From our last stop in Glacier National Park, we explored two options for our eastward push to North Dakota: a northern route across the top of Montana on US 2, and a more southerly option using MT 200. We selected the southern route largely because it would take us to another military Family Camp at Malmstrom AFB. We stopped there for two nights, using one of our last free night certificates as part of the Air Force Frequent Camper Program, and paid $25 for the second night of full hook ups in this decent, though nothing special campground.
The camp host was very helpful, the small base’s amenities appreciated, but two days would be our maximum stopover here as we had a long hard run to make through the rest of Montana. Our route presented very few good options for a midway stop between Malmstrom and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, so despite the more than 400 miles, nearly twice what I usually prefer for a one day run, we pushed through into North Dakota.
Montana’s somewhat monotonous brown rolling hills gradually gave way to the broken craggy geological structures and grasslands of the Dakota badlands. While we had loved western Montana and the mountain region, the central part of the state is pretty tedious to drive though, much like large swaths of Texas.
Our intended destination was a private place called Buffalo Gap Inn and Campground just few miles west of the national park entrance, but as we pulled into the dirt and gravel entry road we spotted signs for another option, Buffalo Gap Campground, a national grasslands site. The nearly identical name had made research a bit confusing, but we were glad for the find: for $6 a night they offered beautiful wooded dry camping spots. Since we were topped off on water and the weather was relatively cool, at least in the evening, we opted for this low cost affair rather than the $25/night hook up sites at the utilitarian private campground just up the road.
We did not regret it at all. We had great weather, a 75% empty campground, with clean, modern, and well kept shower and toilet facilities and easy access to the touristy town of Medora and the T.R. National Park entrance located there. After looking into other options in the region, including private resorts, Medora’s city park and the campgrounds within the national park itself, Buffalo Gap is the best value if the weather and your dry camping set up can handle a few days without power or water.
The park itself was great, with a 35 mile loop road that takes you through the entire southern unit and accesses numerous view points and trail heads. We did the loop twice, both clockwise (the natural direction the roads tend to point you in) and counterclockwise (our recommendation if you only have one day.) We did four of the short day hike trails, and though we did not spot a single buffalo, we did see our share of wildlife including prairie dogs galore, wild horses, golden eagles, and one prong horn.
TRNP seemed less about the wildlife than the extraordinary and easily accessed viewpoints displaying the surprisingly varied terrain route by millions of years of erosion working its effect on ancient sea and river beds.
We also enjoyed the town of Medora, finding the locals very friendly and helpful. We spent hours at the small library and resource center attached to the public school, using their internet since we had no connectivity at all in our grasslands camping spot. The connection speed was insufficient to allow any Netflix downloads, but we did get a good amount of research done for our next couple of destinations.
The resource center provided a brief moment of excitement when the librarian pointed out a bat hanging from one window ledge in broad daylight. As we gingerly approached to take pictures, it gave a couple of warning squeaks before launching into the air and seemingly making a diving run on Rosemarie, who bravely shoved me in front of her. It pulled up well short and took off towards a better hanging spot, but you can’t help but wonder if it was ill, possibly even rabid given its daytime behavior.
As for the towns entertainment and restaurant options: we took a pass on the two most well known tourist activities (the nightly outdoor Medora Musical and the Pitchfork Steak Fondue involving steaks speared on actual pitchforks and cooked in hot oil.) We did enjoy a surprisingly good pizza at Badlands Pizza and Saloon. Not only was the food great, but the staff, with a heavy concentration of Eastern European immigrants, were fantastic and interesting.
Four days was an easy drycamping experience for us, but we didn’t want to push it and we still had a lot of things on our rapidly developing August schedule to see, so we pulled chocks and headed south, refreshed and ready for more of the Dakota Badlands.