Bismarck, ND: Achenbach Trail, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

By Ken Ilgunas
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By Ken Ilgunas

A lone bison munches on a thatch of thick prairie grass atop a butte. When I spot him, I’m walking along the rough and wild Achenbach Trail, a 17.7-mile loop in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If I was hiking with Teddy, who visited these badlands in his youth (where “the romance of my life began,” he wrote later), he likely would have taken aim at the animal. His legacy of conservation, however, helped set aside this small-but-stunning composition of river, forest, and prairie that teems with protected herds of pronghorn, elk, and bison. Today, Teddy wouldn’t be able to hunt them, but I bet he’d be glad for the tradeoff.

Trip stats
Distance: 17.6 miles
Time: 2 days

Turn-by-turn
From Juniper Campground

(1) Head west on the Achenbach Trail to the hilltop around mile 5.9. (You’ll cross the Little Missouri at mile .5.)
(2) Continue west off the butte and cross the Little Missouri (again) at mile 8.1.
(3) Leave the trail and continue along the Little Missouri River toward Sperati Point; follow it east to mile 13.2.
(4) Cut northwest away from the river and intersect the Achenbach in about a mile.
(5) Pick up the trail and take it to its terminus at the scenic drive near mile 15.5.
(6) Follow the scenic drive 2.1 miles south to your vehicle.

Campsite
Mud benches (miles 5.9 to 6.9)

You pass a handful of 2,600-foot-tall buttes in the few miles leading up to the second Little Missouri crossing (mile 8.1); if weather allows, camp on one of these dried-mud benches that overlook the Little Missouri and badlands formations (ideal for stargazing and spying bison). Resupply water at Achenbach Springs at mile 5.7 (see right). There are no established backcountry campsites in the North Unit and campfires are prohibited.

Improvise
The Achenbach is an unmaintained path. Trail markers can be tough to spot in the tall grass (sometimes as high as 3 feet), and many have been toppled by bison in need of backscratchers. Save yourself the frustration and chart your own path, using the Achenbach merely as a rough and occasional guide. Bring a GPS, compass, and topographic map (see right).

River crossing
You cross the Little Missouri River twice on this route (miles .5 and 8.1). Usually, it’s slow and knee-high, but call the ranger station to inquire about river levels.

Water
Don’t expect crystal-clear water in the Little Missouri. The silty water resembles chocolate milk and, while drinkable, will likely clog a filter. Use a pre-filter or top up at Achenbach Springs, a developed natural pool, just north of the trail at mile 5.7. Get enough for day two, or come back the next morning.

DO IT
Trailhead 47.594212, -103.337445; 58 miles north of Belfield Season April through October; September for active wildlife and cooler temps Permits Required (free) for camping; get one at the North Unit visitor center. Custom mapbit.do/AchenbachTrlContactnps.gov/throTrip databit.do/AchenbachTrl

Trail Facts

  • State: ND
  • City: Bismarck, ND
  • Distance: 17.6
  • Contact: nps.gov/thro
  • Land Type: National Park