Although Theodore Roosevelt National park is often one of the last parks RVers visit in their circuit of the National Parks due to its location, it is well worth the effort!
There are many reasons that this special place on North Dakota’s western border was President Theodore Roosevelt’s treasured natural escape.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the badlands of western North Dakota. It is made up of 3 geographically separated parcels: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit to total 70,446 acres. All three units are surrounded by the Little Missouri National Grassland, which is the largest grassland in the country at 1,033,271 acres.
Theodore Roosevelt started coming out to the North Dakota badlands long before he was president. This area was special to him, and he even tried his own hand at ranching here. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit was the site of his personal ranch. He loved this area and credits it with shaping him into the man and president he was, as well as inspiring his work with the National Parks and conservation.
We got an amazing campsite in the North Unit of the park at Juniper Campground. As our first order of business, we grabbed our lawn chairs and enjoyed our view with some lunch and our books.
We watched as a thunderstorm slowly made its way toward us, and we decided to try to see a bit of the park before the rains hit…but we didn’t get very far before that happened.
Our first stop was at some of the strangest rock formations we had ever seen called cannonball concretions. These are formed within rocks by the deposition of mineral around a core. They are unbelievably round!
As it turned out, a thunderstorm in the badlands can be a magical experience. We drove the 14-mile scenic drive all the way to the end. That was when the rains really came down.
On our way back to our campground the rain let up and we came upon a herd of bison blocking the road ahead. We were the only ones on the road and were in no rush, so we slowly approached in our truck. Soon, we realized that the rainwater puddles on the road was what had drawn the bison to the road! We watched them drink the puddles, completely ignoring our presence.
We got back to the campground in time for the most beautiful sunset from our riverside site!
The next morning we rose early to make the 1.5 hour (80 mile) drive to the South Unit. We stopped at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center along Interstate 90 for some awesome overlooks into the South Unit canyons!
Then we drove to Medora to the South Unit entrance.
The South Unit has a 36-mile roundtrip scenic loop drive that makes seeing the park easy. It takes you by prairie dog towns, overlooks, through the canyons, and through bison meadows. We even saw a wild horse along the drive!
The Prairie dog farms were fun and often you’ll find bison grazing among the holes. We learned that recent studies have shown that ‘managed’ grasses and forbs atop a prairie dog town are higher in protein and nitrogen and are favored for grazing by bison, elk, and pronghorn. (1)
We did a couple of hikes while we were in the South Unit: Coal Vein Hike: veins of coal are present in the rock. Sometimes these veins can ignite and they can burn for long periods of time.
Wandering Hike: We took another trail that ended up disappearing…a common problem in this lesser-traveled park that has lots of animals that forge their own branches of trails off the human trails. We wandered up a couple of buttes and finally made our way back to the truck.
After completing the Scenic Loop (took about 5 hours with hikes and stopping to look at the wildlife!), we headed out of the park and back thru Medora.
Medora is a touristy, western town known for its “Medora Musical” and the Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. We didn’t do either, but we did grab some ice cream and walk through a couple western saloons just so we experience the saloon doors swinging and all the cowboy hats, belt buckles, and boots you could hope for! It was like being in a country song.
We got up early again to hit the North Unit’s Sperati Point trail. This is an easy 2.4 mile round-trip hike from the end of the Scenic Drive out to a point that overlooks the winding Little Missouri River and the canyon.
When we got back to the parking area we met a Ranger who recommended another hike called Buckhorn Trail up to a high elevation prairie dog town. We probably hiked 4 miles round trip to the top of the ridge to the town, and we could see another storm rolling towards us in the distance.
On our drive back, we had the most beautiful viewing of bison and long-horn cattle – a small herd kept in the park like in Teddy Roosevelt’s days.
That evening I took the dogs for a walk toward the picnic area from the campground and was surprised to find bison! They were far enough away that the dogs were not interested. Shortly after returning to the fifthwheel, the bison migrated into the middle of the campground!
We stood a good distance back and watched them roll in the sandy spots in the open yard. Then something spooked them, and they thundered out of the campground! Bison don’t look like fast creatures at first look, but they can really move!
As our first Wild West experience, we were extremely happy with this park! The North Unit especially was so quiet and you felt so close to the rock formations, the river, and the wildlife. We run into so many people who have never even heard of this park so it is the perfect place for wanting to escape the crowds and enjoy the North Dakota badlands, just like Theodore Roosevelt did.
Travel Stage: First major stop out west
Date Range: July 14-17, 2016
Summary: We camp at Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit and get our first taste of the Badlands, bison, and the beauty of the west.
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