Theodore Roosevelt has made an indelible mark on our country as a whole, but especially on the state of North Dakota. There are over 15 sites and statues in the state commemorating the 26th President of the United States, including a national park. Businesses have captured the legacy of the wealthy New Yorker turned North Dakota rancher in such places as the Bully Pulpit Golf Course and the Rough Riders Hotel. You are reminded frequently that Teddy Roosevelt lived here.
After the untimely death of his wife and mother on Valentine’s Day in 1884, Roosevelt sought to heal from his tremendous grief in the badlands of North Dakota near the present town of Medora. He purchased the Elkhorn Ranch some 35 miles north of town and started to raise cattle in this desolate unforgiving territory. He pursued his new life with abandon creating a name for himself and he had a life-changing experience at the same time.
Roosevelt stated in 1918 that, “I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” One of the influences of his time at Elkhorn Ranch was to instill a desire to preserve the land. He later became known as the “conservation president.” As president, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, five national parks, and many other public sites. He also created the U. S. Forest Service and signed into law the 1906 Antiquities Act. All told, he protected 230 million acres of land for future generations.
To honor his legacy, the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial National Park was created in 1947. In 1978 the name was changed to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park is divided into three units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The Maah Daah Hey Trail connects all three units as does the Little Missouri River. These distinct parts are much farther apart than you would think as the North and South Units are separated by over 80 miles (130km).
That brings us to our visit. The South Unit is much busier than the more remote North Unit so we decided to spend the majority of our time in the North. We stayed a few days in Dickinson, ND to visit the South Unit and explore the Enchanted Highway, but afterwards we headed to the North Unit.
The South Unit is adjacent to the tourist town of Medora and has a drive-able loop (part of the loop is currently closed due to damage) with some short trails branching off the roadway. The gateway town has the typical shops, places to stay, restaurants, and a cowboy museum.
We did see President and Mrs. Roosevelt sharing about their lives on one of the street corners in town.
Next to the South Unit Visitor Center is the Maltese Cross Cabin, one of the first that Roosevelt stayed in while in the badlands. This cabin was moved to this location in 1959.
One of the main attractions of the South Unit is the large number of bison that graze there. Their traffic stopping ways remind you of the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park. You may be lucky and spot some of the feral horses that call the park home too.
When the bison cross the road, everyone stops and of course takes plenty of photos. Vehicles have to halt and wait while taking in the show.
If you are riding your horse the best option is to dismount and pass by the herd. The horseback riders told us that the horses and bison don’t mix well.
After a day of sightseeing, we headed back to Dickinson in one of the windiest days we have ever experienced. We had to stop twice to try and secure the truck’s bed cover to keep it from blowing away. Finally we pulled off the interstate and parked in between two buildings to form a wind break in order to move everything from the bed of the truck into the cab and tie down the cover with straps. We found out later that the wind gusts were up to 69 miles (111 km) per hour. Thankfully we were not towing the Bighorn.
In the North Unit we found a wonderful dry camping site just south of the Little Missouri River which was adjacent to the national park. The Forest Service CCC Campground was a perfect spot for us.
There, beside the Little Missouri River, our phones were confused as to what time it was since the river is apparently the time zone boundary. Not only is the lower southwest corner of North Dakota in a different time zone, the county itself is divided into two time zones! The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone but the North Unit and most of North Dakota are in the Central Time Zone.
The CCC Campground has perfect views and is a well kept secret. We had wonderful vistas from the Bighorn. We were even able to see Bighorn sheep in the evenings from our rig. Most of the traffic was of the four legged kind.
The North Unit has plenty of bison as well a few mountain lions. The park has large prairie dog communities that draw tourists who just sit and watch them play. We found out later that some animals are not found in all the units of the park. For instance, the Pronghorn Deer are only found in the South Unit.
There are various rock formations in the North Unit but perhaps the most intriguing are the “cannonball concretions.” Formed by the sediment layers that have been “glued” by mineral-rich waters, these are an amazing sight.
The North Unit has a 28 mile-long (45 km) scenic out and back drive that has several highlights. One of these is a vintage Civilian Conservation Corp structure overlooking the Little Missouri River. The River Bend Overlook has one of the best views in the park and is near the popular Caprock Coulee Trail.
Another feature in the park is the Bentontic Clay that displays as blue tinted layers on the hillsides.
Many of the vistas appear other worldly due to their formation. This area has a complex history of erupting volcanoes, buckling of the Rocky Mountains, large sediment flows from the various rivers, and ancient swampy forested regions. Fossil remains indicate the former presence of freshwater clams, alligators, turtles, and the like. There are areas of petrified wood as well to be found in the park.
Another section of the park is the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. We decided not to visit this part of the park as there are no buildings remaining at the site just some stones marking where the foundations once were.
While North Dakota may not be at the top of your bucket list, we enjoyed our visit to this unique part of our country. If you visit there, you may see Teddy himself strolling down the street in Medora.