Theodore Roosevelt is considered the father of the National Park systems in the United States, and was a bit of a wild man and explorer in his own day. Legend has it that he first fell in love with the northern Badlands when he came to the region in search of the rugged western lifestyle and to hunt bison. He invested in a couple of ranches, and it was his time spent exploring the strenuous life outdoors that shaped his conservation philosophy. He felt compelled to preserve much of the country’s natural beauty from being developed and exploited. And thank goodness he did!
When driving westward along Interstate 94, the first exit for the national park is exit 32 for the Painted Canyon visitor center. While it is possible to access some of the eastern park trails from here, this station mainly serves as a visitor center and viewpoint, where visitors can look out at the canyons and buttes that seem to reach the horizon. In fact, the park encompasses 70,446 acres across three distinct units, and is situated within an even larger swath of National Grassland spanning north to south nearly the entire length of the western North Dakotan border. As I stared out into the canyons, I imagined being on horseback with Teddy a hundred years ago, trotting through the grasses in the valley, listening to the squeaks of prairie dogs as they ran to guard their holes in the ground, and searching the canyons for some creeks where we could refill our canteens before another long day searching for bison. You can truly feel feel the vastness of the landscape. The viewpoint on top of the plateau offers breathtaking views across much of the eastern part of the park, and provides a much different landscape compared to the rolling farmland spanning roughly 300 miles east to Fargo. The visitor center and viewpoint is free, and the rangers can give suggestions as to which hikes and sites to see.
Park Entrance and Campground
Another five miles west along the interstate is the exit for the small town of Medora, an old western outpost with saloons and some lodging along the Little Missouri River. Just through the town is the entrance to the national park’s South Unit. Before exploring the park, I went to check if there were any campsites remaining at park campground. To my luck, there were three left when I arrived! The rest were all reserved by the time I was able to park my van in the spot.
As is the case with most National Parks, the park campground was very well maintained, spacious, and with enough space between the sites that you feel a bit of privacy and seclusion while still being visible to your neighbors. There were no showers, but plenty of potable water and toilets.
My neighbors across the driveway were two groups of college-aged kids who were part of the Montana Conservation Corps. They were all super tan, a bit rugged, and looked like they had been in the field for a few months. This was a pretty neat group. They are contracted by several of the National Parks in the Mountain West to help with all sorts of maintenance of trails and wildlife/ecological monitoring. One of the groups had already been stationed at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for about 2 or 3 weeks, helping to maintain the vast network of trails. They had chainsaws, machetes, and shears all loaded up in their off-road vehicle. And damn did those boys drink some water! I think I saw them each fill up their water bottles every hour.
The other crew was doing what one of them described to me as glorified de-weeding. They were trying to both monitor and remove invasive species throughout the park. One thing I noticed throughout the northern states is that they are very adamant about checking for invasive species, particularly marine species. This MCC crew member said his team had only been at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for a week, but were previously involved with megafauna counts and wildlife monitoring in Yellowstone National Park. He was starting a program in conservation ecology at the University of Montana in Missoula in the fall, so he was grateful for the experience and opportunity to be outside all summer before hitting the books again. I told him it was really great to have people like him and his team doing the work they do to preserve and maintain the parks for the rest of us, and of course wished him good luck in his studies.
The park and the wildlife
Enough about the facilities, let’s talk about the good stuff! I finally got settled in my spot about 6pm after driving all day, so I honestly felt more interested in chilling out, making some dinner, and watching the sunset instead of going out hiking or driving around the park. I did, however drive down to the Peaceful Valley Ranch, where there were about 50 bison grazing on the grass. I had never been so close to bison, let alone this many of them! They were pretty mellow animals, with some of the larger males issuing grunts that seemed to encourage the herd to move along into the brush.
Since the campground sits right along the (very muddy) banks of the Missouri River, it makes a great spot to watch the sun setting over western buttes. The sky really put on a show for us that evening, too. I took my ukulele over to the picnic area and saluted the setting sun as I watched the pinks turn to purple and the clouds turn from white to yellow to orange.
The Park Scenic Loop
The National Park has a lot of trails to explore, along with areas to observe prarie dogs, and some handicap accessible trails. There is also a 36 mile scenic loop road (although this is a bit misleading, as they include the 5 miles to and from the park entrance in that 36). Unfortunately, I didn’t have too much time to properly explore the park, as I still had 6 hours of driving ahead of me the next day. So, after debating whether I should go for a run on the trails, drive the scenic loop, or both, I decided a good option would just be to cycle the 26 miles of scenic loop. Exercise with a view! I woke up naturally with the morning sun and birds at about 6 am, got my bike ready, and set out on the road.
Cycling through the park at this time is great, since there are no cars on the road and you can connect with nature a bit more. The roads were in great condition, and there were quite a few big hill climbs. All in all, it is a great way to get a feel for the different parts of the park while also getting in some exercise.
On my route, I came across some wild horses and a lonesome bison on the side of the road. He was just grazing on some grass, but was standing right on the side of the road that I did wonder if he might get defensive at all. In the end he just lazily raised his head at me and probably wondered what this neon yellow colored thing was rolling by him.
I have to admit that before my visit, I was intrigued by what exactly the national grasslands had to offer, but I was not expecting much in the way of breathtaking beauty. Perhaps this is why I was so impressed with what this park has to offer, but it really is a gem. I’d like to think that if Teddy looked down on this part of the country, he would be pleased to see it in the state it is today, and be glad to see unknowing travelers like myself becoming so awestruck with these preserved natural lands.