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