Badlands & Rugged Beauty – Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” Theodore Roosevelt
I hadn’t planned on writing a separate blog post about this place. In fact before we arrived I wondered if I would even like it at all. Once you travel extensively in the west and you’ve oooh’d and aah’d over the first 10 national parks or so you wonder if anything can quite match up. And if you’re like me and you imagine the entire center of the country as some kind of flat, featureless landscape it’s hard to get excited about what might be out here. I mean this is North Dakota, folks. A frigid, oil-fracking state crossed by a mere few lonely, tedious roads. How much real “nature” can there be?
Our 26th president would be the first to disagree, and it’s thanks to him that the nature here (as well as many other National Parks) has been conserved for newbie folks like us to enjoy today. Theodore Roosevelt came to the badlands of Western North Dakota to hunt bison in 1883 and immediately fell in love with the rugged lifestyle and the “lonely freedom” of the place. He called this area “the romance of his life” and the solace he found here carried him through both the loss of his first wife and mother as well as his presidency. That’s some seriously deep stuff. Both Paul and I are huge fans of Roosevelt, so we wanted to see for ourselves the place that so captivated his heart.
We arrived to Teddy’s love on a warm afternoon after 3 days of hard (for us) driving. We’d left Idaho ~800 miles ago and had stopped twice to get here. A quick stop at a lovely lake view State Park in Eastern Idaho (Henry’s Lake) followed by a free overnight at Cabela’s in Billings, MT (gotta love free overnight RV parking). This had gotten us practically to the center-top of the country. The last several hundred miles had been rather blah and boring, made worse by lingering smoke from wildfires all over the west.
But all that changed as we crossed the state line.
Not long after we entered North Dakota, the skies cleared and the landscape started to bubble up into rolling badlands. If you’ve never seen them, they’re quite striking at first glance. Multicolored layers of sediment over 65 million years old deposited and eroded into barren hills, buttes and deep, crazy crevices. They look a little bit like candy at first glance and they seem too surreal to be natural. In between the barren hills are sparse green trees and grassy plains split only by a chocolate-muddy river (the Little Missouri River) and cottonwood trees. It’s a stark landscape, but it captivates you in a strange, alluring way.
We hadn’t expected this, and even more we hadn’t expected to find people here. I’d missed the fact that Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) had been voted one of the nation’s top 5 “best presidential attractions” in 2014 (votes always bring folks, ya know), and I’d totally miss-calculated the craziness of summer, even way up here. So, when we got to Cottonwood Campground at 1:30PM there was not a single site to be found. After an initial (short) panic and some sweet-talking with the Ranger he gave us one of the reservation sites who’d been a no-show. This gave us a night to settle-in and allowed us to snatch one of the non-reservation sites early the next morning. A total frikkin’ lucky break!!
Once we squeezed into our site (it was a tad tight) I was able to relax and waited until ~6PM to start the scenic loop drive. The South Unit of TRNP has A ~36 mile loop that takes you around the entire perimeter of the park with multiple stop-off points, hiking trails and viewpoints. I knew from many years photographing the west that late afternoon would be the prime time to see it. You see much like the SW desert, the ND badlands are bland and gray during the day, thirsting for water, aching for color. If you only visit at noon-time they look pretty drab and you might well leave unimpressed and disappointed….but that would be a grave mistake.
Come late afternoon when the sun’s rays elongate and she bathes the landscape in gold, this place comes ALIVE. Like a flower opening for the very first time, the natural colors of the badlands literally erupt.
Greys turn to gold, browns to a fiery red and the shadows soften hard lines into sensuous curves. Grasses, which earlier seemed dry and brittle become a moving sea of green and reds. Wildlife, which otherwise seemed absent springs up at every corner. Feral horses roam the grasses in stunning herds, bison wander across the road (even into camp!), wild turkeys appear and prairie dogs chatter and work. It’s an astonishing transformation.
I don’t know if Roosevelt fell in love with this part of with North Dakota at golden hour, but I sure did.
We spent the next 2 days exploring this wonderful landscape enjoying the early mornings & late afternoon colors, walking around the cute Western-themed downtown of Medora and even finding a few spots to take Polly for a hike during the day.
In that short time there is plenty we missed. We didn’t go to the North Unit of the park (almost 80 miles one way!) or the Elkhorn Unit, we didn’t see the famous Medora Musical (sorry, folks) and we didn’t get around to visiting the local cowboy museum (which is supposedly very nice). What can I say? Much like Roosevelt we were captivated by the natural beauty and we just couldn’t rip ourselves away. This “barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque desert” captured our hearts and I dare say we are better people for it. Teddy would surely agree, don’t you think? 🙂
P.S. A quick shout-out to fellow bloggers Sharon & John from On The Road Of Retirement. Thanks so much for stopping by to see us in TRNP! If you want to read their take on the park, start HERE.
Tips For Visitors:
Camping -> If you want to camp inside the National Park in summer either reserve a site or come EARLY (between 9:00-9:30 AM). There are only limited non-reservation sites available and they fill up FAST. I’ll be posting a detailed review of Cottonwood campground (and list other camping options in the area) soon.
Grocery -> The Medora grocery store has plenty of local meat products (great Elk Sausage BTW) & interesting cheese, but zero veggies so if you need veggies stock-up before you come.
Photography -> For best light in the badlands either go EARLY in the morning, or LATE in the evening (first 2 hours after sunrise and last 2 hours before sunset). Light in the middle of the day is harsh and unappealing. Also you’ll get some great shots at the various overlooks, but IMHO the BEST sunset shot is from Wind Canyon Trail. Get there ~1/2 hour before sunset to catch the sun reflected in the river. My second fav viewpoint was from Buck Hill. Hike the short trail to the top for an amazing 360-degree panorama.
Dogs & Dog-Friendly Hiking Trails -> TRNP is a National Park so you can drive around the park with pooch in your car (and you can visit all the overlooks with doggie), but sadly you cannot take your dog on ANY of the trails inside the park. However there are over 100 miles of fabulous dog-friendly trail just outside the park along the Maah Daah Hey Trail. This amazing resource is open to mountain bikers, horses and hikers, and it is completely dog-friendly except for the small section that passes thro’ TRNP. The easiest way to catch the trail is to park at Sully Creek State Park, just south of town. You’ll have access to miles of pooch-friendly walking directly from here. Also feel free to take doggie into Medora and enjoy some of the plentiful outdoor seating downtown. We had a blast doing both things with Polly.
Weather -> This is North Dakota so be prepared for anything. Winters are frigid cold and summers can be hot while bridge seasons are variable. Our first day here we hit a pleasant 75 degrees, but then we peaked at 85-88 the next 2 days. It wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t keep cool with our air-conditioner (running off our sexy lithium batteries, of course), but it was definitely too warm to hike mid-day with the dog.
Useful External Links:
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park -> Official website HERE
- Visit Medora -> Official website HERE
- Maah Daah Hey Trail -> check links HERE and HERE
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Nice review of a really nice park…we were in Medora for a weekend many years ago only because ND was the last state to visit for both of us to claim “we have been to every state in the union” so all we did is drive the loop….the bonus for us when there is seeing the aurora Borealis and the stars…..great photos Nina…but then they always are…
Wow! You saw the northern lights here! That is amazing! I wish we could have seen them. A good reason to come back methinks.
We passed through there 2 years ago on our way across country from the UP to Oregon (to host with you guys at Cape Blanco, actually). Almost same exact time of year.
We didn’t have high expectations, and were blown away too. Such an amazing and magical place. We ended up extending our stay to explore more.
So glad you got to experience it.. and capture the magic so well!
I went back to check your post and I think we might even have stayed in the exact same campsite as you. Go figure….:)
Jim and Gayle says
You chose the perfect time of day for the scenic drive. That’s one of the national parks we’ve heard great things about but haven’t yet made it there. I would not have expected to find the campground full, either. You were lucky!
By the way, we are meeting up with some bloggers at Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum on Tuesday 🙂
Nice! The Sawtooth stout is decent, but if you’re lucky they’ll still have the Mother Earth Imperial Stout on guest tap. Don’t miss it if they do!
MonaLiza Lowe says
Polly is back on the trail! Glad to see her again especially at TRNP. Glad to know the North Dakota badlands has captivated you as it did us.
The double sun flare is a WOW.
Yeah she actually RAN for the first time since her surgery just 2 days ago. Made me cringe when she did it, but she was fine. I’m soooooo happy!
Glad you ‘came across this Jewel’! We deliberately headed for the ‘North Unit’ Juniper Campground to avoid any crowds in the south, and saw many bison, including one lounging around the entrance! I guess that was The Greeter. (Sometimes they wander through the campground, we heard). Apart from mozzies, we loved it. This is a MUST SEE place!
Next time we’ll go to see the north unit. Just couldn’t handle the thought of doing another ~160 miles after our 3 days driving from Idaho.
By the way we had bison and calves walk thro our campground all days we were in the south unit. One bison even came to rub his head on our picnic table! The ranger told us he often does that.
So happy your travels took you to this fabulous spot! Next time you travel this way, make reservations at Juniper campground in the north unit. It’s a different world up there, much more condensed. TRNP is now our second favorite national park after Glacier. Love your photos!!
We definitely want to check out the north unit next time. I’m sure it’s less busy than the south unit & has even more beauty to offer.
Ron Seitz & Mike Platt says
Hi Nina & Paul, We are one month into our Epic Journey of Full-Timing! I have enjoyed your blog and humor along with Paul’s wisdom! Question do you use a downloadable program to keep track of your expenses? If so what do use or recommend. We want to keep it as simple as possible. Thanks for any advice and keep up the great job you both are doing!
I’ve been using plain old Excel for 10 years now. Every month I download expenses from credit cards and such into the program and I’ve got it all there. I’ve never used much else so I don’t know much about the alternatives, but lots of folks seem to like Mint. Plus there’s always good old Quicken.
Wow! A beautiful place; beautifully written and photographed! Really magazine quality post! Ah, stereotypes are wrong on so many levels — like there is nothing to see in the flyover states. Well, one has to get off the highway and it’s another story. And may I add, while we are being embarrassed on the international stage until November, these towns are filled with the most loving, generous, hard-working, America-proud people possible. They would give you the shirt off their back (with a sandwich in each pocket)! These small town Americans are ALREADY GREAT! Thanks for this soap box opportunity! Hope I didn’t overstep it!
Love your enthusiasm. I am ALL ABOUT finding beauty, even in places that others don’t expect. I truly believe there is beauty everywhere, if you open yourself to it.
Gorgeous photos Nina–stunning! Soooo–you were running your air conditioner on your lithium batteries??? Don’t think we could get enough panels on top of that truck camper (it’s for sale!) but the next camper in our future will have enough panels or a generator big enough to run the air conditioner. This girl was NOT meant to try and sleep when it is 86 flipping degrees in the camper!!
YES we were running the front AC off the lithium. At full blast they can last 3-5 hours, depending on how solar generation is doing. At the TRNP campground the air was only running every now and then so we were able to run it from noon until around 5 PM and we still had good juice leftover at the end.
Chey (WA coast) says
‘thirsting for water, aching for color” Wow, thank you Nina!
Stunning photos! Those badlands were my home for 1/3 of my life. I have ridden horseback around many of the buttes. My career started at the Park. I have fond memories of my early adulthood in the area. Hope you got to see the Enchanted Trail.
How very cool. What amazing memories!
Happy to see everyone is up in North Dakota this week. I grew up in ND, and worked on various PD’s across the state, chasing the mighty paycheck till my career ended with a slip and fall on an icy street at 3:00 AM whilst arresting a mean drunk in New Rockford back in ’93. You might keep an eye out for an unsung spot in the nation called the Enchanted Highway, from Gladstone ND, just east of Dickinson ND, turn South toward Regant and you will come across some of the largest sculptures made from farm equipment in the shapes of all things North Dakota, from the geese on the interstate, to the farm family itself, made of grain bins with feet as tall as an average ND housewife. Well worth the trip off the interstate, and some of the best things to photograph till you get to Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan (Bismarck’s sister city) where Custer left never to return, for his date with the mighty Sioux in Montana. His house has been restored, as have much of the Fort, as well as some of the Mandan earth lodges. A must see if passing through ND.
We MADE it to the Enchanted Highway. Very cool….blog post coming soon…
Jann Tresham says
We felt the same way about the Badlands. I didn’t know what to expect and was amazed and delighted. We camped overnight and enjoyed a spectacular early summer lightning and wind storm. We watched it coming from miles off and when it hit we were awed by its power. We were snug in our RV, but the tent people weren’t so lucky. Well worth the long, long drive from Oregon.
A summer storm…sweet. I love seeing nature get loose, especially when I’m in a good, comfortable, safe place to view it. Bet you got some awesome pics.
Teri Rostberg says
I am working at the Medora Campground this season as a Work kamper. I have always dreaded driving across the Dakotas and eastern Montana. It is nice to have some time to stop here this summer and learn to appreciate the beauty. If it is was not for this area we would likely not have had the national parks that Roosevelt set aside for us to enjoy,
What a great experience! And a great place to workamp. I’m totally with you too. We’re huge fans of Roosevelt, especially for his conservation efforts. I’m so grateful we have these lands to experience in their natural form today.
Bob Nuttmann says
We must have missed you by a few days. We stayed in Medora. There are two parks, the north and the south. You did not say if you went to the north one. It has much deeper canyons and is more scenic. There is an excellent campground inside the park that was pretty much empty when we were there. What really impressed us in the south park on the two days and several hikes were the animals. We saw many many bison and got lots of great pictures of them. Same with wild horses. The landscape in the south park was kind of meh to me. I shot some film there to see if I could get some more pop out of the colors, but don’t have the results back yet. You were able to improve the landscape in your shots quite a bit. There are other “badlands”, BTW. In south Dakota. We went there a month ago. They are much more attractive as far as landscape goes than the N Dakota ones, IMHO. I don’t remember reading one of your posts that you went there.
No, as I mentioned in the blog we didn’t make it to the north section. We’ll have to come back for that one. And we haven’t made it to the SD badlands either.
Tammy Julich says
We went through there maybe 8 years ago. We rode our bikes on the loop Rd. We think everything is much more busy now. Seems the roads are much more busy in general. Lower gas prices we suspect.
There were several folks biking the loop when we were there, but there were too many cars (and no shoulder) for my liking, so we didn’t get the bikes out. I have no doubt the park is way busier than 8 years ago.
Pam Wright says
Your photos of the NP are just spectacular! You certainly did capture the beauty at the right time. Glad you found a few areas for Polly:) We made the very long dusty drive to the Elkhorn Unit. John had to stand where TR had his range and stood himself. Needless to say, we were the only people there making the hike back to the ranch site from the parking lot. We really enjoyed both of visits to ND. The first time we came across I-94 stopping three times. Then another year we came across 2 in the northern half which took us through Minot and Devils Lake which are wonderful. Safe travels as you push on:)
I remember the blog post you wrote about going to the Elkhorn Unit. A special experience to stand “right there”. We’ve definitely been impressed with ND.
Jill R says
Mountain biked the Maah Daah Hey trail years ago and it was a fabulous week. Spectacular country. Glad you’re enjoying one of the fabulous secrets of North Dakota.
The Maah Daah Hey trail is a tad too tricky for me to bike, but I would love to hike it all. The small section we did was lovely and Polly had a blast. It must have been so much fun to bike it.
Happy you stayed to enjoy a Sunrise at that most magical place. We really enjoyed it on one of our RV trips and it blew us away also. Very nice pictures.
You had me at “first light” – all the photos are stunning, maybe even more than usual. Love how colorful the area is!! Nice the ranger took care of you and you were able to enjoy a few days in such a pretty place. Safe travels.
I thanked the ranger profusely. He had a Scandinavian background (a few generations back) so we bonded over that. Very nice guy.
john and sharon says
You felt about the same way I did about traveling through ND, wasn’t sure what to expect and what a great surprise! We spent last night at the Cabelas in Billings… Enjoyed getting to chat with you two a bit while at TRNP… safe travels!
So glad you both were able to come by and I was finally able to put “real people” faces to your blog. Thanks for stopping in!
Gary Wood says
Again fabulous photos Nina. You really have in down to a science. Thanks for sharing your story and the tips. I want to hit North and South Dakota some day. I’m in Montana at the moment, but my route this year is South through the Grand Tetons in a few short weeks. One of those fires causing the smoke you mentioned was in town here. Several have lost their homes. Over 8,000 acres now with only 25% containment.
So sad for those that have lost their homes. Must be devastating. We seem to have more and more wildfires every summer in the western mountains. It’s heart-breaking.
Here! Here! I say. We spent two weeks in TRNP one in each section at the campground there and loved every minute of it. Your post is right on target, your words are eloquently beautiful and your pictures sublime. We too were very surprised at how much we loved being there. Hats off to Teddy! And to you for writing this!
We felt exactly the same way as you did 🙂
Bill & Ann C says
Beautiful photos! Amazing. I love the one of the horse viewed from behind. Great photo.
That beauty walked RIGHT by our car, would you believe it. I could hear him snorting at me as he went by. I love the fact that he’s not looking at me, but his ear is pointed in my direction. He was keeping a close eye on the strangers in the car.
I did most of this park by myself as Terry went back to Ohio to see his father who was failing. I would highly recommend the North Unit, where I did some of my hikes. I do agree with you Nina, as my favorite photos were taken from the Wind Canyon Trail. The Painted Canyon was striking, with all the different colors. Polly seems to be enjoying the views as well.
Glad to hear all of that therapy on Polly was successful. Nice photos again.
I’m beyond happy. She’s finally getting back to the point that she can hike and run again like she used to. It’s so nice to see.
Melinda Wall says
Nina, it’s been almost a year since we discovered TRNP on our return from the Canadian Rockies–your words and photos took me instantly back to that incredible place! Just like you, I was captivated by the landscape. Definitely a photographic destination! And the lack of the customary national park crowds made it all the more attractive! (My kind of place). We stayed in both the North and South Units–different, but equally outstanding. For a taste of what you missed (or one last glimpse of what you saw), check out https://airstreamtravelers.wordpress.com/2015/09/11/theodore-roosevelt-natl-park-badlands-have-been-given-a-bum-rap/
And the Medora Musical was a first-class production! You guys will need to plan a second pass-through!
Great write-up! You’ve definitely inspired me to see the North Unit!
Ralph E. says
I like your pictures. I am looking forward to see your Michigan pictures and where you decided to travel to.
Rickie Calvillo says
Explore the timelines for important dates in TR s personal and political life, military career, publications, hunting and exploration trips, as well as his time in Dakota Territory. Painted Canyon Rest Area, located at I-94 Exit 32 about seven miles east of Medora, gives visitors a spectacular panoramic view of the badlands, as well as interpretive panels, tourist information, and a gift shop.