Had Theodore Roosevelt not come to western North Dakota the face of national public lands in the United States may be very different today. Originally visiting North Dakota seeking a new life and adventure, Theodore Roosevelt was horrified to see over a ten year period how over hunting, farming, and ranching was decimated the area and its wildlife. It was a polarizing moment for him that fueled his decision to enter into politics. As President in 1906 he created the Federal Antiquities Act that he used to proclaim 18 national monuments. He also established five national parks, 51 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests during his presidency. It only seems fitting that the 70,448-acre park in North Dakota should bare his name.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located within the boundaries of the Little Missouri National Grassland. The park is somewhat unusual in that it is divided into three units. The South Unit receives the most visitation with Interstate 94 straddling its southern border. The very remote Theodore Roosevelt Elkhorn Ranch Site is located about 35 miles north of the South Unit, and is the site of a former cattle ranch Roosevelt owned from 1884 to 1892. The North Unit sits 70 miles north of the South Unit near the headwaters of the Little Missouri River. In between the three units vast expanses of badlands, grasslands, coulees, hoodoos, rivers, washes, and creeks, wait to be explored.
A vast majority of visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park limit their stay to a stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook and Visitor Center located on Interstate 94 at Exit 8. The name is deceiving as the word, "canyon" when shared with, "national park," conjures up grand images of Zion, Black or Grand Canyon - this is not the case. The low broken lands and badland formations stretch out before you to the north from the southern lip of the shallow canyon. The best times to visit are at sunrise and sunset. During this time the wide variety of colors, including yellow, brown, red, orange, and streaks of silver and black come alive in the long shadows. The canyon is equally spectacular when low clouds hang from the horizon, creating an illusion that the formations are closer than they really are. Picnic shelters and a first aid station are available as well as an easy one-mile nature trail at the end of the boardwalk.
A visit to Medora at Exit 27 on Interstate 94 will gain you access to the South Unit of the park. While at Medora be sure to stop at the Visitor Center. There you can get park maps, see a short movie on the history of the park, and explore a small museum. Behind the Visitor Center is the restored Maltese Cross Cabin that was originally used by Roosevelt when he worked on the Maltese Ranch. Free tours of the cabin are provided daily during summer months until 4:15 PM.
If you don't want to leave your automobile than the 36-mile Scenic Loop Road in the South Unit is an ideal way to see the park. The loop takes you along the Little Missouri breaks and through a maze of colorful buttes with a number of scenic overlooks, cutoffs and trails to explore. Be sure to stop at Wind Canyon for an unearthly view of the park, especially during sunset. Another interesting stop is at Scoria Point. The deep red hard baked clay bluffs resemble volcanic scoria but volcanic activity has had nothing to do with the development of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Don't be deceived by its 36-mile length, if you take your time to soak all the views in plan to spend at least three hours navigating the park. You'll glimpse bison, wild horses, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and maybe even a coyote.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit provides plenty of hiking opportunity ranging from ½ mile nature trails to deep backcountry experiences. The 6/10 of a mile Ridgeline Trail is a loop that provides a brief and educational view of the park. Plants from arid regions like yucca, prickly pear cactus, and sage, mingle with skunkbush, lichens and junipers. The charred remains of gnarled junipers stand as silent witnesses to a wildfire that swept the area in 1974. The trail is an excellent place to try and spot bison.
Another fascinating short hike is the 8/10 of a mile Coal Vein Trail. Tucked away in the many layers that form the badland formations black lines of lignite coal sits at varying levels in the park. Occasionally through lightning or even spontaneous combustion these coal layers ignite and can burn for decades, even centuries. This moderately difficult trail highlights such a coal vein that burned 1951 to 1977. During the height of the fires, embers, smoke and flame could be seen rising from the hillside and people would even roast marshmallows at the fires edge! Here you can see a scoria formation formed by this fire. It also provides an amazing view of habitat on hot and dry southern facing slopes versus habitat on cool damp northern facing slopes of the bluffs and hills that make the South Unit of the park.
The Jones Creek Trail stretches for 3.7 miles one way and cuts through the heart of the badland formations. The trail connects to the Scenic Loop Road and is an excellent hiking opportunity for those who want to take a hike with a group of people that don't want to get out of the car.
The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is also home to a vast sea of petrified wood. The Petrified Forest Trail is a 10-mile long loop starting from Peaceful Valley. The drier high plateau of the Petrified Forest provides a sharp contrast to the area around the Little Missouri and the broken land formations to the east. The vast loop arches around the northwest corner of the park providing solitude and a chance to see these fabulous agates.
The Cottonwood Campground provides 78 sites on a first come first serve basis. Eleven of the sites on the western edge of the campground are walk-in. No hookups or showers are provided but water, picnic tables, fire pits and paved pads are with sites dotted in groves of cottonwoods. An amphitheater is also in the campground and during the summer season ranger programs are held. Sites are $10 per night on a self-registration basis. Due to the remoteness of the area if you plan to camp at the park be sure to arrive by 8:00 AM.
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