The Achenbach Trail fits your physical endurance any time of the year – but it’s easiest in the spring

 

One of the well-treed plateaus on the Achenbach trail gives hikers a chance to rest before the next altitude change.

One of the well-treed plateaus on the Achenbach trail gives hikers a chance to rest before the next altitude change.

No matter how many times I hike the trail and back country of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there is one trail I keep coming back to, the Achenbach Trail.  You’d like it because no matter your level of fitness, you’ll find an accessible section that matches your skill.  The entire loop is nearly 20 miles (some measure it at 16, others at 18, and still more people add the Buckhorn Trail to make it a nearly 30-mile hike).

One of the moderate rises gives hikers access to a ridge the trail crosses

One of the moderate rises gives hikers access to a ridge the trail crosses

It is more than a day’s worth of hiking – but of course hikers who are more committed than I can set up overnight camp off the trail if they want to hike it in two days.

For those two-day hikers, steep climbs and descents provide a workout; two river crossings can be a challenge, but the rewards are unmatched vistas for sunsets and sunrises.

It's thought that once upon a time the Little Missouri River flowed in to the Hudson Bay. Glaciers changed that, and now the river cuts through one of the most narrow passageways in the region.

It’s thought that once upon a time, the Little Missouri River flowed in to the Hudson Bay. Glaciers changed that, and now the river cuts through one of the most narrow passageways in the region on it’s way to the Missouri River about 50 miles from here.

This spring on the birthday of the National Park System, entrance to the park was free. We took advantage of it and drove the entire length of the park evaluating where we wanted to park and how much time we had to hike.

A blue bird rests in a tree top below the trail.  The most common wildlife here are hawks or sometimes eagles.  Bison are far more numerous than people.  Rattlesnakes are plentiful when it's hot.

A blue bird rests in a tree top below the trail. The most common wildlife are hawks or sometimes eagles. Bison are far more numerous than people. Rattlesnakes are plentiful when it’s hot.

Daylight gets incredibly long mid-summer so there is plenty of daylight even at 9 or 10 o’clock in the evening.  On this day, we had until 8:30, so we picked a section that would get us out in to the overlooks above the Little Missouri, and then cut cross-country back to the Jeep.TRNP_MAP_R-300x221

This part of the trail, the “North Achenbach Trail” is only about 4 miles long.  One section of it is easily accessible near the famous landmark Oxbow Overlook; here families with young children can get a taste of Badlands hiking.

Take your camera and be set up for lanscape shots.

Take your camera and be set up for landscape shots.

Further out, the view is spectacular as the trail follows a ridge above the Little Missouri River. Mary climbs hill sgntre Most of the trail is single-track. Some of the more challenging hillsides have ancient log steps laid out, but they’ve been moved by nature’s erosive forces; often, we found we were better off just making our own trail up the side of a bluff.

Several rocky narrow passages give hikers a chance to pick their way through the pass -- provided they have hiking boots with good traction.

Several rocky narrow passages give hikers a chance to pick their way through the pass — provided they have hiking boots with good traction.

An April or May hike on the Achenbach is perfect for temperatures. Mid-summer temps easily edge near 100 degrees, or more.  The reflective surfaces make it even brighter and more uncomfortable. That’s why a spring hike is good, but it’s also less green. We recommend late May or early June.  That’s when wildflowers and prairie roses are abundant and the sparse patches of grass are most green.

What time of year do you prefer to hike?  Have you tried hiking on those 100 degree days? Have you tried a winter hike?

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TR’s Elkhorn Ranch is easy, but not always.

Undeveloped historic site, the Elkhorn Ranch.

Teddy Roosevelt’s backyard at the Elkhorn Ranch. The house stood on the foundation blocks which are all that’s left of his ranch home

Off the beaten path – it’s exactly where Teddy Roosevelt wanted to be in 1883 – and so the Elkhorn ranch became his refuge. He’d just suffered a string of losses, including the deaths of his wife and his mother.  To get his life back on track he went where others have gone for more than 100 years – and you can go there too, if you’re willing to get off the beaten path.

Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskins as a  Badlands rancher

About 20 years before he became the 26th U.S. President, Roosevelt lived the life of a wilderness rancher.

To find the healing place TR called home for many years, you’ll travel more than 25 miles of gravel road through wilderness ranch area.  It’s a place of few people and many miles.  “The lives of such places were strangely cut off from the outside world,” TR wrote. “The whole region is one vast grazing country.”

To the ear, there is a great amount of peacefulness, but that does not mean quiet. Birds carry on loud conversations, particularly in the early morning and evening.  The wind itself is a sound that travels the musical octaves. In the evening, it’s the melody of the coyotes’ songs you’ll hear.

To the eye, distance and color become a stimulating visual entertainment.  When you think you can see no further in the distance, the next hill-top will unveil further horizons.  When you think you know what green looks like you’ll find more variations in the landscape – or in the autumn, brown takes on a rainbow of variations.

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch.  A thin red ribbon shows the road to his ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is a national treasure, undeveloped and barely marked. We needed a good map to find it; the U.S. Forest Service map is perfect for a search like this.  After a bit, we began to recognize the repeated Elkhorn sign posts directing us further down the road.

It's easy to get lost in the Badlands, if it were not for road signs like these, including the one to the TR ranch

The small sign with an Elkhorn icon indicates the way to the ranch.

The campground up the road from the Elkhorn Ranch site offers a bit of protection from the hot Badlands sun.  Tent camping is more than sufficient with the campground’s supply of water, firewood, and privacy.  Even though, we were in a public campground, it was still much like getting away from it all. In fact, one night, there were only two other campers in the campground.

To really get away from it all, a short hike up the hill to the north gave us a glimpse of the road we’d follow to get to the campground. The red scoria road winds down through the bottom ground trees to the clearing where Roosevelt set up his ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is undeveloped, so it will exercise your imagination skills to envision what it was like 150 years ago.

“Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant.  But a few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the (Little Missouri) river. … The shallow stream winds as if lost.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

elkhornranch

 

The Little Missouri River is a wilderness through-route today, just as it was for Roosevelt.  It is a challenge to canoe or kayak, and the spring seems to be the best time to attempt a float, but it’s always a beautiful walk through the Badlands where Roosevelt ranched.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

“The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms, first on one side and then on the other; and in an open glade among the thick-growing timer stands the long, low house of hewn logs.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

We have hiked, canoed and driven the Little Missouri River as it flows northward from Wyoming and Montana to the confluence near Williston, North Dakota.  It’s a pleasant and non-stressful hike to follow its river banks. It’s easy to see why Roosevelt wrote often and vividly of the river.  We recommend hiking the river trails near the ranch.  Hiking the hills, bluffs and buttes above the Elkhorn is a minimal challenge to anyone is good condition and who has hiked some of the rougher terrains further downstream.(See the post on hiking the Long X Trail along the Little Missouri River — http://wp.me/pOdPo-Gi ).

Elkhorn campground sgntre

The Elkhorn Ranch campground offers shade next to the trees — a rare luxury in the nearly tree-less Badlands. The white dot along the campground road is my pickup at our campsite.

While the riverbank hike is enjoyable and calming, it’s the views from top that exhilarate.  Not only are the views mind-numbingly expansive, but there’s a sense of accomplishment from having hiked to the top of what appears to be an unpassable slope.  The key is “switchbacks.” It’s wise to never get in a hurry when heading up to higher ground – don’t attempt to go straight up.  Follow gentle rises back and forth across the face of the hillside, pausing to not only catch your breath, but to scope out the next set of switchbacks to take you to the next level.

Once at the top, you can see why Roosevelt lived here. He built his stamina and his skill at strategic thinking.  You can get a sense of the challenges he faced as an Easterner turned rancher.  When picking a trail for his cattle, or just for himself to get to Medora or Dickinson, Roosevelt planned his route. It was not easy to get any where.  He wrote, “The course outlies across great grassy plateaus, along knife-like ridge crests, among winding valleys and ravines, and over acres of barren, sun-scorched buttes.”

The Elkhorn ranch area is undeveloped and perhaps that’s best. It gives a visitor a chance to see Roosevelt’s nature as it was when he was here, an experience that prompted him to establish conservation measures and advance the national park system. Thanks to his time in these valleys and hills, Theodore Roosevelt became “the conservation president,” and doubled the number of sites within the National Park system. As President from 1901 to 1909, he signed legislation establishing five new national parks.

For the day-visitor it’s a moment of spiritual rest, visual stimulation, and a sense of accomplishment when you climb a hill, turn, and look back at how far you’ve come – a good life lesson.

What would it take to make you want to check out the site — accessibility, directions, time?

Elkhorn hills

The Elkhorn ranch trip is part of the exploration of Beautiful Bakken.

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