Autumn in the North Dakota Badlands. Don’t put away your camping gear yet.

camping hiking shoes

Mary’s choice of hiking shoes is Keen.

Or at least keep your hiking boots ready to go.

There are those who immerse themselves in the Badlands of North Dakota to get away from it all.  And there are some who love to “get away from it all” by pulling their camper in alongside another camper at a popular park.

Today’s article is for those who are serious about getting away from it all – going where their mind, soul, and body can experience freedom and peace during autumn in the North Dakota Badlands.

As much as we love the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it’s too crowded for a mind-soul-body escape.  You can do better.

North Dakota Badlands National Parak

Traffic backed up at TR National Park South Unit.

Avoid the National Park congestion.

Camels Hump North Dakota Badlands

Camel’s Hump is visible from the Interstate west of Medora. It’s the landmark to drive past on the way to the Elkhorn Campground.

We got in line to enter the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but then decided it wasn’t worth it. So, we skipped the National Park and drove on west to Camel Hump, then north on a gravel road. About 25 miles north of the Interstate is the Elkhorn Ranch National Park site.  Nearby is the Elkhorn Ranch Campground. It’s not quite back-country camping, but it’s a far cry from the KOA congestion of popular national parks.

The drive down to the Elkhorn Campground is nothing like what people think of when they think of driving in North Dakota.

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When we pulled in, there were two other campers at the far end of the campground.  Quite a contrast to the National Park where there were only 5 spots still open when we turned around to leave.

The next day, the two campers at the Elkhorn Campground pulled out. We had the campground to ourselves – and miles of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranchland. 

Elkhorn Campground


It’s an easy stroll to get back to the trees and in the woods where you can sample presidential history.

“My home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri, the nearest ranch man above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me about ten, miles distant.”  Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, Theodore Roosevelt, 1888 

There are no buildings, but there are several good storyboards.  It’s not hard to see exactly what TR saw from his cabin’s porch.
Read more here.

That first evening we walked back to the ranch site to watch the “golden hour” transform the colors of the Badlands.




fall camping golden hour little missouri River

This is what TR would have seen on an early autumn evening. His cabin was to the left not far from the banks of the Little Missouri River.

sun rays blue skies sunset

Not something you see every day, sharp distinct rays from behind the hills reaching across the blue sky

golden hour sunset clouds north dakota badlands

The last glimmers of light illuminate the clouds as the sun sets behind the hills to the west.

Yes, it’s chilly. That’s a good thing!

Fall camping in the North Dakota Badlands is not the first thought of many people who think of visiting the exquisite beauty of the region.  Yes, nights can be cool.  But the days are perfect for following a ridgeline to the next vista.

autumn fall in the North Dakota Badlands and the Little Missouri River

The hills above the Little Missouri River offer a fall scene that few people would attribute to North Dakota.

The Maah Daah Hey trail passes nearby.  It’s commonly thought of as one of the top single-track mountain bike trails in the world. 



Horses like autumn in the North Dakota Badlands, too!  It can take several days, but riders say there’s nothing like it.  On public ground they can set up their tent to hunker down for the night, just like TR would have done.

See! We’re not the only ones who love fall camping in the North Dakota Badlands. We saw two riders setting up camp just before sunset, just a quarter-mile from the historic Elkhorn Ranch site.  


The Elkhorn Ranch Campground has a half-dozen, secluded spots for tents.  It has a handful of “pull-through” sites for those people who think camping means pulling a miniature home. 

Elkhorn camp site

A campsite just for tents is nestled in the trees.

We took a tent-site that gave us protection from the wind. 

Home for us was the picnic table and a single-burner propane camp stove for hot coffee.










One of the first orders of business was to get the campfire going in the fire ring.

Cast iron campfire cooking.

Do you have much experience with cast iron cooking over a hot campfire?  That’s our goal for campfires the rest of this year, and next summer, too. We have just one small cast iron skillet and would like to get more cookware. What do you suggest? We are just entering that practice.  So, if you have any tips, tricks or recipes, share them! We could use them.

prairie fire pottery

Made in Western North Dakota, by Tama Smith, Prairie Fire Pottery coffee mugs are part of our tradition.


Morning breakfast of scrambled eggs and hot coffee warms up things quickly. Of course, it helps that the fire itself is a warming element.  So, our downtime at the campsite was warm and toasty.

During the day, we hiked in moderately warm weather.   This time of year the landscape is turning colors. Autumn in the North Dakota Badlands can bring a day of clear blue skies, white puffy clouds and turning aspens create a colorful landscape that many people miss. A half-day hike in the valleys and hills where TR ranched, opened our spirits to the calming influence of “getting away from it all.” 

Click this video link to get a 360 degree look at autumn in the Badlands.

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Isn’t that what it’s all about, anyway?

Not up for camping, you can always take a road trip to see the fall colors in the Beautiful Badlands.

Let us know in the comments below.

Next week, another taste of North Dakota Badlands camping.  Just subscribe to get a note in your inbox when a new story is posted.

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