The Northern Great Plains

There is an intense sense of remoteness when driving across the massive rolling prairies of western Montana and eastern North Dakota. You can see so far, it’s extremely obvious how sparsely populated this part of the country is. And that’s where the beauty lies, in the absence of people.

Our first stop today was visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. It’s quite a somber place, with not a lot to see but certainly the interpretation panels help tell the story and really give the area a feeling of respect. Their are unique markers for fallen soldiers and Natives, with many of the Lakota markers holding memorial treasures on their tops. Avi was fascinated by this place, both the story of the battle and the landscape. He was entranced by a herd of wild horses, so much so that we stopped so he could video them for his friend Ivy.

After that, we took a random detour to the Yellowtail Dam. It’s the only part of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation area we made it too. And that’s OK. We got our National Parks book stamped (my obsession) and stopped in at the campground for a swim in the water, but it was kinda yucky so we bailed and continued up the road.

This trip we are listening to the Gods of Olympus series by Rick Riordan. They are great! Kids are into it, and they are fast paced enough to keep me awake and alert while driving.

We stayed for the night on the eastern border of Montana, out in the BLM property of badlands south of Makoshika State Park. It’s along the Yellowstone river as it flows northeast to join the Missouri, and the kids ran around like crazy people and got all muddy. It made me think of our first big camper trip in 2017 when they got filthy playing at the edge of a river around midnight in Canada. I hadn’t known how late it was then, and even now it was nearly 9pm when I called them in. But first, there was the required hosedown. After cleaning them up, however, I couldn’t disconnect the “quick connect” hose gadget and even texted with Bryan to figure it out. It finally came off after forcing it, so I needn’t drive dragging our hose along.

Makoshika State Park was really cool. It’s an area of badlands with dinosaur fossils and erosion and all things cool geology. Avi is super into geology right now, and even has his own rock hammer, which he did not use at the park. He did, however, spend some of his money on a mini-lego triceratops that he is now ramming into things. We went on two hikes: one to get a neat geo/earth cache by a fossil and another to stand atop some toadstools and a rocky bridge.

From there is was a short drive to Forth Union Trading Post National Historic site. This place was more interesting than I expected. It’s a fort from the 1800s that was right on the Missouri river – the river has since changed course so you can’t boat right up to it anymore. Many local Native American groups brought furs and other trade goods here, and then the items were shipping down river to sell. Zoe, especially, was really into working on the requirements to earn a Junior Ranger badge here.

That evening we made it to the northern CCC campground of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park. We put off dinner in favor of a short mountain bike ride on the famous Maah Daah Hey Trail. It was a loop that included a stop along the Little Missouri river for some serious mud walking. I’m pretty sure that in a million years, the archaeologist who finds our preserved footprints will think there were about 20 kids, one adult, and a tiny dog. On the loop back, the sky was absolutely gorgeous. We ALL – Slim Jim included – got a quick Navy-style hot shower in the camper, and then we played our national parks game while the dog snarfed around drying himself on everything.

We spent the following day exploring the park, starting with a hike on the Buckhorn trail from Caprock Coulee to get up close and personal with prairie dogs at their town. There was also an amazing buffalo herd on the way! We spent the middle of the day driving the 48 mile scenic loop gawking at grassland views. Both kids also earned their junior ranger badge.

For the evening, we drove back northward to the Magpie campground; this place is not near anything but grass and badlands and another section of the Maah Daah Hey trail. The highlight here was a 3 mile trail out to the ice caves, and while the caves were kinda cool, it was the mountain biking that really made it a fun time. There was a pretty deep water crossing, multiple gates to go through, and insanely scenic grassland views. We were really pushing dark to get back to the camper before it was impossible to see the trail. The kids started to get a bit creeped out – especially Avi since Zoe was playing along that it was spooky biking at night. I rucked the bikes and each kid individually back over the water crossing to save time and wet shoes… and save a creeped out kid. I tried not to think about what was in the tannin-filled water, either!

Our final day in the high plains found us visiting two very different cultural centers. First was the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, where there was an amazing reconstructed earthlodge and the archaeological remains of a village. The walk out to the village was crazy hot today, so I let the kids walk past the village along the river to a closer shady dirt road pullout. I walked back to the camper and drove it over to pick them up. They thought this was insanely fun and sneaky because the stairs down to the riverside were closed and broken and I let them go anyway.

From there we drove to our northernmost point on this trip: Minot. This town was interestingly founded by the railroad and populated by numerous immigrants from Scandinavia. So, we were there to see the Scandinvian Heritage park in the middle of town. After so much time outdoors on trails, in the mud, and in the grass, it was funny to be in a very tidy town park with a Norwegian stave church. To add to the weirdness, we had our first ‘out to eat’ meal in a weeks. What with COVID rules different in each state, its been easiest to simply not interact. I ordered ahead at the local Taco Bell and picked it up at the front door and I can’t tell you how amazing it was to not be responsible for cooking dinner!

We stayed the night beside a lake at a free spot nearish a town called Edgeley. It was super sketch getting there, though, since the stupid GPS took me along an apparent gridline road, which really turned out to be barely a dirt road between fields; there was much teeth gnashing and white knuckle driving as it got worse and worse. Luckily, after one section line of that, we crossed a paved road, and the GPS wanted me to continue straight into a field. The kids heard enough swearing for one night, so I went up and around the section. Turned out there were a few other folks camped out and partying at the spot. We stayed on the far side of the space and it was fine.

Before heading south to visit Avi’s friend Cason, we did hit up the Pipestone National Monument – an area of pipestone quarries used by Native American groups to create sacred objects and prayer pipes.

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