The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is easily one of my personal favorite national parks here in the United States. Though admittedly a newbie to national park exploration, I have come to find out exactly what I look for in a national park experience: history, hiking, and beauty. All national parks have their own specific brand of beauty to bestow on the admirers, but North Dakota left me in awe to the point where I had already started planning my return trip before I even left.
Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the Badlands of North Dakota on his first visit, and I hadn’t fallen far from the tree. My girlfriend and I made the four hour trek west to Medora, first stopping at the Painted Canyons overlook and I was immediately hooked. Though it was a typical business day and there wasn’t a government shutdown, the parking lot had a giant “CLOSED” sign over a barricade to keep us out, but a small gate to let walking traffic through. Why? Bison were roaming all over in herds — it was my first up close view of the majestic animals, and I found myself taking an extended look through the binoculars to get the best glimpse. Unlike Roosevelt, I wasn’t there to hunt them. Also unlike Roosevelt, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Roosevelt pioneered conservation of bison after the decimation of the animals to the point of extinction became apparent, and since the numbers of the animal back then were merely in their hundreds, they now thrived on protected land, all for my viewing pleasure.
A twist of my neck a little bit to the left, and I was able to scan the outstanding beauty of the buttes that defined the Painted Canyons. The evidence of natural erosion astounded me, and it was insane to comprehend that back when Teddy first explored it, eventually setting up his own ranch, it likely looked entirely different. The Badlands were an amazing view through a historical looking-glass. The various colors of sand showing the effects of time reminded me of the Grand Canyon, only a hell of a lot less packed with tourists and significantly more engrossing. To think that before Theodore Roosevelt and even before the dawn of mankind, dinosaurs once roamed there when it was wetlands similar to that of Florida today was absolutely mind blowing. Imagining just how much work nature put in to building the cyclical hourglass that I was then overlooking was an absolute treat.
The only con? Now, there aren’t any trees within the park, or even anywhere in North Dakota for that matter. Wind whipped straight through us, dangling the dreaded hair of the bison in every direction it chose to blow. It was only our first day there, and we couldn’t take much at 1,500 feet above sea level with the unbearable wind.
The town of Medora is easily North Dakota’s biggest tourist attraction. We lucked out by going at the first sign of sunlight, and didn’t run into much of any of the tourism. We chose to make our primitive campsite at the Sully Creek State Park, which doubled as the trailhead for the USA’s longest single track mountain biking trail. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Tucked away in the littlest bit of wooded area out of the wind, we made camp and took advantage of the streams around us, and the glorious lack of human connection. Even the town was empty. Tickets for the Musical Theater didn’t go on sale for another month and even if we wanted to eat out, there wasn’t a single option to. That was simply wonderful. The campsite was clean and free of any signs of natural destruction, which only left our jaws dropping. Neither of us camping had ever experienced the serenity of North Dakota quite like that.
Our campsite was only a 20 minute drive from the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and we used our spare time to explore the visitor’s center and subsequently the famed ranch house that Teddy resided in when he retreated from his New York City home during his presidency. Both of us had the same thought: we didn’t need much more than he had. A writing station, a tiny kitchen, a single bedroom, and acres upon acres of land once explored by Louis and Clark were at complete disposal.
Our primary reason for visiting the park was to check out the isolated Petrified Forest Loop in the park. It was about 30 minutes of driving from the visitor’s center and 20 minutes down a privatized dirt road, but we didn’t mind at all. We embarked on the 10.5 mile challenge, using my cardio from distance skateboarding and my girlfriend’s experience in her field of work to tackle the trail head on. The visitor’s center recommended 6-8 hours to complete the entire thing, but we were confident we would be on the lower end of the predicted times. We checked the sign in sheet at the trailhead and saw that only 3 groups had been there in the last week. It was just our kind of place. We paraded around the entrance trail that eventually split into the Southern Tier and Northern Tier, examining every single petrified tree stump we could. They were literally fossils — too large to move from their resting place and too rigid to be anything other than solidified rock. They were testaments to the land that was once soaking wet and swampy, thriving in jurassic era carbon beings. The pure size of them reminded me of the arbor at Yosemite, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Who could know what kind of insects or organic material became encased in there?
We started off on the Northern Tier. Directly to our left was a herd of bison, hardly even 50 feet away. We took extra precautions to avoid eye contact and back away slowly, leading us off the trail but further into our exploration. The sign in sheet from a day before read, “Bison almost charged us with her newborn calf” and that in itself was terrifying. Being so close to such large and admirable beings was truly breathtaking.
Eventually the Northern Tier turned from sage brush and desert to prairie, and we walked along the trails that we easily could have mistaken for cow paths at our own risk. 100 feet below us, a scared family of bison ran out of sight with their newborn calf, and it was likely the same one that charged the earlier adventurers. After the prairie and over a small creek, we headed up a butte and stopped for lunch. We lost our bearings on direction due to a lack of communication with the trail poles, and wasted nearly an hour trying to find our way, following cow paths that led to nowhere, but leading us to see a family of jack rabbits, whose size were astounding and completely out of this world. My girlfriend eventually found the last trail pole to designate the end of the Northern Tier trail and the beginning of the Maah-Daah-Hey trail, which linked back to the Southern Tier. It was another climb up a hill, but we managed.
The section of the Maah-Daah-Hey trail we crossed was entirely prairie, directly under the sun with no cover in sight. The sheer amount of wild animal scat that we had to carefully avoid was admittedly scary. It was hard to distinguish any difference between cow and bison droppings. I was excited to learn more about the Maah-Daah-Hey trail: it was 144 miles long one-way and was host to some seriously grueling mountain bike adventures. I was inspired to try and build my own mountain bike to tackle the trail myself at a later date. There wasn’t much else to see along the trail beside far-off bison and a view of the grandiose buttes with red-lined sand curiously all in the same level across the land. As I scanned it, I decided that if I was ever going to direct a movie about dinosaurs, that was exactly where I would go.
The Southern Tier was much shorter than both the Northern Tier and the Maah-Daah-Hey trails. It dropped us back into Petrified Forest land, but had little to offer in comparison of sights to the other trails. By then we had made it 8.5 miles and were feeling great, but ready to make our end trek back to the car. There were peculiar ponds of nasty water thriving with frog life, and caverns under the soil I was too intimidated to explore. Once we reached the junction of the two trails, we were stopped in our tracks by the biggest bison we had ever seen. To our right was a trail runner, who stopped in his tracks at well. We waited to see what he would do, but simultaneously we decided to go off the trails once again to avoid them.
Overall, it was easily breathtaking. I left with no qualms about any of the amenities and looked forward to going back, or even exploring the Badlands of South Dakota. With only a 2 night stay, there was no way we could possibly explore all of the set trails, but we were glad we challenged ourselves and succeeded with little issue over the entire course. Four hours of driving for everything we got to see was more than worth it. I look forward to returning to do a multi-day adventure on the Maah-Daah-Hey trail by my lonesome.