Theodore Roosevelt: Bad(Ass) Lands Volume 1: Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Location: Medora, North Dakota
Size: 70,446 acres of 110 square miles
Established: November 10th, 1978
Visitors: 563,407 in 2011

“It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.
       -Teddy Roosevelt

If you have never experienced the Badlands, they go a little something like this. You drive down the highway and the waving wheat of the west surrounds you. Grasses whip back in the forth with the wind and undulate perpetually likes waves on the seashore.  Please note that this may sound a bit flowery, but after 1.34 miles it is actually quite boring. The grass just goes on forever and ever and nothing changes. Then, quite suddenly, you find yourself in foreign territory. The grasses are replaced with these formations that look more like the surface of the moon than anything from this earth. It is for this reason that I have dubbed them the BadAssLands. The colors range from tan to red to yellow and orange, it looks strange and indescribable.  Once you see this break, you know that Teddy Roosevelt National Park is close.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park, or TRNP, is on the western edge of North Dakota. It is separated into three distinct areas—North Unit, Elkhorn Ranch and South Unit. We started our travels by pulling into Medora, North Dakota, where we were closest to the South Unit.

Do not rely on Medora for groceries; make sure that you bring the food that you need with you. While you can pick up some things at the gas station, it is not to be relied upon for necessities—or anything cheap.  Generally speaking, if you can drive through Medora without stopping, you have likely done it right. It is like Disneyland, but without the rides, the cool characters, overpriced carnival food, and singers/dancers doing reenactments and plays. That being said, it is likely a good place to stop for some ice cream and a little walk around town if you have kids.

We were most interested in the park, so we drove into the South Unit and made our way to the Cottonwood Campground. One of the first things you will notice upon entering the park is that there is a massive fence surrounding everything. This fence is for the buffalo. While this used to be the land where the buffalo roamed, it is now the land where they are fenced in.

The South Unit of the park offers a scenic driving loop that will give you opportunities to see deer, elk, horses, buffalo, rattlesnakes, and prairie dogs. We took the road by both car and bike, and concluded that touring by bike is definitely the way to go. However, we’d like to note that it makes the massive buffalo even more daunting when you aren’t watching them from behind a car window.

Elkhorn Ranch is very out of the way, but very worth the visit. It is Teddy Roosevelt’s ranch from when he lived out in North Dakota. It is named Elkhorn because they found two elk skulls with antlers locked together. This means that in life, the elk had been sparring, locked antlers and likely died of starvation, as they could not separate themselves from one another. We were the only visitors at Elkhorn Ranch on the day that we visited. It was quiet, serene and interesting. The only other person we saw was a ranger who was on patrol. More about that in another post.

The North Unit is about an hour north of Medora and features a 15-mile out-and-back drive. The views here are much more dramatic, you find yourself on top of some of the Badlands mesas where you can overlook the silty Little Missouri River. It is here that you are also more likely to see a large herd of buffalo with their calves. There are fewer people in this part of the park, but it is no less beautiful. While in the North Unit, we got to experience a full-on western storm. Thunder, lightning, and water poured out of the sky so quickly that we could hardly see out of the car windows. After the sky had released its payload, we were greeted with the combination of a bright sunset to the west and a storm thundering east.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” You can drive through TRNP in an hour, you can snap some quick photos of a prairie dog colony and a buffalo and never leave your car. Don’t expect it to be a great trip if you do that. The Badlands may look somewhat similar, but it is the time of day and the weather that brings about the differences. Different colors and pieces of terrain are highlighted by sunrise and sunset alike. Get out of your car, and hop on a bike, or take one of the trails. You will be surprised to find that this near lunar landscape is teeming with chirping birds and life at every turn.  

Theodore Roosevelt National Park pictures