On the drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, darkening clouds threatened overhead and furious winds blew our little car around mercilessly. Each time a tractor trailer passed us, it felt like being slapped by an invisible giant’s hand.
That wind stayed with us as we drove to Theodore Roosevelt’s South Unit — one of three separate parcels of the park — near the small historic town of Medora. We found our walk-in campsite at the park’s Cottonwood Campground on a low bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River. I say “river,” but the late August day we arrived, the Little Missouri was little more than a few muddy pools. That scuttled our original plan to kayak, but the park has so many miles of trails to hike and so much wildlife to see that we didn’t mind skipping a paddle. Among the wildlife on hand? Bison aplenty, with some even making themselves at home in the campground.
We figured it would be a good time to take a spin along a portion of the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive. We passed a herd of feral horses, a few pronghorn, more bison and a prairie dog town full of our favorite rodents. The prairie dogs looked particularly plump and healthy here.
A park ranger had recommended the Wind Canyon Trail as one of the best sunset-viewing spots, so we took the short hike up to an overlook high above the Little Missouri that revealed a wind-carved mini-canyon of pockmarked limestone. Right before sunset the rain arrived and sent us back to the car and back to camp.
Lightning lit up the sky all night, and rain poured for hours. Because of the soaking, the next morning we awoke to find the Little Missouri with a steady flow of water, albeit still not enough to merit getting the kayaks out in it.
So we drove the rest of the Scenic Loop Road and stopped off at many of the shorter trails, including the Ridgeline Nature Trail, Coal Vein Trail, Buck Hill and Boicourt. In addition to providing fantastic views of the badlands, these trails gave us more glimpses of bison, pronghorn and prairie dogs.
We then went to the South Unit Visitor Center to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (established by Pres. Woodrow Wilson on Aug. 25, 1916) with lemonade and cookies. We also attended a ranger talk on the Maltese Cross cabin, a restored historic building just behind the Visitor Center once owned by Theodore Roosevelt. The ranger told us more about this park’s namesake.
Nearly 20 years before becoming the 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt came to North Dakota to hunt bison and later started a cattle ranch. He loved the rugged Dakotas and saw how overgrazing and overhunting threatened the land. These experiences turned him into a preservation advocate before, during and after his 1901-1909 presidency.
We learned even more about Roosevelt during a fantastic evening program at the campground amphitheater to commemorate the park system’s 100th birthday. Guest speaker Clay Jenkinson — a noted historian who appeared in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the national parks — gave one of the most informative, inspiring and meaningful talks I’ve heard in a long time. He told us about Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota, his remarkable conservation achievements, and his views about the American West and national parks.
In contrast to European-style lodges and resorts in beautiful natural areas that were exclusive playgrounds for the privileged, Roosevelt felt America should have public lands protected for all citizens to enjoy. He was also a complex figure who shot his fair share of wild animals (if there is such a thing as a fair share) and wasn’t necessarily a champion of Native American causes. But he did more than any other U.S. president to set aside land for preservation, protecting more than 230 acres for future generations.
We spent the next day in the park’s Northern Unit, which sees far fewer visitors. In addition to more hiking and wildlife viewing, visitors can see cannonball concretions — large, spherical boulders formed by mineral deposits cemented together around a core — along this unit’s 14-mile Scenic Drive.
We drove on to the Caprock Coulee Loop Trail, which traversed a host of rock formations and vegetation types. Several patches of juniper forest provided welcome shade as we headed uphill and came to a high ridge with wonderful views of the park around us.
Once again, we encountered a herd of bison. We moved along the trail slowly and quietly, avoiding eye contact with the animals. Although they regularly wandered through our campground and picnic areas, their docile behavior is deceiving. Their horns and enormous bulk make them potentially dangerous creatures, so we always tried to view them from a distance.
The trail looped around to an overlook of the Little Missouri River and proceeded through stunning badlands scenery, eventually dropping back down to the parking lot.
As we continued on toward the Oxbow Overlook at the end of the Scenic Drive, that same herd of bison also had descended from the higher elevations and were now marching along the road next to cars stopped to let them by. Thankfully, they mostly ignored us as they trotted by.
Driving back to the South Unit, it was hard for us to ignore one of the threats just outside the park boundaries — the oil boom. Truck traffic on the road was heavy, and dotting the land were oil rigs flaring excess natural gas as well as numerous silica sand hills.
Most of the sand does not naturally occur here; rather, it is brought in from Wisconsin to be mixed with water and chemicals for oil extraction via hydraulic fracturing. North Dakota has benefited economically from the oil boom in the Bakken Shale Formation, yet the environmental and social costs have been high.
Even though such unsightly development is right on the doorstep of this special place, thank goodness so many of our nation’s most treasured landscapes have been set aside as national parks and spared development. At least here, Teddy would be proud.