave a comment below or reach out on Facebook