Hiking North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Big Sky Country. Where it’s just miles and miles of miles and miles.
Those who live in and around this area of western North Dakota know that not a heck of a lot of people call this expanse of badlands home.

That’s what drew Theodore Roosevelt­—then a scrawny 24-year-old from New York—to these parts in 1883, long before he became this country’s 26th president. “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” he once remarked, reflecting on his life’s influences.

Consisting of 70,447 acres of rugged topography, of which nearly half is designated wilderness, Roosevelt’s namesake park offers some of the best national park solitude south of Alaska. More than 100 miles of hiking trails wind through the park’s three units. But if you want to get an idea of the kind of raw, untamed country that thrilled the former president, spend a few nights along the Achenbach and Buckhorn trails in the remote North Unit.

Looping out from the Juniper Campground, the 16-mile Achenbach Trail twice fords the sluggish, cottonwood-lined Little Missouri River as it weaves back and forth between sagebrush terraces and the fantastically hued and eroded Achenbach Hills.

The gullies, coulees, and grassy buttes are home to a great variety and bounty of wildlife—another reason for Roosevelt’s love of this land. “It was a land of vast, silent spaces,” he wrote. “Of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horsemen.” Fortunately, some things never change.

Ambling quietly along the Achenbach and Buckhorn trails on a couple of recent autumn mornings, I saw no passing horsemen (or anyone else, for that matter). But I did spot both mule and whitetail deer, bison, pronghorn antelope, a coyote, a golden eagle, and a large and active prairie dog town.

If there’s time and energy left after exploring the Achenbach Trail, hook up with the Buckhorn Trail, an 11-mile loop that lies directly to the east.

You can return to the Juniper Campground each day after hiking. Or, pitch your tent or sleep under the stars in the park’s backcountry. There’s an abundance of isolated campsites, but some of the best lay alongside the silt-laden river. No matter where you camp, be sure to scan the night sky. It’s been said that on a clear night in these smog-free badlands it’s nothing to see stars thousands of light years away—reason enough to toss a star chart and a small telescope into your pack.

A former contributing editor for Backpacker Magazine, Larry Rice resides in Buena Vista, Colo., in the shadow of several 14,000-foot mountain summits.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Where: 120 miles west of Bismarck, N.D. Take the Belfield exit on I-94, and go north on U.S. Highway 85 for 50 miles to the North Unit Visitor Center. Find the trailhead at the southern end of Juniper Campground, six miles west of the visitor center.

Prime Time: Late spring and early fall. Too hot in midsummer, with the searing sun and highs approaching 105 degrees.

Difficulty: Under normal conditions, especially in the fall months, the Little Missouri will be knee- to ankle-deep, and you can wade it. Check with a ranger for river conditions and to find recommended crossing points.

Local Wisdom: The chocolate-milk river isn’t drinkable—you’ll have to pack in all the drinking water you’ll need. Some hikers cache jugs of water on those trails that cross the park roadways. Consider postponing your hike immediately after a hard rain; the badlands’ blue-gray bentonite soil becomes slippery and gluey when wet.

Contact: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, nps.gov/thro; 701-842-2333. Purchase books and topographic maps from the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association, trnha.org; 701-623-4884.

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