Heading West : Solo Backpacking Weekend, Part 1

The photo features a sunset over the grasslands of North Dakota. There are a few small trees in the front which have lost their leaves. The oranges and yellows of the sunset are fading at the horizon with blue sky streaked with white clouds above. Ruth is in the right of the photo next to a North Country Trail sign. She is wearing sunglasses and a knit cap.

#34 of my 2021 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: North Country Trail, Sheyenne National Grasslands

This hike took place on the traditional territory of the Yanktonai, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ and Mdewakanton. I respect the histories, languages and cultures of these peoples, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant and changing communities. To learn more about the tribes and these lands, please follow the links provided.

Trash Collected: 0.3 pounds

Every now and then a trail will take you by surprise, stop you in your tracks or simply take your breath away. Last October I planned a weekend getaway to hike a couple sections of the North Country Trail (NTC) in North Dakota and Minnesota. As I made my plans I was challenged to find maps of the section I had selected in North Dakota even after lots of internet research and purchasing a North Dakota gazetteer. For someone who’s a collector of maps this was a bit of a disappointment. Even so, I made my reservation for my Minnesota stay and knew I’d be dispersed camping in North Dakota. So with little more than the location of a trailhead, the AllTrails app and an open mind I headed west.

The five hour drive from Minneapolis brought me through miles of farm and ranch land dotted with churches. I was delighted to witness three separate starling flocks flying en-mass, making their flowing cloud patterns in the sky just above the fields. Following county roads I arrived at the Eastern Trailhead of the Sheyenne National Grassland just northwest from Wahpeton, North Dakota. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived. The trailhead is comprised of the Jorgen’s Hollow Campground and a large parking area for trail users. The campground has spots for tents, campers and horse riders as well as a newer latrine building and water source.

As I prepared to hit the trail, I stopped to fill my water bottles and signed the trail register located near the parking lot. I was thankful to find a trail map at the parking lot kiosk which had more detail than any of the maps my research had yielded. With my planned itinerary tucked under an “emergency info” note I was ready to get going. Despite the cool temperatures, the sunny day had my spirits high for the adventure ahead. Lifting the first of what would be many cattle gates I was off on my first section of the North Country Trail.

Crossing a road and another gate, I entered a large prairie following the well-marked trail. Regular posts with the NCT logo would lead my way, clearly visible at regular intervals. It wasn’t long before I was rounding the edge of a stand of burr oak. As I hiked by I noted it would make a great campsite tucked along a small hill. Continuing on the trail was reminiscent of the trails at Glacial Lakes State Park with undulating hills and the sage brush of Whiteman Vega at Philmont Scout Ranch, New Mexico. The memories of my first big backpacking adventure came rolling back.

Today I was the only person on trail. I hadn’t seen any other cars at the trailhead and so far no other people on the trail. The only sound being the slight creaking of my pack as I hiked. A little later I passed a trio of riders on horseback. We agreed it was a beautiful day to be out and they told me I was likely the only hiker on the trail for the day. That knowledge suited me just fine. I’d keep following the trail signs toward the spur trail I’d selected and head toward the river which borders the grassland to the north. I’d read about a spot perfect for camping in the Falcon Guide Backpacker Hidden Gems book and hoped to find it.

About one and a half hours from the trail head I crossed Iron Springs Creek on a beautiful wooden bridge. The creek bed itself was nearly dry. Just a few more miles and I expected to arrive at my planned campsite. Crossing through another gate into a motorized use portion of the trail, I encountered the first few cattle of what would eventually be a large herd. From a distance they watched me pass. An esker rose in front of me and I watched the cattle from the elevated point of view. It was late afternoon and the promise of the campsite had me excited to keep going.

Coming down the back side of the esker and out onto the grassland I found myself in the midst of a herd of cattle spread thickly across the landscape. By now they were all turning to see the intruder in their midst and several had taken to discussing my presence. As I neared the turnoff toward the site I’d planned to camp it became apparent I would go no further. A small group of cows with at least a dozen calves were blocking my path. I slowly approached, talking calmly, hoping they would move. I finally stopped and continued to talk to them. It was a standoff I was not going to come out ahead on.

Finally after about 20 minutes and sunset on its way, I turned back toward the esker. I’d seen a spot sheltered in the trees that looked like it would work for the night’s campsite. Stepping off trail I found a spot to set up my tent. Dinner would be cooked on the esker just off trail so I could watch the sunset before settling in for the night. All the while the cattle kept up the discussion about the human in their midst.

The evening had been cold and I expected the temperature to drop quickly with the sunset so I climbed in and readied myself to sleep. As night fell, the cattle quieted, except for two who kept up all night. At one point, deep in the night it sounded like one was losing its voice. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well.

Waking in the morning the cattle had quieted. As soon as I started moving in my tent they started up the conversation again. The morning was cold. I reveled in the warmth of my sleeping bag before finally convincing myself to get up. Inside the tent I packed up my gear, unzipped the side and, as I stood up, I saw the cow and two calves on the other side of the trail watching me. I quietly talked to them as I finished packing my tent, facing them the whole time. I climbed to the top of the esker, grabbed my food from where I’d hung it. Before adding the bag to my pack I fished out a breakfast bar and coffee deciding I’d put some ground between myself and the herd for both our sakes.

I retraced my steps toward the car only to come across more cattle blocking my way. This time I yelled “get along” and waved my trekking poles. It seemed to do the trick, cattle scurrying away allowing me to pass. It made me laugh to think being louder might have made it so I’d been able to sleep in the spot I’d intended. Lesson learned. I tried not to take too much time on the hike out taking pictures and enjoying what I wished would be more days hiking and camping in the grassland. I hated to leave. But a hike and backpack campsite were waiting for me at my next stop in Minnesota.

Prior to leaving I again signed the trail register, stopped to use the latrine and fill my water bottles. I drove away knowing this is a place I’ll visit again. The only question is how long will it be. I love places like this that get into your heart and mind. Places that don’t let go.

Next Post Preview: Come back to hear about Part 2 of my North Country Trail adventure!

GEAR: Vasque Talus Mid UltraDry Hiking Boots, Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer, Merrell Women’s Siren 3 Mid Waterproof, REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket, REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket, REI Co-op Rainier Full Zip Rain Pant, Marmot Kompressor Pack, SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Women’s Micro Vario Cor-Tec TA trekking poles, Hornet™ Ultralight Backpacking Tent, Paria Thermodown 30 down quilt, REI Flash 3-Season Sleeping Pad, Thermarest Z Seat™, Z Lite™ Sleeping Pad, MSR Pocket Rocket Stove, GSI Pinnacle Dualist Cookset, MSR® IsoPro™ Fuel. Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets or check out my posts titled “Gear in Review”.


Photo of a group of hikers on a sunny day in a field heading towards a wooded area. The photographer has taken the photo from behind the group.

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5 thoughts on “Heading West : Solo Backpacking Weekend, Part 1

    1. The NTC spans trails from North Dakota to Vermont. It includes the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota too. Lots of road walking if you were to do the whole thing. I’m after the sections in parks.

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