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Camping in North Dakota's Badlands

Shrimp is sauteing on a butane stove when four campers see how comfortable the outdoors can be during a visit to North Dakota's badlands.

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    Beth and Chris Edwards find tents have gotten easier to set up since their last trip.
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    Sauteed shrimp and rice pilaf greet the campground hosts.
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    The Peaceful Valley Ranch helps guests see the park from the saddle.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

At moments like this, it’s clear that much of the satisfaction in luxury camping comes from getting comfortable in a place that can test visitors—beating, to some extent, a tough environment. Adventures at Theodore Roosevelt National Park provide a vivid reminder of the rugged world campers keep at bay with a variety of modern amenities, including quick-drying fabric and bug repellent.

Still, on the second day, Chris and Beth are eager to catch the badlands scenery in its best light, so they drive out of the campground before sunrise. They pull over near a towering butte and climb to its smooth peak. Their eyes widen as dawn breaks over the landscape, softening canyons into smooth hills rolling endlessly across the horizon. First sun filters through the low clouds, illuminating the chalky formations into glowing mounds of amber. Not far below, a buffalo herd grazes in a shallow, green valley. The seconds that pass by may as well be centuries. Modern life continues to melt away during horseback rides at the Peaceful Valley Ranch, a 19th-century cattle ranch in the park. Four wild horses prance outside the ranch’s split-rail fence, including a rippled gray stallion that whinnies at the ranch horses.

The freedom the mustangs enjoy is a matter of policy at Teddy Roosevelt. Marked hikes exist, but rangers tell visitors the best way to explore the badlands is to set their eyes on a nearby butte and hike across the grasslands and over the rock piles until their feet rest upon it.

Horseback trail rides can be just as boundless. Neil Tangen, the ranch operator, leads the campers across the Little Missouri River—"Toes up, heels down and kick! " he yells—and along rocky buttes. The riders navigate past fragrant junipers, purple coneflowers and western prairie roses as the horses’ bellies scratch over silver sagebrush.

Minutes later, Neil’s horse looks nervously to his side at a lone bison resting on a flat rock. "There’s a Lonely George, folks, " Neil says, referring to male bison who travel alone. Farther on, cautious prairie dogs chirp warnings about a golden eagle soaring overhead, and a coyote prowls around the dusty holes.

Visitors who get lonesome out on the prairie take day trips to the stunning Bully Pulpit Golf Course (surrounded by badlands) and walk through the general stores and saloons of nearby Medora. After two days away from his usual suburban scene, Steve says, "We haven’t had time to get bored. "

When dinner time rolls around again, Steve has made peace with the stove and takes over as chef. He’s feeling so confident about cooking that he invites campground hosts Bill and Toni Goff to a dinner of sauteed shrimp with mushrooms and asparagus. It’s the best they’ve had in ages, the hosts declare during a toast of white wine in shatterproof flutes.

"I can’t remember the last time we took the time to toast anything, " Sally says. "That was nice. "

 

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