In 1883, Theodore Roosevelt arrived at the small settlement of Little Missouri in the Dakota Territory. Always seeking adventure, Teddy had heard tales of the West, of rolling hills, native tribes, large herds of bison, and miles upon miles of wilderness teeming with game, and now he wanted to experience it all. He spent two weeks on a hunting expedition and became so enamored with the Badlands, that before the trip concluded, he invested $14,000 into the Maltese Cross Ranch. Sadly, within months of returning home to his family in New York, tragedy struck. On the same fateful day, within hours of each other, TR’s mother and his wife both died. Stricken with inconsolable grief over his loss, Theodore Roosevelt sought solace, comfort, and healing in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory. On foot and horseback, TR explored every rise and fall of the surrounding hills and with each step, his heart and mind began their slow journey back from the brink of grief and forward towards peace and restoration of soul and spirit. The very land that was instrumental in his healing process is Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Having always been a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I knew we would have to stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) on our trek west. True, the park doesn’t have the glamour of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but it has its own rugged and untamed beauty and it must be noted that there is something thrilling about walking on the very ground that one of our nation’s most popular and inspiring presidents called home. TRNP was officially established as a national park in 1978, but has been set aside as a protected land since Roosevelt’s death in 1919. The park is over 70,000 acres and contains the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Due to time constraints, we concentrated our visit on the South Unit, which is the most heavily visited section of the park. The North Unit is a 68-mile drive away, so, too far for this visit. Perhaps next time.
The South Unit is easily accessible from I-94 and contains the Cottonwood campground, miles of hiking trails, a 36-mile paved scenic loop drive, and many points of interest such as the visitor center, Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin, Peaceful Valley Ranch, and several prairie dog towns. The charming little town of Medora is just outside the park and has several eateries, shops, and tourist attractions.
We opted to stay at Cottonwood campground, a primitive, no hook-up campground with quite a mixture of back-in, pull-thru, short and long sites. Be alert as you approach the turn off for the campground. We missed it and had to turn around (which wasn’t easy) on the scenic loop drive. The day we arrived, temperatures were soaring above 100 degrees—it was miserable! The inside of the camper got so hot that anything metal, door knobs, the stove top, etc., couldn’t be touched with a bare hand. By day two, the thermometer had dropped almost 50 degrees! Crazy! The campground is a “free range” area for the park’s bison, so don’t be alarmed if you open your door in the morning and are greeted by a massive 2,000 lb beast!
The South Unit has loads of hiking trails, from easy to strenuous, 0.1 mile to nearly 20 miles in length. You can travel along a riverbank, in the bottom of a canyon, or high on a hilltop overlooking the park, there is a trail for everyone! A few of the trails we hiked were the Wind Canyon Trail—a beautiful view of the sunset, the CCC trail at the Peaceful Valley Ranch—-watch out for the bison, and the Ridgeline Nature Trail—which gives you stunning views of the surrounding countryside. All the trails are very well-marked and a few are even handicapped-accessible.
If you are crazy about seeing bison up close, skip Yellowstone and go to TRNP. We saw way more bison here in North Dakota than we did in Wyoming. And the bison pretty much own the park. Don’t plan on driving anywhere in a hurry, the bison could care less if you want to drive on their road! It was sure interesting and exciting to have them right next to the truck. The park also has several designated prairie dog towns. What a comical group of animals. We had a lot of fun just sitting and watching the prairie dogs run, bark, and dive for cover when a bird of prey flew overhead.
As always, the park staff was very helpful as we asked questions and planned our hikes. We attended one of the last ranger-led programs of the season one evening and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the well-prepared presentation about wilderness. I would encourage anyone visiting a state or national park to seek out the visitor center and the staff. They are a wealth of information and advice.
As we drove the scenic loop and hiked around the park, the beauty of the landscape worked its magic in our spirits. Nature has a way of doing that. We felt our cares, burdens, and worries slowly slipping away as we let the peace and tranquility fill our hearts with thankfulness,….thankfulness for our God, the Creator, who made and designed all that was before our eyes,….thankfulness for those who have gone before us who had a hand in preserving this wonder for future generations,….and thankfulness that we have this great opportunity before us to travel our America. Whether your journeys take you to the ocean, the desert, the mountains, or the plains, take time to stop and see the beauty before you. Drink it in. Let it wash over your soul and lift your burdens the way it did for Theodore Roosevelt over 100 years ago.
“Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.” –Theodore Roosevelt