WATFORD CITY - The Badlands of North Dakota is a land of universal appeal. The strange, even bewildering terrain consisting of slumping buttes and fascinating geological oddities is painted with the pleasing hues of sage and juniper. It is a land where a muddy river somehow complements blue sky and where bentonitic clay alternates between its popcorn-like appearance when dry to greasy slick following a downpour.
While anytime in the Badlands is a special time, evenings are remarkably wonderful. The tall buttes cast cool shadows long before the sun sets. Wildlife responds by emerging from their daytime cover. The mule deer and the bison, perhaps the two animals most often associated with the Badlands, become particularly visible as they browse on a variety of grasses and seek refreshing water wherever it has pooled.
Some visitors to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park may arrive with little knowledge or awareness of their unique surroundings, but they soon come to realize that they have immersed themselves in a very unique place. The combination of fresh air, wilderness and serenity seeps into the senses and leaves the visitor feeling profoundly grateful for the experience.
Derek and Bethany Hixson, Arnegard, about to enjoy a steak supper in the pleasant surroundings of Theodore Roosevelt National Park-North Unit last Sunday.
A bison grazes on new grass near the entrance to Juniper Campground in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The building in the background is serving as the temporary entrance station to the park.
An evening in the Badlands with family and friends always creates lasting memories. This gathering included a few newcomers to western North Dakota.
Mule deer are synonymous with the rugged terrain of the North Dakota Badlands. They also offer great opportunities for wildlife watchers.
The North Unit's Juniper Campground was a preferred Memorial weekend destination for campers who chose to get away from the usual crowd and soak in the heavy dose of nature the Badlands offer. With the smell of Cajun-seasoned ribs drifting through the air, Wade and Tammy Elgaen of Grand Forks were engaged in a friendly game of washer toss. The evening was perfect for camping and cooking and enjoyment. The Elgaens were taking full advantage of their experience.
"We have put in so much time in the woods today, it's just incredible," said Tammy Elgaen. "It's gorgeous here. We've seen lots of bison, lots of birds. The bison just come right up in the tent area."
A short distance away a bison could be heard wading through the water of the Little Missouri River. Rainfall the previous night had caused the river to rise several inches.
"It's just a beautiful area. A nice place to be. The wildlife is just amazing," said Wade Elgaen. "It is our first time camping here and it is a marvelous experience."
From a nearby campsite, wisps of smoke drifting on a slight wind carried the unmistakable scent of a cooking fire. The Hixsons were grilling steaks over a wood fire and enjoying a comfortable evening outdoors. A red and white checkered tablecloth graced the picnic table at their shady tent site.
"This kind of reminds me of home in North Carolina. It's a miniature form of the mountains," said Derek Hixson. "We love getting out and enjoying the wildlife and awesome hiking trails."
"This is just stunning and gorgeous and a beautiful representation of God's creation" added Bethany Hixson. "There's a lot of history and it is a great place to hike."
Bethany Hixson said she was a native of Mississippi but moved to Arnegard about six months ago.
"We're glad to be in western North Dakota," remarked Derek Hixson. "We're really enjoying it."
The beauty of the Badlands moves the soul of even the most casual visitor. A person cannot enter the Badlands and remain unmoved.
"I love it out here. There's just a peace to it that most national parks can't manage," said Jamie Anderson, Rochester, Minn.
Anderson was part of a large group seated on comfortable camp chairs while enjoying friendly conversation and a meal of freshly grilled hamburgers. Judging by the preponderance of smiles, all were immersed in a very agreeable evening courtesy of the Badlands around them.
"It's beautiful. It's obvious, isn't it?" laughed Jim Hiersche, Seattle. "It's nice being here. These are people I've hardly ever met before."
Hiersche came to North Dakota to work as an inspector in the Bakken oilfield. He was enjoying a few days off in a place perfectly designed to offer relaxation. A few feet away sat Matt Beard, a lifelong resident of Watford City and former delivery boy for The Minot Daily News.
"You couldn't ask for anything better," said Beard when asked about his evening in Juniper Campground. "This is like our backyard. It's easy to take this for granted since I grew up here. It's like you get it all to yourself. I love going hiking. All the family and friends here this weekend is pretty awesome."
The circle of friends included Jake Walters, a southern California native who moved to Watford City two years ago in search of work.
"Absolutely! Boom time, but we are staying for the people," said Walters while holding a small child on his lap. "It's a big change from southern California but I'm loving every minute. It's beautiful and literally 15 minutes down the road."
Other campers could be seen at their campsites, some with cooking fires burning in designated grills and others utilizing portable campstoves. Some were reading. Some were simply relaxing and enjoying the startling views offered in every direction.
As the sun set the melodious tune of the meadowlark was replaced by the croaking of frogs and the distant yip and howl of the coyote, special sounds that will forever remain etched in the minds of visitors to the Badlands. The desire to return is assured.