"Watch out!" Charlene yelled as my horse, Buddy, approached a rattlesnake on the trail. Since we were on a cliff-side trail in eroded badlands, the snake had nowhere to go except toward us, away from us, or over the edge.
To Buddy and Scout's relief, and ours', the snake slithered over the side and down into mystical, colorful badlands. We were riding in what is arguably the best park for trail riders in North Dakota, the Little Missouri State Park (701/764-5256; www.ndparks.com/parks/lmbsp.htm).
Located 50 miles north of the town of Dickenson in western North Dakota, the Little Missouri State Park is a paradise for trail riders. Wind, water, and sand sculpted this wildly rugged country, featuring North Dakota's most awe-inspiring scenery.
The Sioux Indians called this place Mako Shika or "where the land breaks." (For more on the area, contact North Dakota Tourism, 800/435-5663; www.ndtourism.com.)
Upon our arrival, we were enthusiastically greeted by site supervisor Gerry Brennan. Here's a man who loves his job! He proudly showed us the immaculate, well-designed park.
Top-notch facilities feature manicured lawns, fire rings, and picnic tables. Some sites have electrical hookups. There are four picnic shelters, as well as a recreational-vehicle dump station. Best of all, most sites have terrific views over the canyon edge into the dazzling badlands below.
This park offers thoughtful equine accommodations: Spacious corrals sport rakes, shovels, and even wheelbarrows. Situated strategically to each set of corrals is a convenient manure dump. This certainly made cleanup easy, and these are very clean corrals!
After our tour, we asked Gerry what he enjoys the most about the park; he answered easily with a grin. After 12 years of being site supervisor, he still revels in "the joy that happy people bring," and he cherishes their "good-bye smiles."
Early the following morning, we positioned ourselves in our lawn chairs at the canyon rim, coffee cups in hand. Morning light filtered across our camp, overflowing into the chasms of the badlands below, which were covered in a thick, gray blanket of fog. We watched in awe as hesitant fingers of light plucked away the gray covering, turning the somber landscape into various hues.
After our leisure morning, we turned our attention to selecting the trails on which we'd ride. Trails range widely in difficulty and steepness. Trail maps rate them according to three levels of difficulty, green, blue, and black.
Green-marked trails are the easiest. They're wide and have gentle inclines. Blue-marked trails, which extend further into the park, are steeper and may be narrower. Black-marked trails follow the most difficult terrain: long, steep inclines and high, narrow ridges.
Most trails and junctions are marked. However, Gerry warned us that it's easy to become confused, because of the intersection of cattle trails and the myriad of eroded ridges and valleys. He advised us to carry a whistle so we could signal for help. Voices become weak and don't carry for long distances. Also, he told us to be aware of our back trail for a return route.
Gerry related an incident where a hiker from England walked into the badlands and didn't return for quite some time. Concerned, Gerry rode out in search of the hiker.
He found the hiker out of water, disoriented, and walking in circles. Gerry told him to get on his horse so he could ride back. The hiker looked at Gerry's cowboy boots and graciously said, "You've got the wrong kind of shoes [for walking]. I had better walk!" The Englishman had good intentions, but after a few paces, the exhausted man gave in and rode out. Cowboy-booted Gerry hiked back.
After this story, we debated which trail to take. At that moment, North Dakotan Al Olson stopped by to say hello. He invited us to go with him on an introductory four-hour ride of the badlands. We happily took him up on his offer.
Al has been riding the badlands for 20 years, and knows every nook and cranny. His trusting equine partner is a 10-year-old Quarter Horse named P.J.
Along with Al was his riding buddy, Odell Krohn, on his 6-year-old Morgan Horse, Free. Odell is 75 years old and said he planned to ride until he was 90. By then, his horse would be 21. Rounding out the trio was Chuck Webster on an 18-year-old Morgan named Kadhy.
The morning of our ride we were joined by Marty and Karen Thiel. These folks were riding and training a pair of 3- and 4-year-old Morgans. The Thiels are involved in breeding and training Morgan Horses at their Black Heart Morgans farm in New Salem, North Dakota (701/843-7959; www.blackheartmorgans.com).
Interestingly, the lone survivor from George Armstrong Custer's cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a Morgan Horse named Comanche. He recovered from seven major wounds and lived out his life as a celebrity at Fort Abraham Lincoln, North Dakota. Today, he's mounted and on display at the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas.
We entered the badlands at the south end of the campground following the Eagle's Nest trail. The trail wound slowly down through eroded hills punctuated with cedar, juniper, and cottonwood trees. Around every turn, vistas alternated from serene to rugged. "God's great earth looks different on horseback," mused Odell.
Stock tanks are indicated on trail maps. Our horses drank long and deep from them. Temperatures can climb to triple digits in the summer. Gates are also noted on the map. To our surprise, Al's horse, P.J., was able to close gates with his nose. Now that's a useful trick my horse, Buddy, should learn!
For us, it was refreshing having a guided tour, and Al was top-notch! He pointed out different formations, told trail stories (some were even true), and showed us an area where he'd recently seen a mountain lion with its kit.
Trail perils were also mentioned - steep, narrow trails, occasional rattlesnakes, poison ivy, and gumbo, which comprises the soil and trails in the badlands. After a rain, it becomes sticky and extremely greasy. It'll adhere to horseshoes, which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for horses to travel.
Stay in camp on rainy days. If caught in a rainstorm, keep horses on grass, or wait out the storm, then wait for the trail to dry.
Horses should also be accustomed to mountainous terrain. We were told of a horse whose saddle slipped sideways on a narrow section of trail. The horse panicked, ran blindly off the trail, and fell to his death.
One memorable delight of this ride was meeting Sharon and Sherry Bethke. These identical twins, in their mid-60s, were riding their beloved mules. They'd been coming to Little Missouri State Park and riding the trails for more than 40 years.
It was entertaining listening to them speak. Without any conscious thought or planning, they'd start and finish each others' sentences. When visiting with them, we found ourselves smiling simply because these two gals are so precious!
Splashes of Color
Over the next several days, we went on a number of other rides. We consulted the trail map to evaluate and choose among the many trail and loop rides.
Scenery and vistas vary greatly depending on the time of day, lighting, and direction of travel. Splashes of color grace the canyon walls. Birds, plentiful in the foliage, while away the day gossiping to one another. Other wildlife includes mule deer, coyote, fox, bobcat, and mountain lion.
It was during one of these rides that we encountered the rattlesnake on the trail. Rattlers are generally shy snakes. Give them a little time and plenty of space, and they'll zigzag away.
Bull snakes are also in the park. These can be several feet long and quite colorful. Bull snakes are similar in appearance to rattlesnakes, but lack the rattles. They may appear frightening, but are harmless and prey mainly on rodents.
Don't forget sunscreen for those bright North Dakota summer days! We unwittingly left a tube of sunscreen on a stump while the horses were hobbled and grazing. Upon return, we found the tube mangled and white sunscreen smeared on Buddy's black nose! No "nose burn" for him!
Riding round a bend, we encountered a group of six horse-crazy women. They were a group of friends from Minnesota and North Dakota who've been coming to the park for years to camp and ride. They called themselves the Blue Angels. This name was derived from a photograph of a friend's dying horse. Blue dots were seen above the horse: blue angels!
A common denominator of this park is "nice." All the folks we met were nice. People were patient, kind, thoughtful, and generous. It was like stepping back into a more gentle time. Was it something in the air? Soil? Maybe the gumbo! In any case, it was a strong, defining characteristic.
In addition to Al Olson and his friends, and the Blue Angels, we met George and Lois Welsch, creators of The Big Hat Society (www.bighatsociety.com). George is a cancer survivor. The Big Hat Society was established to help fund cancer research and the Salvation Army, and to promote the cowboy way.
While visiting with George and Lois, I proudly pointed out a hole in Charlene's palm-leaf hat that I'd repaired with duct tape. Lois looked at the repair and solemnly said, "I see." She promptly took the hat into her shop, spent 20 minutes wetting it down, shaped it, and did a proper repair.
While Lois was busy on the hat, George noticed a small leak where two sections of our water hose joined. He inserted a washer in the joint and all was well. Nice folks!
Immediately adjacent to the Little Missouri State Park is the Badlands Trail Rides concession. If you don't have a horse, these are the folks to see. They'll match you with a good mount and take you on guided trail rides deep into the rugged badlands. These folks also rent cabins and have their own campground.
If you bring your own horse, you can board him at the state park and stay in a Badlands Trail Rides cabin. All cabins have electricity, padded sleeping platforms, pillows, a refrigerator, a coffee maker, a table, and chairs. Outside are fire rings, picnic tables, and decks overlooking the eerie landscape.
We visited with Lynell Sandvick, the 75-year-old matriarch of this family-operated business. Her grandparents homesteaded the area in the early 1900s; Lynell was born in the valley below. She was giving guided trail rides before the area became a park. Lynell was also instrumental in encouraging the park to establish the color-coded trail-riding map.
We asked Lynell why she was still coming to work at age 75. She said, "I love to ride, have a passion for the badlands, and love to teach folks about the area."
We last saw Lynell guiding a couple who'd brought their own horses. These folks wanted her expertise in guiding them through the rugged, mystical badlands.
With every trip comes the last ride. So it was for us. Our last ride was on the night of a full moon. Just at dusk, we saddled Buddy and Scout. The moon rose over the badlands with an almost orange glow, bathing the area in a silver sheen.
We rode out of camp on an easy trail up to a fairly level ridge. Here, we stopped and looked across the valley to the campground where folks sat by campfires. In all other directions we could see no manmade lights, only the badlands, their thick, black shadows lurking below.
At times like these, the feeling of magic is strong. We could almost feel the magic of the area in our horses' eyes and senses. We wondered if this was a throwback for them to prehistoric times - if they could sense their ancestors pounding the plains toward the badlands for food and shelter.
It's during moments like this that we feel closest to our equine partners and to each other. Buddy and Scout seemed to feel the same; they were reluctant to return to camp and their corral. Winston Churchill said it well, "No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle."
Come to North Dakota. Experience a horseman's paradise, and enjoy a magical time with your own equine partner!