If you want to explore the natural wonder of the North Dakota badlands from the comfort of your RV but don’t want to deal with the summer crowds at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), Sully Creek State Park may be the place for you.
There’s a very good reason that TRNP is one of the most-visited national parks outside Yellowstone. Not too long ago, at least in geological terms, this area was basically a rain forest. The Ice Age came along and changed all that. Huge retreating glaciers exposed bare rock, and the winding rivers in the Badlands, along with the notorious Northern Great Plains winds, finished the transformation. Even today, there’s still a bit of that Ice Age chill in the winter, which is why Sully Creek State Park is open from April to November.
Most people come for the stunning Badlands scenery but there are plenty of other things to do at Sully Creek State Park. Cast your fishing line into the Little Missouri River, paddle a canoe Lewis and Clark style, or traverse one of the park’s many hiking trails.
Sully Creek State Park is also an excellent place for RVs. The huge, no-frills motorhome parking sites offer a nice combination of the comforts of home and a true camping experience.
Getting to Sully Creek State Park really is half the fun. Unless you really enjoy walking, Interstate 94 is the only way to get to this isolated area. Most people come from either Billings or Bismarck. A number of charming small towns dot the interstate in either direction. And, since this is sparsely-populated eastern Montana and western North Dakota, most people are ecstatically happy to see visitors.
There’s more. From Medora, which is just south of Interstate 94, RVers get to wind through the good part of the Badlands. The drive is scenic, but not overly difficult. It’s also not insanely far from Medora to Sully Creek State Park. Nevertheless, be sure you have a full tummy and a full tank of gas before you leave town. The state roads get a little dicey during the winter, but since the park is closed in the winter, it’s no big deal.
Parking is not a problem at Sully Creek State Park. Except for the visitors’ center, horse corrals, and immense trees, the entire park is essentially a large unpaved parking lot.
This 17-site campground, which is basically next to the Little Missouri River, is technically an equestrian campground. But the extra-large sites are also suitable for RVs. Amenities for humans include several vault toilets. Reservations can be made up to 95 days in advance.
This centrally-located campground has 13 mostly pull-through sites arranged on a loop. A short road connects it to Whitetail Flats. Cedar sites are almost all heavily shaded, and if you come in late summer, you may appreciate the shade. Vault toilets are within walking distance. Reservations can be made up to 95 days in advance.
At most other state parks, a wide-open campground this size might have 20 or 30 sites. But Whitetail Flats only has nine pull-through RV sites. People came to North Dakota for elbow room, right? You’ll find plenty of that in this campground. There are amenities as well, such as vault toilets, an RV dump station, shower area, and paved parking area. The parking area is conveniently located next to the Maah Daah Hey trailhead. Reservations can be made up to 95 days in advance.
There are over 200 bird species, including over 60 native species, in this area. Badlands rock formations have lots of caves and craggs which make it easy for birds to find insects. Look for rare South American Swallows in their mud nests. There are also large birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, in the Badlands. Rock Pigeon flocks are about as well. Badlands slumps, with their shallower drops and juniper trees, are a good place to see birds. On the prairies, look for meadowlarks and killdeers.
Bighorn sheep have a hard time living pretty much anywhere except in the Badlands. So, there are lots of these creatures around. Deer, pronghorns (antelopes), and the occasional bison are around as well. The hot summers, harsh winters, and high winds make survival difficult for small mammals. Most of these residents at Sully Creek State Park, like prairie dogs, mostly live underground. Prairie dog predators, such as foxes and coyotes, sometimes lurk nearby.
The North Dakota/South Dakota/Montana area has some of the blackest night skies in North America. If they visit on a clear moonless night, RVers can clearly see sharp features in the Moon, Mars, and Venus with just simple telescopes. Bring a slightly larger one to see similar wonders on Saturn, Jupiter, the outer Gas Giants, and faraway gas nebulae. Seasonal meteor showers are quite a treat as well, along with streaking comets and the artificial satellites that circle the earth.
The Maah Daah Hey (Mandan Indian for “an area that has been or will be around for a long time”) trailhead is in Sully Creek State Park. This 144-mile single track, non-motorized trail is the longest such trail in North America, making it something of a mecca for mountain bikers. There are a number of campsites along the trail with amenities like drinking water spigots and fire rings. Lots of wider, and shorter, equestrian trails are available as well. All of them offer excellent views of the natural environment. When you hit the trail, be sure you have plenty of water, even if you don’t plan on staying out very long.
If you’re really up for an adventure, you can easily spend a few days and nights on the Little Missouri River. Late spring (May and June) is the best time to make such a trip. The last of the ice is long gone, and the water level is still pretty high. Also, be sure you are thoroughly prepared. There’s no cell phone service and emergency responders are probably several hours away. For something a little more serene, kayaking on the Little Missouri is very popular both in the spring when the water level is high and the summer when the water level dips. Canoes and kayaks are not available for rent at Sully Creek State Park. But they are available at several other area parks, and they deliver rentals to Sully Creek.
As is generally the case in North Dakota, walleye dominate the waters all along the Little Missouri River. You may not haul in any trophy-size fish, but there are lots of walleye with weights of up to 10 pounds. Trout and catfish are about as well. Only the east bank of the Little Missouri River is inside the park. The Sully Creek/Little Missouri confluence in the northwest part of the park is usually a good fishing spot, but there are plenty of others as well.