I embarked on a week-long camping and hiking trip that would take me to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and then to Badlands National Park South Dakota. This was my big adventure trip of the year and I intended to enjoy a lot of nice hiking, solitude, and practice some landscape photography as well. I had done my research of hiking trails using books and maps, I searched for photos that people had taken on Google and Flickr, and I closely watched the weather, but I was mostly unfamiliar with the place and didn’t really know what to expect. I flew in to Bismarck, rented a car, made a quick grocery stop, and arrived at the North Unit of the park by about 5:00PM Central Time.
The park is divided into 3 units: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. I began my trip camping at the North Unit for a couple of nights before moving on to the South Unit. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is on an unpaved road and high-clearance vehicles are recommended so I didn’t attempt to visit that part of the park with my rental car. Below is a map of the North Unit. I camped at the Juniper campground along the Little Missouri River.
The weather when I arrived Saturday night called for clouds, rain, and sub-freezing temperatures, but it was supposed to get better the following day. The National Parks Service warns that it can get muddy here when there is a rain, so I wasn’t expecting to accomplish much on my first evening other than driving around to the overlooks. When I got there I found that the park road was closed beyond the trailhead for the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail due to mudslides from the recent rains (at the point on the map that says “Road beyond this point may be closed in the winter.”) So, this trashed most of the plans I had made for hiking and photographing this park as half of it was closed to vehicle traffic. I also could not ford the river as it was full and moving quite swiftly.
But I was determined to make the best of things in spite of the mud, road closures, and impassible river. Below is the first photo that I took in the park. It was taken on a roadside pullout in the late afternoon. I thought about this as a spot to check back on to see if some bison would be nice enough to stand around in front of those cliffs.
After this, I parked at the trailhead for the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and Buckhorn Trail and decided to hike on the muddy Buckhorn Trail. I made it up the Buckhorn Trail past the prairie dog communities and past where it turns and crosses a creek. It was very muddy and kind of slippery but it wasn’t raining so I made the best of it. Bison often use these trails as well, and they make the mud situation much worse. There were no other hikers on this trail and I was mostly able to dodge the large puddles and enjoy the hike.
Below is a photo that I took down the trail as the sun came out. I walked around this spot trying to find a good photographic vantage-point and waiting for some unfiltered sunlight to reach the cliffs. I thought this photo worked out well with the bison trail mostly visible and leading to the cliffs. There was just enough sunlight coming from the side to give the cliffs some color and contrast. The trees on either side set the frame and direct you to the distant cliffs. I am mostly happy with this photo for an unprepared hike in the mud.
I got in a little closer for a more panoramic shot from the side. You can see a row of flat pedestal-type rocks going across the middle of the cliffs with what appear to be columns beneath. These are called caprocks and they weather much more slowly than the layers underneath, so the material underneath these caprocks is more protected from erosion and form the column shapes. These caprock formations are all over the park and are quite striking. You can also easily see the bands of sediment layers that formed over millions of years from the time that this was in the middle of an inland sea.
When I finished this day, I didn’t really think I had taken any photos that were very good after hitting the trail cold and I wasn’t very excited to review them. I was actually a bit down at the time at the conditions and my ruined plans. Today, I spent many hours reviewing and editing photos (and fighting with Lightroom’s strange decision to make four copies of every photo) and I really enjoyed the above two photos. I think that they actually turned out really well and I spent a lot of time on those cliffs attempting to really bring them to life. So this muddy hike down a portion of the Buckhorn Trail was worth the effort I think.
When I returned to the car from my muddy hike, I put my muddy hiking boots into plastic shopping bags and put my clean shoes back on and went to set up camp. It was a good idea to bring two pairs of shoes to have a clean pair when needed. There weren’t many people in the campground, which is why I went the week before Memorial Day, and I easily found a nice spot by the river. The Little Missouri River is just beyond the trees in the photo below. The campground on Saturday and Sunday nights was perhaps one third full.
The sun sets quite late at the North Unit because it is in the Central Time Zone while the rest of the park is in Mountain Time for some strange reason, so I went and photographed some reddish rocks on a high cliff getting the last of the day’s sunlight. The different layers and colors in the cliff face make this park a joy to photograph.
I then settled in for a sub-freezing night that might bring rain in the morning. I got to listen to a flock of geese on the river honking most of the evening and random turkeys calling in the woods. Around eleven o’clock I was serenaded by a pack of coyotes. I’ll pick up there with my next blog (spoiler: I made it through the night without trouble).
Thanks for reading.