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? 🙂
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: