You can see why this is a popular easy rugged trip: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A bison sleeps at the entrance of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I love taking visitors, even young children to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). It’s on the very south edge of McKenzie County, and is one of those features that makes McKenzie County a world class destination.  In classic North Dakota style, the TRNP under promises and over delivers.  You’ll be amazed when you put on your hiking shoes and explore the park.

It’s a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park to suit all types of hikers. That’s why, when we visit the park, we don’t stay in the car, we get out of the car and in to nature.  When my three kids were in their energetic elementary and preschool days, they could be loose, free and safe to run, explore and challenge one another.

Sure, some people just drive through the park, a 14-mile Scenic Drive that leads from the entrance station to Oxbow Overlook, with turnouts and interpretive signs along the way. Drive-by tourists look for bison, park at the top loop and the lookout post, then drive away.

You can see the Little Missouri River from the far end of the park, near the Overlook Shelter

The park is there for you to experience, not merely view. So, along the 14-mile drive, you will pass a number of hiking trails. Some are self-guiding nature trails that have interpretive brochures to help you learn more about the park.

The Caprock Coulee nature trail is an easy jaunt with good photo opportunities. It does not have the rugged climbs and overlooks that the Achenbach trail has.




The idea for a park was evolutionary.  It started to be just an idea for a memorial to President Theodore Roosevelt in about 1919 shortly after he died.  Eventually, in addition to a connection with a president, the land was recognized for its diverse cultural and natural resources. On November 10, 1978, the area was given national park status when President Carter signed the bill that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


Here’s the history of the park

When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.  –from the the National Park System publication about TRNP

Our recommendation

The North Unit is eons younger than it’s twin in the southern part of the state, the South Unit near Medora. The North Unit is more rugged and challenging. It also has less tourist traffic since it is more remote than the South Unit. The South Unit is on Interstate 94 and easily attracts people to pull off the Interstate.

Our personal favorite is to hike all or part of the Achenbach Trial. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it in to a two-day hike. If you intend to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free backcountry permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers. The full trail provides steep climbs and descents and two river crossings await you on a trail that leads deep into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness. 

It’s tough to do in one day, so we recommend just taking the west end of the trail down the hill from the Oxbow overlook.  The map will shows where to get on and off. 

Family Tip

If you have children, try the Caprock Coulee or Cannonball Concretions for a couple hours.  If you keep it short, you won’t get as worn out, and the kids will look forward to returning.

See what we saw

Last fall, we hiked the west portion of the Achenbach. We parked our Jeep near the bottom of the hill, and hiked up over a ridge to the south to intersect with the trail. Once on the trail, we headed westerly.  It’s an upward grade, but we were fresh, so it was an easy hike up. 

We’d stop every so often to look over the hills, or look back to see how far we’d come. 

At one of the highest points on the Achenbach Trail, near the west terminus, a look back at where the trail started.

It doesn’t seem like much until you look back to see where you started.  There are attractive/amazing/impressive spots along the trail where we got and exercise climbing over, around or through rock formations.

The Oxbow Overlook is one of the most photographed buildings in the state.

How to get there

The North Unit is a 50-mile drive north from Interstate 94.  Or a 15 mile drive south of Watford City in McKenzie County.  It’s a good highway in to the park from either direction.  The highway in the park is well-maintained.  Motorcyclists often make it a day ride to and through the park.

The 14-mile loop in the park attracts motorcyclists and others who ride through the canyon floor up to the overlook at the end. The highway is below some of the higher points on the trail.

Stop in the visitor center when you pay the entrance fee to get maps. There are three easy trails, each shorter than one mile and can be hiked in less than a half hour.

 It’s right on Highway 85, a modern two-lane highway 50 miles north from Belfield and Interstate 94.  Or you can come down from the north, about 14 miles south of Watford City on Highway 85.

Can you recommend a hike in the North Unit?

What to read more?  Here’s a link to read more about the Achenbach Trail  

Here’s the link to get the Park Hiking Guide

Subscribe to get more vacation and exploration ideas from Western North Dakota.

Enter the word “McKenzie” in the subject line to get a free 22-page eGuide to places to go in McKenzie County.





Five reasons to use the Long X to break free of dreaded cabin fever

Explore the Badlands – hike, cross country ski or fat tire bike.

No, it’s not 75 degrees and sunny.

Yes, the air is fresh and the snow is deep, but that does not mean North Dakota tourism season over.   Here’s what we do.

We travel toward Watford City knowing we’d stop at the CCC Campground1.  That’s where adventurers see an unbelievably beautiful, pristine wilderness that few people ever see; and that’s the attraction right there, pristine wilderness that few people see.

There are several reasons The CCC Campground and the Long X trail are the best place to get a little winter outdoor time.

  1. It’s an easy travel distance and route
  2. It’s along the Little Missouri.
  3. The campground and parking area is well maintained.
  4. The trail is well-marked
  5. It’s an easy trail.
1. Easy travel distance.

Highway 85 from Belfield to Williston is a major federal highway, so we have good luck headed up that highway. Alternatively, we’ll head east across the state on Highway 200.

long x bridge spans the Little Missouri River

One of the few remaining through truss bridges in the state, The Long X Bridge marks the end of the Long X trail that begins in Texas. It spans the Little Missouri River which begins in Wyoming.

Up Highway 85, we always like to check out the historic Long X Bridge2 over the Little Missouri River. It’s south of Watford City, north of Grassy Butte.  The closer we get to the Long X bridge the more we perk up.  It’s an impressive landscape, colorful, striated, and beckoning.   That’s just a hint of what’s to come.

The entrance to the CCC Campground (CCC is Civilian Conservation Corps, a 100-year old government works program)  is at the very end of the bridge, just a few feet south.  We head west through a rancher’s rangeland pasture.  So, take it easy on those first couple of bends in the road. That’s where cattle are often milling about.

A herd of Charolais awaits drivers headed to the CCC campground and the Long X Trail. Just drive slowly through the herd an all will be well.

A herd of Charolais awaits drivers headed to the CCC campground and the Long X Trail. Just drive slowly through the herd and all will be well.

2. Along the Little Missouri River

At this section of the river through the Badlands, wildlife officials have stocked and increased the population of big horn sheep.  They’re not easy to see. The river you drive along started near Devils Tower in Wyoming. It snakes across Montana and North Dakota and empties in to the Missouri River about 65 miles east of the CCC Campground.

Mule deer are plentiful in the Little Missouri River valley.

Mule deer are plentiful in the Little Missouri River valley.

Most of the state's big horn sheep population thrives along the Long X Trail

Most of the state’s big horn sheep population thrives along the Long X Trail

The drive west is about a mile on a good gravel road, right along the Little Missouri River. At the Campground, we park on the west end at the literal start of the Maah Daah Hey trail and the Long X Trail.  On the south is the Little Missouri River. Beyond that, across the river is the north Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The area is fairly undisturbed, since ranching blends in well with the environment.

That’s why it’s easy to see a sample of the wildest of North Dakota’s wildlife — deer and big horn sheep.

Winter-ready dogs love the chance to get out for some winter exercise

Winter-ready dogs love the chance to get out for some winter exercise

3. The area is well-maintained

There is plenty of room to park.  After we step out of the truck, we pull on our gloves and hoodies.  It’s cold at first, but once we get going, we warm up so that a lot of winter packing isn’t needed.  Here’s where people unload skis, bike or strap on their day pack.  Vehicles are safe, but we lock it anyway, and make sure we have the key secured in our inside coat pocket so we don’t lose it in the snow.

The parking lot and campground is well maintained for easy access.

The parking lot and campground is well maintained for easy access.

4. The trail is well-marked

If  you decide to hike this trail, you won’t get lost; just follow the tall posts with the angular cut top. Each post is marked with a turtle, the sign of the Maah Daah Hey3 trail. This portion is also the Long X trail, and the posts are marked with a Teddy Roosevelt brand.  At each post you can see the next post.


5. It’s an easy trail.

At first, the slopes rise gradually along the base of the hills.  People who hike or ski, can cut across valley floors between hills and ridges.  It cuts off quite a bit of distance on the trail since it switches back and forth to maintain a relatively easy grade for bikes. Hikers and skiers can cut straight across, at least until you come to a deep ravine.

The slope is easy to navigate even in the snow or on cross country skis.

The slope is easy to navigate even in the snow or on cross country skis.


Here’s the cautionary note:

Don’t go too far. It’s easy to start the jaunt feeling fresh and invigorated by the air, the scenery, the activity. So, it’s easy to think all that initial energy will last. For every step you take along the trail, you have to repeat that step going back.  Turn around or circle back early to save your energy for the return trip.  It’s easy to overextend yourself. ______________________________________________________________

We like these winter hikes because when we get done for the day we are exhilarated by the fresh air, the and exercise.  A hot meal at nearby Watford City is just 15 minutes away – and they know how to feed you there!

Oh yeah…the footnotes:

1In 1934, men from Civilian Conservation Corps companies 2771 and 2772 established camps adjacent to each other on the north bank of the Little Missouri River, not far from the old U.S. 85 bridge in the area that is now part of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park.  The CCC Campground at the head of the trail is a third campsite they built. There are other sites in the Badlands built by the CCC. Company 2771 moved out after a year, but 2772 remained here until the fall of 1939 when it transferred to a site in the South Unit, and that’s why it’s called the CCC Campground.

2The trail name, “Maah Daah Hey”, comes from the Mandan Indians. In the Mandan language, one word or phrase can describe a picture, feeling, or situation. In this case, the phrase means “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” The trail uses a turtle as the trail marker. The turtle was honored because of its firm determination, steadfastness, patience, long life, and fortitude. Here’s where to find more about the CCC Campground and the trail head to the Long X Trail and the Maah Daah Hey trail.

Click here to read more about the new extension to the Maah Daah Hey

The Long X Trail represents stereotypical historical, ranch life, that of driving large herds of cattle across the country from Texas to North Dakota. This achievement was first accomplished in 1884, when, under the leadership of A. N. Jeffries, the manager of the company, a daring band of Texan cowboys piloted a monster herd of cattle from the Rio Grande to the Little Missouri. The herd was guided by means of a compass, and reached North Dakota in September, having left Texas early in the spring. This process was repeated each year until 1897, and in this way the grazing lands of McKenzie county were replenished by new cattle

Click here to read more about the Long X Trail 

                   and here is more, too.

How to silence the noise of the day.

I’m tired of the noise. Aren’t you? The noise of the election. The noise of culture clashes. The noise in my own head.

So, when an assignment to shoot landscape out west, came along, I jumped at it immediately.

hay field, grasslands and in the distance, the Badlands

The Badlands in the distance interrupt the hay fields of the National Grasslands

The assignment was to photograph 20,000 acres of land along the ND/MT border that hadn’t changed much since Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted there in the late 1800s.  20,000 acres is about 30 square miles of rugged ranch land; the Beaver Creek Ranch. It was a warmer than normal November day, and weather conditions promised good light and good temperatures for exploring.

The further west we went, the more noise I left behind.

On the North Dakota/Montana border we turned north off of Interstate 94 on to a state highway, (we = Mary, Gunnar the foster dog and me).  Instantly, traffic disappeared; as far as we could see, the two-lane highway was ours.  Our mission was to find the rancher who owned the land designated as PLOTS land – Private Land Open To Sportsmen.

Triangle PLOTS signs mark areas where hunters and others can enter even though it is privately owned.

The sign marks land set aside under a cooperative agreement with the rancher. It is Private Land Open To Sportsmen, or PLOTS.

We saw the triangle signs marking PLOTS land, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Oh-oh! The noise in my head started coming back as I searched fruitlessly for the region I was assigned to photography.  I was frustrated, and so was the dog.  He wanted to get out to explore, so did Mary and I.  We kept driving. The old saying about finding your destination in North Dakota is true: If you think you’ve gone too far, you’re halfway there.

We checked out one gravel road to the east.  A herd of antelope grazed in a hay field.  That’s not what we were looking for, but it was a promise of things to come. Things were getting quieter.

Antelope or prarie goats were often spotted by Lewis and Clark when they came through here.

Antelope – or prairie goats as some people call them are wary critters who keep a long distance from people.


Back on the highway, a bit farther north and we found it. The Beaver Creek Ranch.  And wouldn’t ya know it, there it was, right on Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek Ranch sign, PLOTS sign and map

The Beaver Creek Ranch PLOTS acreage is well-marked and includes a map that designates three parking areas. The area is for foot traffic only.

Earlier, I had called the rancher a couple of times and left voice mails, but got no reply.  I did get hold of one of the sponsors of the PLOTS program who told me to go on in.  He said I’d find at least three parking areas and recommended the one further in, back by the corrals.

The road starts out like a gravel road, and later it becomes a two-track trail. We rumbled and rocked across the basin where Beaver Creek meandered.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The bottom ground is the bottom of a basin that is sliced by Beaver Creek.  The rancher has one bridge but most of the time, he has to cross the creek by fords.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.


By the time we got to the corrals, the day was ending, the sun was setting and the moon was rising.  Now that may sound like a bad time to arrive, but it was a good time. It’s called The Golden Hour when shadows show contrast and the landscape is golden. There was no noise, not in my head, not in the surroundings.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

As Mary explored the hills and ridges to the south, I went north.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it's foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it’s foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

It wasn’t exactly silent, there is always a bit of a breeze rustling the grass and sweeping around the rocks.  But that’s not noise.  That’s a lullaby.  It’s soothing enough to make a fella breathe easy.   When I got to the top of the ridge and looked below me, the entire basin of Beaver Creek Ranch wandered northward from my perch.  The longer I gazed, the more I could see.  And none of it was noisy.

To the north, the rancher's access road snakes through the hills.

To the north, the rancher’s access road snakes through the hills.

I sat down and traced the distant trails where deer and cattle crossed the basin.  I scouted the hills to the north to trace where water flowed down to the creek, and where the rancher could access further pastures and hills to the north.

The sun was setting, the colors were turning gold and the contrast of shadows on the bluffs slowly covered the landscape.  And there was no noise.corral-rising-moon-sig-small

Once the sun disappeared, wildlife appeared.  Mule deer abound in the region.  mule-deer-pauses-inlight-sig-small young-mule-deer-on-ridge-toward-sun-sig-small mule-deer-doe-with-burrs-sig-smallThe area also includes turkeys, coyotes and elk.  There is evidence that an occasional mountain lion crosses the region.

It’s the absolute contrast to the noise of civilization, a part of North Dakota that many people don’t know about. Does that sound like something you could use in your world? Glad to give you directions if you want.



7 wild reasons to see North Dakota in the fall — A photo safari (Part 2)

You’ve been busy all summer, and now winter is closing in. We’ve been blessed with a mild October..only a few snowflakes when some Octobers we’ve already had two blizzards.  So, here’s motivation to get out and see North Dakota wild before it get’s unbearable — check the wild open spaces of North Dakota.

Later in the day, especially along the river, you can see some of the state’s largest wildlife — mule deer and white tail deer. They’re not easy to see because they blend in so well. Deer in the brush, down in a slough will only pause a moment before they take off.


Deer in the brush, down in a slough will only pause a moment before they take off.

Pheasants are more easily spotted if you’re in central or southwestern North Dakota. They like the cover provided by wetland grasses, tall pastures and stubble fields. Often they’re along the side of the road and can get up just as you pass by, which can mean a broken grill.geese-pheasant-doesnt-fit-in-sig-smallIf you have a dog with you,  he can help you see them because they’ll huddle down in the tall grass until the last moment.bird-gets-up-2-sig-desat

Hungry hawks will be lingering on perches such as fence posts, telephone poles and trees. Click here to get the ND Game and Fish guide to identifying ND Hawks.


A group of blackbirds is most correctly called either a cloud, a cluster, murmeration or a merle of blackbirds.  blackbirds-cu-vigDid you know a similar group of larger birds, such as crows is called “a murder?”


Central North Dakota, through the prairie pothole region east of the Missouri River, is under the Central or Midway flyway where waterfowl migrate across the region. That’s why through much of October, depending on weather, Great Canadian Geese are in fields and waterholes.   A stroll along an unused road with my dog kicks up geese from their hiding places.


As long as you’re in the wetlands region of North America, stick around until about 6:00 p.m. — sunset.  The hour before, the golden hour with long shadows and a golden filter on the sun is great photo time.  Immediately after sunset, sunsets in the sky are repeated in waterholes where geese and ducks are floating.


Finally, the most rewarding and hardest to spot wildlife is south of Watford City along the Little Missouri River. Big Horn Sheep populate the area.  I’ve never worked too hard at trying to spot them, which may be why I’ve only seen them once or twice.  If you’re careful not to spook them, they’ll pose for you.


Other rare-to-spot animals in the state that run free are moose and mountain lions.  Moose sometimes wander in to towns or farmsteads.  Have you seen one in town?  Or mountain lions — have you spotted one?  What is the predominant wildlife you spot in the fall where you live?

November 5 North Dakota’s autumn gold

Autumn in North Dakota

Autumn in North Dakota is characterized by warm earth tones of golds and yellows.  At the North Dakota-South Dakota border I pulled off the road and went over to a nearby sunflower field to shoot the colors and shapes of a mature field of sunflowers. (If you look back in this blog, North Dakota 365, you’ll see how sunflower fields have a different hue and color in August.)

Doe and fawn

The same warm earth tones are visible where a fawn waits for its mother in the dense cover of a North Dakota prairie. The air is warm and actually feels heavy on this day. Perhaps that is because of the amount of dust in the air caused by harvest and the material kicked in to the air from the drying plants.

If you don’t think farming, and harvest is a dirty job (that someone has to do) check out the rolling combines along the North Dakota-South Dakota border.  Deep in a sunflower field farmers are taking in the sunflower to be used for oil and other food supplies for people such as you and those on the other side of the world from where you are right now.

A warm autumn day, short lived before the cold season starts. Some people say autumn is their favorite time of year.  How about you?

October 15 Deer at dusk

They’re bunching up.  Deer know this time of year is the time to find food and shelter because it’s going to be a while before they can live stress free.

I was at Cross Ranch State Park earlier and lost my light down in the valley. So, I headed home, and up on top of the hill, as the sun disappeared to my back, I caught this herd barely visible in a stubble field. They stood alert, watching me as I got in to position to snap a couple of images.

Though this is my beloved “golden hour” for taking photos, on a day such as this when it’s an overcast, all the colors are muted and the image turns out “blah.”  Even so, this is what North Dakota looks like in mid-October.  Not my favorite kind of image — too bland, hard to pull out details.

Do you notice how colors at the end of an overcast day seem to dissolve in to desaturated, detail-muted scenes?

Christmas Season


Merry Christmas from Burnt Butte

Yeah, I know…kinda out of order — Christmas and all.  But this is a fun project I started this week using my North Dakota 365 photos from earlier this year.


I have a plethora of images to use, and it’s very hard to make up my mind which to use.  For example this one of the bridge in the Wilton Park is moody, but people seem to like it.

I like the one of the large deer herd bunched up moving across the prairies in Sheridan or McLean County.

I had forgotten about many of these images, some of them posted here on this blog, so it was a good reminder to go back and see what I’ve accomplished this year.

Obviously I used the same template for several of these images, merely adjusting the words  and of course changing the historic tale on back that relates to the images on front.

It would have been kind of fun to use some snow plow imagery and make some remark about making way for Santa or some kind of thing.

But generally, I tried to stick to more generic kinds of images from Central North Dakota including Wilton, Washburn, Bismarck, Center, McClusky and Wing. The Soo Line Railroad Depot that houses the railroad museum in Wilton is a natural for this kind of project.    It has that kind of “down home” feel to it.

The one I’m most proud of, however is the one on top. That one is not a template, but is a complete start to finish image that I worked up on Photoshop, including the page curl, the drop shadow, the background and of course the image itself.

In the end, I had 11 postcards but only turned three in to products for cash register impulse buys at local retailers.  I’m so jazzed by the whole process I think I’m gonna go make some more.

Got any suggestions?  Which do you like?


September 20

Red Tail Hawk

There’s a reason they’re called “Red Tail Hawks.”   See the tail?  And getting a photo of one is quite a challenge for me.  They move fast, they stay away from humans and their movements are unpredictable.  So for me personally, I take it as a challenge to get better at photographing hawks.

Equally challenging are deer.  A few dumb ones are known to stand by the side of the road with that “huh” look on their face. Most of the time you catch glimpses of them on the move.  On this date,  in Burleigh County, I caught two sets of deer moving to new feeding ground. But alas! I got only one set even reasonably clean and in focus.

Autumn in North Dakota abounds with life.  Farmers are harvesting grain and that kicks off the wildlife movement in to the valleys and protected cover.  While I bad-mouth autumn for its identity as a bridge between summer and winter, I do like the colors and the contrasts that present themselves for photography.

August 5

Like mother, like fawn

This time of year, does are leading their fawns in to new territory. They’re leaving their birthing grounds, moving to feeding grounds. It won’t be long now until the pair separate.  For now they’re moving around, and creating a traffic hazard.  Sadly, I’ve seen more than one fawn carcass by the side of the road.  This pair, however,  cross ahead of me and gave me enough time to drive up a bit to shoot them before the exited from view.

That was not the case with this three-some. I had to stop and wait for them to cross the road, the fawns leading the pack.  They dashed up a hill and off they went.

All of these were taken late in the day along the Missouri River north of Bismarck.  I was unprepared for these kinds of action shots. Next time, I’ll be more prepared with my camera on my lap, set to a fast speed and auto-focus.

How often do you see deer where you live? How prepared are you to photograph them?

June 7

deer by farm

I’m telling you, it is green green green out here.

Check out this deer by a farm near Washburn.  She pauses long enough to check me out as I slow down to check her out.  (Kinda like a meet or meat market bar encounter, huh?)  She had run across the road ahead of me. I marked the spot where she crossed and looked up the hill. My slowdown at that point was concern enough for her to turn to look at me before she took off.

I have that impression on people, too. Take these two riders for example. They were headed north past Wilton when I pulled over on Highway 83, a divided highway to catch their images.  They looked at me, then kept going.

And again, notice the green.  Is it this green where you are this spring?