The Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not established until 1978, but the region has long been known for hunting and the cattle ranching business. In ancient times, the river meandered through the plains creating a broken landscape - the badlands. The park is comprised of three areas: the South Unit, the Elkhorn Ranch (Roosevelt's remote cattle ranch), and the North Unit. The entrance to the South Unit is at the western edge of the tiny town of Medora (where we are staying). We began our visit there at the South Unit Visitor Center.
The exhibits at the Visitor Center center around the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President. Enamored with the "Wild West." Theodore Roosevelt first visited North Dakota in 1883 where he bought into the cattle industry by purchasing Maltese Cross Ranch (for $14,000). He returned to New York, his home, when in February of 1884, his young wife died (in childbirth) and his mother died (of typhoid) within a few hours of each other on the same day.
Stricken by deep grief, he left his infant daughter in the care of his sister and returned to the Maltese Cross where he sought refuge. Because it was near a busy carriage road, he established the Elkhorn Ranch where he found solitude for thought, reflection and spiritual renewal. By 1887 he closed the ranch (after losing 60% of his cattle during the winter due to freezing weather) and sold his remaining cattle interests.
When he returned to New York, he was a hardened rancher with a deep love for the wilderness and respect for frontiersmen. The time spent here in the badlands influenced him so much that he subsequently wrote: "I would not have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota."
Roosevelt's original cabin at Maltese Cross Ranch (originally located 7 miles south of Medora) was moved to an area behind the Visitor Center in 1958. Original artifacts used by Roosevelt are on display inside.
History has dubbed Theodore Roosevelt the "Conservationist President" as he set aside 230 million acres of federal land for conservation. He introduced the Antiquities Act, that authorized the President (himself and future ones) to designate National Monuments to preserve federal lands. During his presidency, he established:
- 150 National Forests
- 51 Federal Bird Reservations
- 24 Reclamation Projects
- 23 National Parks and Monuments
- 4 National Game Preserves
There is a 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive drive through the South Unit with overlooks and short and long hiking trails accessible from it. Our first stop was at Skyline Vista. There is a very short (.2 mile) path to the edge of the plateau affording panoramically views of the plains and rugged badlands.
There are many prairie dog towns in the park. We stopped to watch these fascinating critters with there complex social structure and "sentries" that notify others of outsiders.
As we continued onto Wind Canyon, we encountered these bison walking along the scenic drive. They were unperturbed by the vehicles (and got VERY close to our car)! The bulls, cows, and calves took their time cross the road (about 10 minutes).
Parking in the lot at the Wind Canyon Trailhead, we hiked the short (.4 mile) trail to an overlook of the Little Missouri River and a canyon where the rocks have been sculpted by the wind. The shape and direction of the Wind Canyon intensify the wind creating these interesting rock formations.
Below is a view of the Little Missouri River. A herd of buffalo can be seen in the distance slowly making its way across the river to the grassy plain.
When we hiked a little further and admired the beautiful scenery upstream and spotted another herd of bison.
From the trail we also saw this majestic bull and a younger one grazing.
Below is a view from the Boicourt Overlook. In the distance, we saw these beautiful wild horses on the top of a plateau.
Coal Vein Nature Trail is a .8 mile moderately strenuous trail. The terrain of this area was altered by a coal vein fire that was started in 1951 by a lightning strike and burned underground for 26 years (until 1977). The area has recovered from the underground fire but there is still evidence of it. The fire caused the land here to collapse (it used to be level with the surrounding hills)
The blue-gray rock, bentonite, is from ash of distant volcanoes. The black layer in the cliff is another vein of coal here. And the red rocks are called clinker and are created when coal fires have burned it from below.
We met this lovely family from MN near the trailhead. Their sweet daughters and doggy, Jersey, and Sadie struck up a fast friendship and had fun chasing each other and the frisbee. Dogs are not allowed on any trails in the National Park, so it was great for these two to have some play time! We enjoyed spending some time chatting with them. We alway enjoy meeting others who enjoy the National Parks as much as we do.
Continuing on the Scenic Loop Road, we stopped at the Badlands Overlook.
Our last stop for the day was the Ridgeline Trail. It climbs to a grassy ridge where there are amazing views of the surrounding badlands.
The trail descends to a juniper forest and then climbs back to the ridge.
Many species of birds feed on the berries on the bushes here. And elk enjoy grazing in the area (although we did not see any during our hike). While it is a short (.6 mile) loop trail, it is rated moderately strenuous due to the elevation changes.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day at the park. We had packed a picnic lunch so were able to take our time exploring the short trails available at various locations along the Scenic Loop Drive. The park concession for horseback riding is at the Peaceful Valley Ranch that can be found along the Scenic Loop Drive. Lots of folks enjoy seeing the park in the same manner that Theodore Roosevelt and others did in the 1880s and beyond. The North Unit of the park is approximately 70 miles north of here, so we will visit it on another day while we are in Medora.
There are two campgrounds in the park: Cottonwood in the South Unit and Juniper in the North Unit. Sites at both are available on a first come basis, but there are no hookups for RVs. There is a third campground intended for horseback riders (Roundup Group Horse Campground) in the South Unit.
Admission is $20/vehicle for a 7-day pass. For additional information about Theodore Roosevelt National Park, check out it out online.