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Backcountry Camping with Kids in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Day 1 

Back in May I stumbled upon Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I had no idea there was a National Park in North Dakota and that it was the northern end of the Badlands. Usually our summer vacations coincide with Scott's work trips. Since he didn't have any this summer I thought we should take advantage of actually taking a vacation.

What, my workcations are always classics? I suppose a second real vacation this year wouldn't hurt. We definitely have more time than normal. As long as we took Covid-19  precautions and avoided people.

We finally settled on a time to go. Blake joined us so we borrowed our dad's van so we could ride together. Scott had just driven from Michigan the day before. Blake had met my parents in Wisconsin to get the van and then drove from Duluth to pick us up. I offered to drive since I literally only drive twice a month. 

I was still pretty tired from a long drive home.

Since we were near Fergus Falls we had to stop by the abandoned state hospital designed by Clarence Johnston. 

This building is monstrous.

The kids found an old teeter totter to play on.

Theo nearly tottered right off.

Scott found us a campsite just past Fargo for the night. We even had our own shoreline. 

Eggert's Landing just north of  Valley City, North Dakota. This was our first time ever staying at a Core of Engineers campground.

He picked a walk in site to hopefully keep us distanced from other people. Our campsite ended up being really close to the next one. Luckily it was empty.

The kids were most excited for the playground.

We still don't do playgrounds much in the city. For some reason we trust little used playgrounds in rural towns more.

Lake Ashtabula. It seems like your standard not-really-a-lake that you find in the Dakotas. I guess it's a more man-made version of Lake Pepin.

Blake made us Pad Thai for dinner. 

Day 2
In the morning I made pancakes before we headed west.

We had never been in North Dakota outside of Fargo. We saw lots of farms, especially sunflower farms. 

We also spotted the start of the Enchanted Highway. We'd have to check out the rest on the way back.

Then suddenly the badlands showed up. I thought it would have been gradual but it was like, "Boom! here they are."

We went to Medora to get our map and then made lunch at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center back on the east end of the national park.

Before arriving we had to obtain a backcountry permit. They needed to know what trails we'd be on, where we were parking, what days and how many people would be with us. Having never been here before Scott picked a few trails that sounded good. 

Brooke skimmed over this key point when checking out the national park website. Luckily I read it over and I got to planning.

Planning things ahead of time gives me anxiety. I was planning to go to the park, find an area that looked good and camp there. But I get that they need to know where you are in case you get lost. Our first night we camped along the Painted Canyon Trail. 

I expected to carry Theo, but he's in the do-it-myself stage. "No, me walk," he said.

Meadow carried her own water and sleeping bag plus snacks.

She's a heck of a hiker at seven.

Then we began our descent into the canyon.

We had to pick up Theo every so often. Early on there was big patch of poison ivy just off the trail. We didn't want him to get itchy before we even started.

The kids were doing so well and Meadow took charge leading the way.

We quickly spotted some prickly pear cactus along the Painted Canyon.

Theo slipped going down one of the hills and then became afraid every time we approached another hill. Onto my front he went. I'm so glad Blake was able to join us. He carried most of our water.

Key point if you plan to backcountry camp Theodore Roosevelt National Park: the natural water will destroy your filters and there isn't much around. You'll need to backpack it in. We had three water bladders plus Blake carried in 2 gallon water bottles.

Badlands National Park is cool, but I loved the variation in the landscape here.

Once we made it down we didn't see another person.

We followed an animal path to the other side of this butte to camp for the night.

It was hot. So, we set our stuff down and explored nearby until the sun lowered once we found our campsite. 

Meadow would prefer to stay in a hotel, but as soon as we are out in nature she has the time of her life. 

She claims that, but I don't believe it for a second.

Some of the hills are impassable due to erosion. The dirt and rock just falls apart.

I don't know why people don't backcountry camp. You get to explore new parts of the park on your own and don't have to deal with loud neighbors.

People love their bathrooms and showers.

While we didn't make it up the largest butte, we did climb a neighboring one.

The kids were having a blast.

Meadow decided to head back down to Brooke.

I carried Theo up and Blake brought the little guy back down. It's good having our Old Pear along for the adventure.

Soon our camp was shaded. We set up camp and made dinner.

We mostly brought these Tasty Bite prepped foods along and other similar items. They're quite a bit cheaper than the camp food you find at REI or Cabela's. The kids got Essential Everyday Mac & Cheese. It comes with the sauce packet and doesn't require any milk or butter.

They are also made with real foods. No added preservatives. 

The ranger recommended picking up a more detailed map as the bison trails look just like the actual trail and it can be easy to get lost.

I'm not sure we ever got confused by bison trails, but the map you can pick up from the TRNHA is great. I also used the National Parks Project iOS map in conjunction with the physical map.

Mac and cheese for the kids and Indian for the adults.

Our map showed we were near a creek. We decided to check it out before the sun went down.

There wasn't much water left in the creek.

The creeks and Little Missouri are typically fullest in May and June. 

Day 3
The days were supposed to be in the 90's. We woke up along with the sun so we could head back to our car before it got too hot. 

We found a place around the corner from our campsite to avoid the wind. Our Primus Classic Trail Stoves struggle a bit when it's really windy. 

We never quite got to the petrified forest, but our first campsite had a good number of the ancient trees.

Oatmeal and a view.

Theo did not want to leave and was having a fit about walking.

Even more embarrassing was the hikers watching Theo freak out from atop the butte.

I put him on my shoulders and he finally calmed down.

The parking lot was already pretty full by the time we made it back.

We decided to spend the day exploring the park before going to our next camp.

It's weird how along the road you'd always run into the bison, but they were so rare in the backcountry.

The trail we'd take to our camp on our second night required crossing the Little Missouri River. We thought we would check the water levels before carrying all of our gear with us. Luckily there has been a drought so the water levels were low and only went up a little past our knees.

We hit up all of the tourist sites.

Took some toursity shots.

Even made an album cover. 3-non blondes, a blonde and (not pictured) a bald guy.

The kids enjoyed the Buck Hill Overlook.

There was a cool little cave under the overlook.

We could even see where we camped the first night in the distance. 

After another sunscreen break we hiked Coal Vein Trail.

We originally had plans to camp along Coal Vein Trail and when I called to get our permit I asked the ranger for a suggestion on this one or the Big Plateau Trail.

Those both seemed interesting.

 She suggested the Big Plateau so we'd have different scenery than the night before. I'm glad she did because finding a place to camp along the Coal Vein trail would have been tricky.

Especially staying out of site. In order to backcountry camp you can't be visible from the trail.

Theo would get really excited by the interpretation posts.

We're not sure what the numbers meant. They must've told you something in the past.

Along the trail was a rotting bison. A lady warned us before we went out that our kids were going to see something grotesque and smelly. Instead of being scared, Meadow wanted to go back to look at it again. Ha.

Heading back towards the entrance to the park we drove by the original east entrance that is no longer used. We decided to head there for lunch. We walked through a prairie dog town to get there.

Can you spot the little guy?

And there it was. The old entry gate.

Luckily we found a spot with shade.

After seeing all the South Unit sites, we drove back across the park to the trailhead by Peaceful Valley Ranch. We packed our bags, crossed the river and headed up Big Plateau. I was nervous about my camera and we packed it carefully in Brooke's bag.

This was one of the hardest hikes I've ever done. Between hiking all day, plus the heat and add in walking up the steep hills, it was exhausting. 

Eventually we made to the top of the plateau and took a break in the shade to find a spot to camp.

We decided to head just to the east of Big Plateau Spring.

Walking to our camp required cutting through another prairie dog town. 

Meadow has been doing so well on these hikes. She keeps up and doesn't complain.

Theo and I lagged behind because he had to check every hole for prairie dogs. 

At last we found our destination.

Blake and Meadow hiked around the spring to find our campsite.

Eventually Theo and Brooke showed up and we pitched our tents.

Blake brought along some La Croix but they weren't as refreshing as I had hoped. 

Warm La Croix isn't very good.

We had a gourmet meal of mac and cheese, cooked veggies and black beans & rice.

Mostly because Theo refused to eat anything but snacks.

Blake spotted an old structure down by the spring.

We hiked down and found some odd looking troughs. 

I later heard these were built so horses could get water.

Then we heard coyotes howling in the distance.

We decided we didn't want to confront wild coyotes and raced up the bluff.

The lighting was so cool with storms in the distance.

We finally found the edge of the plateau after escaping from the coyotes.

It was well worth trekking up here.

Brooke and Meadow decided to stay behind while the boys explored.

See how a bison trail looks like a normal trail.


Blake kept making me nervous on ledges and overhangs.

But the sunset was otherwordly.

With all the bison dung up here I expected to see some American Buffalo. I only saw one in the distance while I was setting up our tent.

This was a noisier camp. The coyotes howled all night. 

Day 4
We woke at sunrise again. 

Honestly I had to poop. The true call of nature.

I explored by my lonesome before breakfast.

Then I taught Theo about maps.

He was more interested in breakfast.

The tall grass can be quite pokey. Meadow was a champ though. And look how cool she looks hiking. 

She's got style. She's got grace.

Right when we got over this ridge Blake spotted some deer-like animals. Later we figured out they were pronghorns.

The pack of pronghorns had suddenly run off.

Moments later Blake spotted a herd of bison behind us.

Then I heard Scott yell my name. It took me a second time to see that the bison had came from out of nowhere. Had we left 5 minutes later they would have been in our way. 

We had walked half a mile and saw so much wildlife already.

The walk back was much more pleasant than the walk up.

Theo hiked the whole trail on his own except at the really steep part. I'm so glad I brought our snowshoe poles to use as trekking poles. 

Blake carried our children across the river.

The perfect Old Pear.

We took our shoes off and tied them to our packs.

I've never had to hike through a river before.

More bison sightings on our drive.

We would spend our next night in the Little Missouri National Grassland between the two units. I figured the kids would want a rest day and we'd want the use of a toilet for the day.

We weren’t sure what to expect at the national grassland and Magpie Campground. There was grass and grazing cattle, but we ended up witnessing some of the best vistas of the entire trip.

With the national park campgrounds closed we were worried the national grassland campgrounds would be packed. We were shocked to see an almost empty campground with only one other spot reserved. We lucked out on the biggest and shadiest spot.

Before going on another adventure we chilled at the campground and ate lunch.

Today it was 95 degrees and felt more humid.

Driving through the cattle farms was just as exciting as seeing the bison.

Though, they're so much dumber than the bison.

Blake was driving along Magpie Road to the national park's Elkhorn Ranch Unit. What I didn't realize was that the road went through the Little Missouri River. No bridges. We would not be visiting Teddy Roosevelt's ranch after all.

There were some amazing views here. 

Best view on the entire trip?

It was so much better in person. 

Since we didn't make it to the ranch we decided to hike a little bit of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. This trail spans 144 miles and starts 30 miles south of the park and cuts through the two units. Outside of the national park boundaries it's popular for mountain biking.

It was nice to hike with a lot less weight. Besides one biker we didn't see anyone else on the trail.

I was enamored by Cedar Top Butte. You could say its butte-iful.

The trail seemed doable for a beginner mountain biker.

Some dark clouds seemed to be sneaking in so we booked it back to the van.

Just as we approached the van I said to myself, "It' not going to rain."

The rain passed right by us again.

Called it.

Meadow and I worked on her Junior Ranger booklet. This is such a cool program. We all learned new things about the park from her book.

For dinner we had one of our Tiberino One-Pot Meals. This was their orecchiette with rapini.

Theo wasn't into the meal. So, I offered him the soupy leftover boiling water along with his noodles. Apparently this was much more to his liking. P.S. Don't add as much water as they suggest.

The Magpie Campground we stayed at had some great views too.

Our campground also connects to the Maah Daah Hey Trail. We did some exploring before the sun went down. Then we fell asleep to cows mooing in the distance.

Day 5 - North Unit
In the morning we had pancakes, packed our backpacks and drove to the North Unit

The North Unit is much smaller than the south and also has fewer visitors.

This lady in the orange shirt was so excited to see a bison way off in the distance.

There's a bison out there somewhere.

There were a lot more trees in the North Unit.

The scenic drive ends at Oxbow Overlook. This was also the trailhead to our next campsite.

Luckily it had picnic tables, garbage and pit toilets.

Very lucky because my stomach wasn't feeling great. I have to remind myself not to forgot the Pepto next time.

I thought we'd see more people backpacking since it's the only option for camping here. But we were basically the only ones. 

We thought the campgrounds were closed because of Covid-19, but I guess it was the construction of new bathrooms.

The sign at the trailhead mentioned this was a difficult trail. Starting out it has you walk along this ledge. Theo went immediately in the Ergo.

Then you slowly make your way down to the valley.

That first section was as bad as it would get.

Down and down we went.

We passed through some molar foundations.

We descended deep into the Little Missouri River floodplain.

I was thinking we would camp somewhere in the grass, but once we got down below, the grass was pretty high.

Theo kept wanting to walk and then changed his mind.

We had to cross this deep creek. Some times of the year this might be impassable.

We thought about camping in the trees. The night called for rainstorms and this was in the floodplain.

Blake found a campsite along the steep cliffs.

I love that the kids immediately find somewhere to play. We don't bring many toys along. They mostly use what they find.

The kids loved the sandy creek bed.

Our least favorite spot of this trip, but it still had some nice views. Blake climbed pretty high up and found a lizard and fossils!

We then decided to check out the river.

The river looks like it gets pretty wide and deep during the rainy season. The rest of the year it doesn't rain much. Only 15 inches of precipitation annually and 3 inches come from snow (that's equal to 30 inches of snowfall).

Just a couple of sticks and the kids have the time of their lives.

The kids have been watching too much Star Wars.

Theo found a cool antler on our walk back.

It's been so nice to have our au pair again.

Oh, that's what he's called. I thought it was Old Pear.

Thai peanut veggies with coconut rice for our last night in the wild.

Blake spotted a bison in the distance so we all had to climb up to see.

Can you spot him?

We were a little worried he'd come by our campsite.

I spy our tent.

I just couldn't stop looking around.

Day 6
The weather called for rain overnight, but we did not think it would rain the whole night.

It rained and rained and rained.

 Luckily the sun came out when we woke and helped dry all our stuff.

A herd of bison showed up in the valley below us.

I finished off our water before leaving.

We took with us our trusty Slumberjack 4 Person Trail Tent. It weighs almost 12 pounds. I had to get creative carrying it. After the trip we replaced the fiberglass poles with these aluminum tent poles from Amazon and aluminum stakes from REI. That should cut off 3 or 4 pounds next time around.

Finding a small and light 4-person tent is impossible or really expensive. Someday when the kids are older we'll bring two 2-person tents. 

We expected the trail to be muddy, but not quite this bad.

It was very slippery and you could easily lose your footing.

I had to carry Theo on this hike.

As we made our way up it was still slippery.

We ran into our first backpackers. They warned us that it was very slick going back up to Oxbow Overlook. We warned them that the trail was flooded in areas down below.

But the end was in sight.

We spotted a bison hanging out on one of the hills. See the brown spot in the middle.

It was starting to dry up as we got higher but it was still pretty slippery.

Meadow lead the way up the steep terrain. Luckily Blake found a better path than on our way down. Can you spot the gawkers?

Having to walk on that ledge again made us nervous. Luckily we avoided it. 

As we were heading out of the park we saw that the visitor center was open. Meadow got to turn in her Junior Ranger book and get her badge. 

To celebrate our week of hiking we got pizza and beer in nearby Dickinson at Phat Fish Brewing.

We would've taken our food to go, but they had a spacious patio. Their super thick pan pizza is definitely worth a stop.

It was so good. We also hadn't been to a brewery since February.

We decided to take the less boring route home. We veered off onto the Enchanted Highway

These massive metal sculptures celebrating North Dakota were awesome.

The artist spaced them out along the highway leading to his hometown to attract more visitors.

It worked.

This one had a little maze to run through.

Theo loved the grasshopper bouncers.

The fish one was my favorite.

That's one big pike.

After awhile we got sick of getting in and out and just looked at them from the car.

I got away with not driving much on the earlier legs of our trip. Not on the final rides home. We took a scenic route along the North-South Dakota border and through the Standing Rock Reservation.

The sun was getting lower and we needed a place to stay. We found a spot at Indian Creek Recreation Area in South Dakota. 

Just east of Mobridge along the Missouri River.

I was worried as the campground looked busy with RV's and Trumpkins. Since we only had tents we were put in the tent area.  

We ended up by our lonesome in the tent camping area. P.S. wear pants or avoid sitting on the ground. The chiggers were not fun.

Scott came home covered, and I mean covered, in bug bites.

Day 7
One last quick camp breakfast and we were back on the road.

You know if we spot an old drive-in we have to stop.

The ice cream was melting too quickly. It was quite a mess with everyone.

Not bad Mr. Bob, not bad.

We made one last stop in Dawson, Minnesota to break for a late lunch. We stopped at the park and you know the kids loved the playground.

Just watch out for the gnomes.


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