"I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," Theodore Roosevelt once remarked when reflecting on the influences that affected him throughout his life. Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota Badlands in September, 1883. The prospect of big game hunting had lured him West, but attaining good health was his real priority. He had been a thin, sickly boy, and now at 25, he wanted to build his stamina and endurance. Roosevelt was immediately impressed with this spectacular land of wildly beautiful, many-colored hills, buttes and gorges. Soon after, he bought his way into a three-man partnership in a ranch; he was in the Badlands to stay. Here he would create his reputation and legend.
Gradually, he learned how to ride and shoot and herd cattle. Once, Roosevelt caught a man stealing his boat moored along the Little Missouri. He knew if the thief was to be brought to justice, he would have to do it himself, so he traveled 150 miles, walking, while his prisoner rode horseback. Perhaps Roosevelt thought there was hope for the man, for he read Anna Karenina aloud all the way. When he arrived, caked with mud, his clothes were in shreds and his feet a mass of blisters. But he had upheld the law.
As time went by, he became greatly alarmed by the damage that was being done to the land and its wildlife. He witnessed the virtual destruction of some big game species. Overgrazing destroyed the grasslands and with them the habitats for small mammals and songbirds.
Conservation increasingly became one of Roosevelt’s major concerns. When he became President in 1901, Roosevelt pursued this interest in natural history by establishing the U.S. Forest Service and by signing the 1906 Antiquities Act under which he proclaimed eighteen national monuments. He also obtained Congressional approval for the establishment of five national parks and fifty-one wildlife refuges and set aside land as national forests.
As a conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt was a major figure in American History. In the North Dakota Badlands, where many of his personal concerns first gave rise to his later environmental efforts, Roosevelt is remembered with a national park that bears his name and honors the memory of this great conservationist.
My father, who grew up 100 miles from the area, told me, "If you want to see the real Badlands, go see Teddy’s park."
So we packed up the kids (now teenagers) and left our usual mode of transportation - the Chevy dually with the camper – behind. Limited vacation time did not allow us the extra days we would have needed had we driven the large truck, so it was the foreign car, a low-budget motel, and a cooler full of food that got us through North Dakota. The park lies nearly on the Montana border, but the 70-mph speed limit (on Interstate 94) let us make it in a day.
We stayed in a motel in Belfield that sits right on the border of the National Grasslands. Not long after our arrival, Richard and our son, Matt, went off with cameras, while Katie, our daughter, and I opted to take a walk through town.
Belfield was fairly quiet and had several areas for Katie and me to "investigate." The first thing we found was an old, abandoned Ukrainian Orthodox Church, complete with an eight-sided dome. The church was boarded shut, but still interesting with its unique architecture and its intimations of the pioneers that had settled this town. As we approached, the second thing we found was a cactus spike that went straight through our shoes. Since we had just left Minnesota that morning, it seemed hard to believe that we would run into cactus that very evening - or that North Dakota had any – in town of all places. But, there it was, sprinkled in with the grass. I reminded myself that we were, after all, nearly on the Montana border, and from then on, we kept an eye out for our "sharp" new friend.
"Town" was at the bottom of the hill, and also at the bottom was a small creek. As we leaned over the railing to have a look, a pair of cats came up to us and sat down. They were completely friendly, and after we stopped to pet them, they ambled off, looking for their next "admirer."
We decided to start back after this, and as we cut through a residential area, we spotted yet another domed Ukrainian Church, only this one was present-day.
Nearing our motel, we noticed a large hill we hadn’t seen going out, so we climbed up to investigate. The view at the top was a panorama of grasslands with one large, flat-topped butte thrown in the middle. We had experienced storm clouds off and on all day, but now, the sun came back, and gilded the butte red. The glory lasted only moments, then the sun went down and turned the rock into just a shadow.
It wasn’t long after we returned to the motel that Richard and Matt showed up toting ice cream cones in a cardboard carrier from the local Dairy Freeze. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to cap the day.
The next morning we rose early and ate breakfast out of our cooler before making the drive to the park. There are two sides to Theodore Roosevelt National Park…the North Unit and the South Unit. A major feature of the South side is a paved, 36-mile scenic-loop road. The North Unit has a 14-mile scenic drive that goes from the entrance to the Oxbow Overlook.
My immediate impression of the park was that it was low in tourists. This is such a wonderful relief when so many National Parks today are suffering from severe overcrowding. And while I’m sure that the time of year helped (late August) and the fact that we were there mid-week, I am still convinced that this park is a less-traveled area.
Our first introduction to the region was Painted Canyon Overlook, about seven miles east of Medora. Here on the upper half of the Badlands is a magnificent vista of the broken topography in its colorful hues. Just east of the canyon, wild horses can sometimes be viewed. These beautiful animals, in a rainbow of color combinations, are descendants from the Indian ponies surrendered by Sitting Bull in 1881.
Just down the highway from Painted Canyon is the Medora Visitor Center where a variety of books and maps of the area are available. There is also a display featuring the personal items of Teddy Roosevelt and his life on the Elkhorn Ranch. The restored Maltese Cross cabin, which Roosevelt built, is behind the visitor center. From here, you can begin the 36-mile loop through the heart of the South Unit.
The Sioux referred to the badlands as "mako sica" (land bad), and early French explorers translated this to "les mauvais terres á traverser" (bad land to travel across). Today’s modern road makes traveling through the area a snap.
When comparing the Badlands of North Dakota with those of South Dakota the first word that comes to mind is variety. In South Dakota the Badlands are hard rock and sand - barren and austere in beauty…a mini Arizona. But rain and snow and the waters of the Little Missouri River carved the Badlands of North Dakota. Not only are there rocks here, but hills and valleys as well. Roosevelt found the incredible diversity "fantastically beautiful."
There is grass in these Badlands, and brush and trees. Contrasting with the bright badlands' reds and yellows are the forest-green junipers. They grow on rocks and sometimes pepper the entire top of a butte. It is a wild looking land, and one can imagine cowboys herding cattle and Teddy Roosevelt himself riding through the sagebrush.
There are two options at Theodore Roosevelt National Park: riding through it in your vehicle or getting out and hiking. We like to combine the two, so we don’t miss too much. We started driving at the South Unit, and one of the first things we came upon was a prairie dog town. If you sit quietly and observe them, these delightful little critters can entertain for hours.
While the road climbed and fell, offering us tremendous viewscapes, we stopped where we wanted and took photos, examined rocks, climbed buttes, and ate lunch from our trusty cooler. Along the way we saw Scoria Point and the dry, cracking creek bed along Talkington Trail. Also along the trail, up high on a bluff, were many prickly pear cacti. We were surprised by the size of them, and Katie and I were glad not to have found one of their spikes in our shoes!
Back in the car, we hadn’t traveled long, when we came upon a bison lying quite content in a coulee. It was a magnificent sight, the big bull with the painted rocks of the Badlands as a backdrop. It is one of my favorite memories.
And leave it to Matt to find a rattlesnake in some bushes, and yet we were drawn to it like a moth to the flame. A rattlesnake in the wild! It was young, but beautiful, and I was proud of how protective our teenagers were of it.
Several of our hikes took us through long, steep, narrow valleys, where we studied rock formations that looked liked Roman pillars. There are bright-colored lichens and sagebrush here too and one of the most interesting sights in the park: caprocks. These are twenty-foot high pillars with mushroom-like pedestals resting on top. Eventually, the pillar is worn down by erosion and becomes too weak to hold the caprock. Deprived of its protective cover, the pillar is rapidly worn down. Various stages of this process are found throughout the park.
Petrified wood is another feature here. The wood comes from trees that grew here some 55 million years ago. Covered quickly by sand, mud and clay before decay could begin, ground water percolated through the buried trees, slowly filling them with silica that hardened and preserved the tree parts. Then, much later in time, erosion exposed the petrified wood.
One of the most striking features in the park is the Little Missouri River. From any angle, its presence creates a feeling for the Old West. At Oxbow Overlook (one of the most outstanding places to view the water) we watched a huge herd of bison cross the river. Fifty, seventy, a hundred animals or more moved slowly but steadily through the water to the green grass on the opposite side. As high up as we were, we could only make them out with a pair of good binoculars, but even so, nothing is more thrilling than seeing wild animals in the wild.
And when not viewing the Little Missouri from atop some vista, walking alongside the water is better yet. One of our hikes took us down into Peaceful Valley, where we trekked beside the water. Actually, we were walking on the river bottom in nearly ankle-deep silt, where the Missouri had pulled back from its banks due to drought. Matt was skipping rocks, and Katie was poking into the silt with a stick. Richard busied himself with his camera, and I was looking off to the horizon as usual. All of a sudden Katie hit something. It was like fishing, and she had landed a lunker. The "lunker" turned out to be a large vertebra from the spine of a bison. It was six inches wide and three inches across - a fascinating discovery.
Bison and the Badlands go together like air and sunlight. In the South Unit, we were struck by how many bison were off on their own. Bulls mostly, sunning themselves in the heat or grazing high up on a remote hill. But our biggest thrill came in the less-traveled North Unit, where whole herds could be viewed from a distance.