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Trip Report – North Dakota Badlands and Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

In my latest monthly report, you got a taste of our recent trip to the North Dakota Badlands for a mountain bike race on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  We decided to make an extended family camping trip out of the event instead of just going out for the race.  This is a full report out on the trip.  We got to experience the Badlands and a little bit of Colonel Custer history in the process, with a stop off at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park on the way home.  Not to mention, a stop to see the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument!

Day 1 – Monday

We started our road trip out with an uneventful drive through our first leg of the trip that took us just shy of the Minnesota and North Dakota border, where we set up camp at Buffalo River State Park in Glyndon, Minnesota.  This was a nice little park and we arrived in plenty of time to enjoy a bit of relaxation around camp and for me to stretch my legs with a short interval workout on my bike.  The kids were excited for electricity as we had warned them that we would not have any electricity at our next stop, the CCC Campground near Grassy Butte, North Dakota.

An additional note on this day…  We took our time driving and must have had a tail wind because I ended up easily making it all the way there without gassing up and got 11.5 mpg.  This was my best fuel mileage yet while towing the camper.

Day 2 – Tuesday

Short video I took of the wind gust during one of our rest area stops

Tuesday was a bit of a different story with fuel mileage as we ran smack dab into one heck of a wind storm while crossing North Dakota.  We contemplated pulling off for the night, but knew that the storm was going to pass by the time we got to our final destination.  Luckily, it was all a headwind and the gusts were not coming at us sideways, or I would have gone ahead and pulled off for the night.  Needless to say, it took us a little longer to get to Grassy Butte with a couple extra gas stops.  To give you an idea of the headwind that we were fighting, I only got about 5.5 mpg on one of my tanks of fuel and we were only traveling a bit over 50 mph at the time.  We eventually arrived to the CCC Campground just after sunset to set up camp.

Day 3 – Wednesday

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My cup of coffee with a fantastic backdrop

It was a nice cool night and the sleeping was great with all the windows open.  We awoke the next morning to an amazing view of the North Dakota Badlands.  We were the only ones in the campground that morning and could see into the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park right from our campsite.  We didn’t have electricity for our coffee maker and I had gotten rid of our percolator pot at some point, so we improvised by manually dripping hot water through the coffee pot.

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Tough to beat this kind of camp setting

I took my cup of coffee with me on a walk up to the Maah Daah Hey trail head to check things out.  I turned around to find my little buddy Reid following me up the trail eating some breakfast in his t-shirt and underwear…  Apparently he was comfortably enjoying the nature of the Badlands.  I walked up the first hill a bit to get a full view of the land around us.  It was something else.  Some people like the security of a full hook up campground near town, but we’ve had some amazing mornings waking up to deer walking through our campsite, views over a lake or amazing scenery like the Badlands.  Those are the times I have had the most amazing cup of cheap morning coffee…  As a little disclosure, we’ve had some pretty nice full hook up campsites in a great atmosphere in the past as well, thanks to Arkansas State Parks!

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My boys catching a quick pic with me after my trail ride

We took our time getting up and around in the morning and I eventually took off on my bike to pre-ride a bit of the trail for the big race on Saturday.  This trail starts off with a big climb and I knew at this point I was in for one heck of a tough race.  It made me start to rethink my race strategy of how hard I would take off from the start line.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing around camp and watching the kids ride their bikes up and down the campground road. I can’t get enough of watching the kids laugh and play carefree on their bikes like that.  Those are the moments that keep me grounded.  When I say keep me grounded, I mean remind me to not ever “grow up”.  Life is short and you have to make the best out of every experience that you have.

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The boys pretending to be me in the hammock

Day 4 – Thursday

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Unit

Thursday was an extremely full day.  We did spend a fair amount of time in the truck, but we covered quite a bit of ground.  We started the morning off with a drive through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to see the Bison herds.  We were pretty lucky, as they were right up on the road when we came through and we had a real close up experience, from the safety of our truck of course…  The kids thought  the Bison were something else and enjoyed watching them.  We drove out to the end of the park, stopping at many of the overlooks to check things out.  The place was beautiful.  It is a bit different than the South Dakota Badlands.  I would say there are more colors and a bit more scenery at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but both places are worth the visit for sure.

We eventually made our way out of the park and back to camp for some lunch.  The kids had heard somebody at one of the lookouts talking about all the prairie dogs at the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and were set on driving down there.  We figured we could combine that with a trip of pre-driving the checkpoints for the race on Saturday to get a better idea of what I had gotten myself into.  That turned out to be a good decision and a fun one.  It was a 106 mile race and there were spectator and SAG (Support and Gear) checkpoints along the course.  Basically, whenever the course crossed a back road about every 8 to 10 miles there was a  checkpoint.

Crossing the Little Missouri River

For one, Lynn was able to see me drive across the Little Missouri, so she felt a bit more comfortable doing it on her own Saturday.  FYI, the river crossing would save her a whole lot of driving on Saturday, about 3.5 hours actually.  Secondly, I was able to get a better lay of the land and see that there was a whole bunch of it between the start line at the CCC campground and the finish line in Medora.  It continued to make me realize how tough of a race this was going to be and that I needed to pace myself a bit at the start if I was going to make it to the finish.  It also helped set in motion, us preparing for Lynn to have some extra water, ice and feed supplies ready for me at the checkpoints.

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Prairie Dogs in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit

After the river crossing, we found ourselves having to weave our way between earth movers and road graders that were putting a new road in, which was another interesting experience.  Without this, we would have had to back track a couple hours back over the river and the kids would have run out of daylight to see the Prairie Dogs in the South Unit.  We eventually made our way to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park just before sunset and drove in far enough for the kids to watch the Prairie Dogs for awhile.  That is really all they cared about at this point.  They had been waiting all day to see Prairie Dogs.  We figured the South Unit was right off of I-94 and we could easily stop in and drive the rest of the park on another trip through this area.  We made it back to camp after dark to settle in for the night with only one more day before race day.

Day 5 – Friday

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Scenery atop the Mesa after the first climb

My plan for Friday morning was to pretend it was race day and run through my pre-race routine to make sure I was ready.  I took a quick ride up the first climb to the top of the Messa to try and workout a comfortable but competitive pace.  I had taken a couple pictures on my Wednesday ride, but I had to stop again and take it all in because I knew I would be focused on the race the next day.  I was thinking about how awesome of an opportunity it was to race in this rugged, but beautiful land.  I made my way back down to camp and relaxed for the rest of the day.  The kids enjoyed their time riding bikes around the campground again and I kept my feet up most of the day.  Many people were starting to pull into camp for the big race on Saturday and also doing some pre-riding.

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About the only bit of two track in the race atop the first climb

We eventually drove into Watford City to check in for the race and pick up some extra water and ice.  We did make another drive through the North Unit on our way into town.  The kids wanted to see the Bison again, but we only saw a couple this time way off in the distance.  Even though the campground was packed that night, you could hear crickets.  Pretty amazing how quiet a full campground can be at 9:00 PM when everybody in it is getting ready to head out on a 100 mile mountain bike race first thing in the morning…

Day 6 – Saturday

Saturday was race day.  After not sleeping well, I was up at 5:00 AM to get a little food in me and stretch before I put my self through the long day of suffering out on the trail.  It was one heck of a day and I had a great race for where I am at in my current fitness and racing progression.  I ended up 10th place overall, but won’t go into detail here as I have written a full race report over on my other website.  You can read that report here:  2015 Maah Daah Hey 100 Race Report

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My boys hanging with me after the finish line

Lynn and the kids spent the entire day driving from check point to check point of the race, being my SAG (Support and Gear) vehicle.  Temps reached over 100 degrees that day and having cold water and ice available for me at the check points paid off.  It was a long day for them while I was out on the race course for just over 12 hours.  They made it through the whole day and were right there with me at the finish line in Medora.  We picked up pizza for the kids in Medora where the finish of the race was before heading back to the CCC Campground for our last night of camping here.

Day 7 – Sunday

We didn’t rush out of camp too early because we were only going to drive a few hours away to Bismarck, North Dakota.  I got such a kick out of watching the boys’ excitement about the Bison, that I decided to drive them across the river to the North Unit of the park before leaving the area.  They were excited to see the Bison one last time before heading out and we were lucky enough to see a few up near the road again.

We finally got the trailer hooked up and were on the road by late morning to head back East.  We arrived at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park to find ourselves on a nice campsite, after requesting a new one…  The first one they assigned us, was right on top of the neighbors and there were trees right along each side of the parking pad, so we would not have been able to extend our awning or slide outs on the trailer.  It was a bit of a rare site.

I know, we are not really roughing it…  We really like the exploring part of camping more than the real camping part of it and the trailer makes exploring new places real easy and comfortable.  I think as the kids get a bit older, I will take them on some backpacking trips to enjoy more of the real backcountry.  We spent the rest of the evening relaxing around camp and watching the boys ride their bikes around.  I had my feet up most of the time with a gallon jug of water in hand, trying to replenish all the lost fluids from racing the day before in 100 plus degree heat.

Day 8 – Monday

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Mandan Native’s Earth Lodges and Reid being photo bombed by his bear

I love waking up to a near empty campground and drinking my coffee while I pace around outside.  I was missing the morning view of the North Dakota Badlands, but it was still a good morning regardless.  After some coffee and breakfast, we took the opportunity to check out the visitor center and get a lay of the land.  There were some great photos from the Custer era and a good explanation of the grounds.  We checked out the Earth Lodges that were replicas of what the Mandan Indian Tribe people lived in centuries earlier.  It was really interesting and fun showing the boys how people lived back in time.  Being able to put yourself in the place, makes for the greatest history lessons.

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Post Cemetery at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

We eventually checked out the guard houses and the original Post Cemetery.  The Post Cemetery was extremely interesting.  You could actually see the sunken ground where the remains had been dug up at one point and moved to the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery.  It was a bit erie.  You could also see the names on the grave markers and how they had died.  The Cemetery was down off the hill side a bit and I really wanted to check it out.  Old cemeteries really make history a bit more real and helps take you back in time.  My son Reid didn’t want to miss out on anything with me and came running down the path to join me.

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Colonel Custer replica house at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

After the cemetery, we made our way over to the Calvary Post where the replica Colonel Custer house and Calvary Barracks were at.  We did not have a pass to go in the Custer house, but the Barracks were open.  The kids were amazed that the soldiers all lived in these barracks like this and ate all together in the dinning room.  The barracks were all set up as if still being used and again helped everything seem a bit more real.  Getting out and traveling like this has really made for some great history lessons for us.

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The boys checking out the replica Calvary beds

We had one last thing that we had to do.  There was a really nice bike path and the kids wanted to go for a ride.  I was still sore and hurting from the Maah Daah Hey 100 on Saturday, but I needed to stretch my legs a little anyways.  We only rode about 4 miles and then it was getting dark and headed back to camp for a campfire.  We saw a lot of deer on our little bike ride.  The boys would just light up with excitement at the sight of the deer standing there, watching them ride by on their bikes.

Day 9 – Tuesday

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World’s Largest Buffalo Monument in Jamestown, North Dakota

It was time to make our way home.  We packed up in the morning and headed out.  We did stop off in Jamestown, North Dakota to see the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument.  The boys got a kick out of the statue and a few of the old western town buildings.  We purchased some Buffalo teeth in one of the souvenir shops for the boys to keep and remember the trip.  We tend to like the memories and the pictures as our souvenirs, but the Bison teeth were cheep and kind of cool.  That was the last of our stops on this journey and we finished our trek home to unpack and prepare for the next one!

Summary

The main purpose of this trip was the Maah Daah Hey 100 mountain bike race, but we ended up getting a great family vacation out of it with some new great experiences.  All the things we do in life, lead to another experience.  I have enjoyed the mountain biking as it has led us on some great family outings and vacations.  It doesn’t matter what your thing is that you like to do, just go find out what it is and use it as an excuse to get out and see the world.  The boys have now been camping in 17 different states.  They have gotten to see and experience a whole lot with those trips and are usually talking about the next trip and visiting another state before we even get home.

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