We did not, of course, drive from Ashland WI directly to THRO, but it was our first “destination” stop, thus it gets post title rights. Even when stops are waypoints, I still try to find places that offer a little something to do, and the plan is almost always to stay at least two nights so that the driver can get ample rest and routine tasks can be managed.
Our first stop was a very small RV place in Dorset, MN called Heartland Trailside RV, and as the name suggests, it is directly adjacent to the Heartland State Trail, a 49-mile paved path that runs from Park Rapids to Cass Lake.
The RV park only has eight FHU spaces, seven of which were occupied by seasonal campers, the eighth I was lucky enough to secure when the occupant just so happened to be leaving the day before. The RV park is run by one super-friendly and very busy guy, who also designed, built, and maintains an 18-hole mini golf course and an ice cream stand. As it turned out, we took a couple of long walks on the trail but never did get the bikes down for a ride. On our second walk, we saw the back end of a large black bear disappearing into the trailside vegetation, and that really put some extra pep in our steps! We also played a round of putt-putt (I let him win) and treated ourselves to delicious and very generous cups of ice cream, Chocolate Peanut Butter for me, Java Chip for TBG.
Our next stay was at a very large city park in Bismarck, ND General Sibley Park, the getting to of which involved a short detour along which some low-hanging branches scraped another antenna off the top of the rig. Everything still worked, and no holes were made, but dammit anyhow.
The sites were large, and at first it looked as though we weren’t getting a neighbor, but soon arrived a noisy pair who would return home just after quiet hours commenced and proceed to slam every hatch on their camper repeatedly. I had been so looking forward to finally having a window open at night, but between that and the fact that the glare from headlights was aimed straight in the bedroom window, it was not meant to be. We did enjoy walks on the Nature Trail, Interpretive Loop, and down a nondescript OHV trail for some birding.
While we managed to have some fun and get stocked up for four days of dry camping to come, we were eager to finally get to the first big adventure of our new travel year at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If you’re traveling east to west along I-94 as we were, you arrive at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center first, and unless you want to drive (or hike a couple days) all the way back to it, it’s worth a stop at the combo rest area and VC. The facility itself was not very large, but was open for restrooms, gift shopping, and info (sound familiar?!) I popped in and got the official park brochure and, although it was a little cool and sprinkly, we decided to walk the shy-mile nature trail before heading in to set up camp. The fall colors were really starting to pop!
THRO is divided into two main sections, the North and South Units, 68 miles apart and in different time zones. Both units have campgrounds, and each offers its own unique scenery and wildlife. We chose to stay in the South Unit.
The campground roads are very narrow, and although lots of big rigs like us made it into their well-spaced sites, we were glad to have chosen #7 for its overall size, ease of access, and lack of shade, which gave us great solar power. Although the drive entrance was shared with a short pull-in site, with no windows out our tail end, we hardly knew anyone was there. We also had a great view from our dining area.
Since getting settled only involved leveling and setting the slides, after some lunch, we went out to explore a bit more. We drove up the road to see one of the massive prairie dog towns, then back to the Peaceful Valley Ranch area for a quick two-miler on the CCC Trail. We reveled in the heady scent of sage along the way.
We planned our biggest hike for the following day, parking again at the PV Ranch lot, but this time ready to wade across the rather icky waters of the Little Missouri to get to our chosen route.
After fording the river and cleaning off our feet, we set off to make a large loop of Big Plateau, Maah Daah Hey, South Petrified Forest, Lone Tree Loop, Maah Daah Hey again, and the Ekblom Trails. As the name of the first foreshadows, much of the first two miles is up on a big plateau.
We saw two herds of bison, one far (enough) to our right, the next far (enough) to our left. As you can see, if a bison got the notion to mess with you on the plateau, good luck to ya. For the most part though, you no pokey bison, bison no pokey you.
After leaving the plateau, the trail traveled through interesting rock formations and into some pockets of shade as it dropped down to Knutson Creek. The orange and gold autumn leaves gleamed in the sun.
With just over three miles to go, we looked up ahead to see a large bull making his way in our direction along the trail. With free rein to stomp wherever he liked while we were being environmentally considerate and only stomping on the trail, we thought he was very rude.
Bison have no concept of rudeness, however, so we stomped off the trail and made plans on where to scram if necessary. If you’ve been virtually hitchhiking with us from the beginning, you’ll remember this is not our first bison rodeo. Mr. Bull was headed to Tomamichael Well at the side of the trail, the bowl of which was dry, but it was surrounded by hoof-print mud puddles at which he wanted a bit of a drink. Fortunately, he didn’t also want a wallow, and slowly meandered away from the well and trail to join another monstrous bull munching in the prairie.
The remainder of the hike was uneventful, and soon we were re-crossing the river and headed home.
There is a a 36-mile scenic loop drive in the South Unit, but currently a section is closed for road repairs. We’re not generally scenic drive types, unless, like with this one, there are several small trails to be accessed along the way. That was my plan for our third day. On the way up, we got our first look at some of the park’s free-roaming horses.
We hit a couple of the overlooks and trails, but by the fourth and last one, we were inexplicably tired and cranky, and headed home in a mood.
Once back at the rig, and after wasting much of a beautiful afternoon, I determined we should go on a second sunset date, after our first hadn’t yielded any great photos. As we drove up to the view point, we could see that a storm was going to put the kibosh on the sunset, and I turned us around to try to outrun it down the hill. It caught up to us in the flats with hail smacking the roof and windshield. I scooted Hond under the overhang of a tree to shield us while the hail subsided. We were close to a big prairie dog town, and the storm was moving away, so we pulled into the big parking lot to watch the funny rodents for awhile. Then TBG, with his keen sense of light saw what the sun and surrounding storm clouds were going to do.
It was going to break under that cloud bank over Prairie Dog Town,
hit the hillsides to the east,
and set them on fire.
It was a phenomenal display that kept getting better the longer we watched. When I invite someone on a sunset date, I don’t mess around!
Shortly after the p-dogs put themselves to bed promptly at 7 p.m. MST, we headed in to admire our photos and plan our activities for our last day. We had waffled over whether or not to make the drive up to the North Unit, but ultimately decided that we should. It was a long, very un-scenic 68 miles into the North Unit’s Central Time Zone.
While stopped at the entrance station, where one of the park’s furry ambassadors was greeting folks, I overheard a visitor asking the ranger about a Lazuli Bunting that had been seen in the area, so naturally we made the one-mile Little Mo Nature Trail our first stop.
We did not spot the bunting, but it was a nice way to begin our time up north. For our “real” hike, we chose the Caprock Coulee loop.
We started at the Riverbend Overlook and traveled in a clockwise fashion.
On the equally un-scenic drive back south, I asked TBG if he could only recommend one of the park’s units to future visitors, which would he choose? He picked the North Unit, preferring its geology. He didn’t ask me the same question, but I told him anyhow, and my choice would be the South Unit for its landscapes, trails, and, especially, its critters. While bison are common in both units, and bighorn sheep (we didn’t see any) are found only in the North Unit, the list of creatures we saw in the south included bison, deer, pronghorn, horses, prairie dogs, and coyotes.
Overall, we really enjoyed our time at THRO, and we felt four nights was plenty to get a good feel for the park. We were so happy to be east of the Mississippi again, with big skies and wide open spaces.
See you in the Tetons!