The first National Park of this year’s adventure, we started off strong with Theodore Roosevelt. Founded in 1978, this seventy thousand square acre section of the North Dakota badlands was named of course for President “Teddy” Roosevelt; who traveled here in the 1880’s to hunt bison. After he caught his bison, he became hopelessly enamored with the rugged terrain and matching lifestyle found throughout the badlands. He invested heavily in the area, eventually building a home for himself out in the canyon which can still be seen out in the southern section. Today, the park draws thousands of visitors every year, and captures the hearts and minds of all of them in the same way it captured that of our 26th president. One of the lesser known and certainly less visited parks in the country, drawing only about five hundred thousand a year, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the very epitome of underrated. Perhaps one of the most amazing places I have ever visited in my entire life, the park is spectacular at face value, but can be life changing to those who are willing to employ just a little bit of patience.
We entered the park via the South unit, one of three sections dividing the park. There’s the North unit, the South unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch unit, each offering a unique perspective on the badlands. However, if you are to visit the park, it is highly likely that you will end up in the South unit, near the old town of Medora. While all areas of the park are amazing, I would recommend this approach over the others, as it not only offers some of the most spectacular views in any section of the park, but the South unit also houses the widest variety of amenities, including visitor centers, restaurants, and even Teddy’s cabin itself.
As you approach the town of Medora, if you are coming in from 94 west the first thing you will see is a sign for the painted canyon. The heart of the badlands, the painted canyon is an amazing stretch of landscape. Lumpy mounds of stone that stretch out for as far as the eye can see, striped from red to grey and everything inbetween. They have an almost mystical appearance, there seems to be no logic to their placement, coloration, size, or really any aspect of them whatsoever. Some are gigantic, with dark moody stripes and flat mesa-like tops, others are thin spires of red and yellow jutting up out of the ground, piercing the plains around them with no regard for the continuity of the landscape. Individually fascinating, together they form a web of jagged peaks that carve a magnificent canyon out of the badlands, half obscured by grass and trees, only the tallest of them being revealed from beneath their earthen blanket.
Upon first seeing them my mind was immediately drawn to the painted desert of Arizona, the two landscapes are eerily similar, even boasting the same types of petrified wood and foliage. It was as if someone had lifted the desert from its southerly home and placed it neatly on the edge of the Dakota’s, sprinkling a bed of grass across it for good measure before finally leaving it to become overgrown in it’s new home. The trek through the painted canyon is only about a mile long, and takes around a half hour to complete, depending entirely on how often you stop to admire the view. That being said, during the summer the area can be completely infested with an incredibly unfortunate variety of biting fly, one that is quite persistent, and can be quite difficult to shake. After venturing off the path for only about 5 minutes to check out some of the more imposing structures, we were veritably assaulted by these flying menaces, a single one of them following us for a good half a mile. The trek is still certainly worth braving the pests for, as the views can be absolutely breathtaking, but plan to bring bug spray or you may find yourself more than a little torn up on the return trip.
After an hour or so down in the canyon we decided to beat a hasty retreat back to the visitor center, followed by a quick visit to the town of Medora. There, we learned of the scenic byway, a 36 mile loop through the heart of the South unit, taking you to some of the most amazing vistas the park has to offer. It was here that the real appeal of the area began to shine through, as even though the landscape is amazing, it’s really just a backdrop for the true attraction. The wildlife. Theodore Roosevelt is home to some of the last truly untamed wilderness to be found anywhere in the states, and the creatures that call it home do nothing if not reflect the freedom and tenacity of life in the badlands.
As we drove up through the first mile of the loop, we came across a series of about ten or so vehicles parked by the side of the road, their occupants scattered about throughout the immediate area. Curious, we stopped for a look, unable to determine exactly what had caused this abrupt stoppage of traffic. After about 20 seconds of looking around, it became apparent that we had stumbled into the largest prairie dog colony I had ever laid eyes on, documentaries included. Literally thousands of them surrounded us for what must have been at least a square mile, their mounds and tunnels placed neatly about 3-5 feet apart for as far as you could see in every direction. A pleasant squeaking filled the air as the small rodents attempted to ward off the invading horde of excited tourists, their small tan heads bobbing furiously as they watched their territory fill with sweaty hikers and rv’s. Everywhere you looked they could be seen, standing bolt upright in their classic pose, sentries guarding the massive network of tunnels that stretched beneath our feet. After a few minutes of waiting patiently crouched amidst the field, they became equally curious and began to pop back up, now silent, eyeing us with mild trepidation as we sat dumb struck by the rather ridiculous nature of the situation. We could easily have spent an entire day there with the prairie dogs, watching them play out the greatest game of invisible whack-a-mole you could ever imagine, but only being a mile into the loop, we decided to continue onwards through the valleys, hoping to see some of the larger wildlife harbored within the confines of the park.
After another fifteen or so minutes of driving, slowly scanning the horizon for anything that might be of interest, we caught a glimpse of white amongst the trees leading down into a shallow valley. Trying our luck, we pulled off to the side of the road to take a closer look, and it’s a good thing we did, as it turned out to be one of only about one hundred and sixty wild horses who call Theodore Roosevelt their home. Almost completely hidden by the foliage, we struggled to get a clear shot of the pure white stallion which grazed only feet away from us, seemingly unperturbed by our presence so close to it’s dinner. Creeping through the trees for a better view, it soon became obvious that this horse was indeed, very wild. His hair was ragged in places, insects clung to his flank as he casually chewed a group of reeds behind the treeline, every so often looking up in an attempt to locate a noise, mostly produced by ourselves as we watched him go about his daily routine. After waiting for a further ten minutes, he finally moved on past the trees, giving us the perfect sight line to snap the picture you see above. Wild horses such as this can be found all throughout the park, but are most typically seen along the earlier parts of the byway, usually close to the stream that runs adjacent to the road about 4 miles past the entrance.
With two down, there was only one creature left on our list we still had yet to see, and judging by the featured image, you can probably guess that we were indeed successful in locating the great American bison. We simply had no idea just how successful we would really be. The bison can be something of a trick to find, as they roam the full seventy thousand acres quite freely, with little pattern or rhythm to their next location. However, a white board in the byway visitor center has the names of each point of interest along the loop, and anyone who has seen a bison can come up and write the time of the latest sighting next to the relevant location, helping to create something of a pedestrian radar for these two thousand pound bundles of woolly brown hair. Our encounter took place at roughly the halfway point in the loop, just as we we’re losing hope of seeing one, we rounded a bend to see an enormous buffalo not but ten feet away from us, laying just off the side of the road. At first he seemed to be doing nothing more than sunbathing, but as we frantically scrambled to grab the cameras, he suddenly hit the ground with a tremendous thud, and we realized he wasn’t just getting a tan, he was taking a dust bath.
Over and over the bison the flopped into the dusty pit he had created for himself, sending grasshoppers literally blasting in all directions. A combination of bugs, rocks, and dirt pelted the surrounding area with maximum prejudice, some flying a good fifty feet as the bison flung them from his earthy tub and sent them careening skywards. After a good couple minutes of this the area was almost totally obscured my a massive cloud of dust, the buffalo’s fur now laden with enough dirt to pot a small tree. Then, after pausing to get his bearings, he let loose a massive shake, the loose dirt clinging to his sides billowing out in all directions, casting shadows on the ground between us. Finally, standing up he now seemed to notice the car filled with equipment and two completely geeked tourists stopped just besides him, which we took as our cue to leave him to his bath, not wanting to see what would win in a fight; a 2000 pound buffalo or the door of our ford focus. Needless to say it was one of the most incredible things either of us had ever seen, but our bison encounters for the day had only just begun.
Now content with having seen the wildlife trifecta offered by this magnificent park, we decided that any further bison we might encounter would simply be a bonus, but we continued scanning the area nonetheless. As we approached the twenty five mile mark, I noticed what appeared to be a collection of small brown lumps, far up on one of the painted hills in the distance. Upon breaking out the binoculars, it was discovered to be an actual herd of at least twenty full grown bison, lounging on the the peak. Now even more stoked than before, I mentioned to Andrew that we should go take a closer look at the herd, to which he replied, “How’s this?” and pointed forward out the front window. Turning my head my jaw dropped, as what can only be described as a “whole mess of” bison stood some one hundred and fifty strong not but a couple hundred feet in front of us. A veritable mass of buffalo stretched out across the plain, over a third of the park’s four hundred resident bison stood in a single herd, and for a very good reason. They had calves. At least fifty. Resembling really buff miniature cows covered in light tan fuzz, they lay all about the immediate area, lounging in the summer sun and protected by their hulking families. We watched through binoculars as they literally frolicked in the field of stubby grass, a line of prairie dog mounds separating the herd from the group of tourists who had gathered to watch the spectacle unfold. Never in my life did I expect to see an actual herd of buffalo, let alone stand within a stone’s throw of them. It’s the kind of thing you see on tv and go “wow, that’s pretty neat. Wish I could be one of those cameramen huh?” but never expect to actually see for yourself. We had not only encountered the entire Theodore Roosevelt herd, but their new generation as well.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is really a place to unique to put into words, or at least to capture in writing. It’s somewhere you need to experience for yourself, and sadly a place that so few actually choose to visit. This may be for the best however, as it’s rather remote location and sparse viewership help retain the sense of ‘wild’ that makes the park so special. I wish I could tell you exactly where to go and what to see, but it’s not a park built around it’s permanent destinations, where each and every person’s visit will be truly unique. In fact, it can even be something of a gamble, for while the painted canyons are truly remarkable, it’s the wildlife that sets this park apart as one of the greatest in the nation, and they don’t run on anyone’s schedule save their own. So that being said, I thought it best to recount our personal adventure through the badlands of North Dakota, in the hopes that it might inspire you to go out and form some adventures of your own; which really, is probably what Teddy would have wanted anyways.