Theodore Roosevelt National Park

National Park Number: 21 of 59

When Theodore Roosevelt first arrived in Medora, North Dakota, he was nearly laughed out of town. He had a high-pitched voice and thick glasses, a fancy fringed buckskin shirt, a gold gun with an ivory handle, and a jewel-encrusted bowie knife from Tiffany’s. He looked like exactly what he was: a rich city boy playing cowboy.

He was there to kill a bison. His brother Elliot had been on safari in Africa and Teddy was jealous of Elliot’s exotic trophy kills. So Teddy wanted to nab a creature he was sure his brother would never get to hunt—a bison. 

One of the reasons it would have been hard for Elliot to kill a bison was because at that point in 1883 there were very few left. A population of 40 million had been reduced to just a thousand animals; North Dakota was one of the last places left in America where bison ranged. 

Roosevelt got his bison, but he left with more than a trophy: he left inspired by the badlands of North Dakota and the animals who called the place home. Twelve days after arriving, he bought the Maltese Cross Ranch and this proved to be a defining decision for TR.

The next year, after his wife and mother died on the same day, he returned to North Dakota to grieve. He bought the Elkhorn Ranch, built himself a house, and spent his days rocking on the porch and mourning. He became attached to the land—he said it healed him—and it sparked his interest in preserving the wilderness of the West. 

Our first stop at Theodore Roosevelt was the South Unit Visitor Center, where a ranger gave us a tour of the Maltese Cross Cabin (relocated to the center’s backyard), where Teddy lived for a time. The cabin is outfitted as it would have been in Teddy’s day—complete with whitewashed walls so he could take full advantage of the light for all his reading and writing, as well as his rocking chair, which he would rock back and forth across the room as he thought or talked.

I’ve never been a big TR fan (imperialism gets my dander up), but some of the rangers here were absolute fan boys (fan men?) and it was so fun to listen to them tell his stories. We spent a good chunk of time picking their brains about Teddy’s history and checking out the excellent memorabilia on display in the visitor’s center, including the blood-stained shirt TR was wearing during an assassination attempt. After he got shot, he insisted on finishing his speech; whatever else you want to say about him, you can’t say Teddy wasn’t hardcore.

That night we went to David’s cousin’s house for dinner, which has nothing to do with the park, but which was delightful and fun and made us so happy.

The next day we headed back to the park to try to jam everything in before we had to leave that night (because getting to Isle Royale National Park is tricky and we had to time it just right to not miss the last boat of the season.)

We drove along the scenic loop of the South Unit and stopped to hike the Ridgeline Trail. It’s a short interpretive loop with a great view, but what really makes it an excellent walk is the information along the route. I think the badlands is a striking landscape, but it’s hard to fully appreciate the diversity of its habitats and the composition of its mounds without a little reading. Along this trail, as we read about the different plants that thrive throughout this region, about predators who use the hills as lookouts and prey who are able to hide in the treed areas on the north-facing slopes, we started to see the area with much more nuance.

That education continued on the Coal Vein Trail, which follows an area where an underground fire burned for 26 years. The rock layers of the badland’s mounds are on full display here: blue-grey bentonite clay made of ash from distant volcanoes; tan sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone made from sediments washed down the Rocky Mountains; black coal, remains of ancient plants and animals; and brick-red clinker, which forms when coal veins catch fire and bake the rock above. Because some layers are harder than others, caprocks have formed all over the park, spots where a hard layer of rock acts as a shield protecting the rock below it from completely eroding.

After walking the Coal Vein Trail, we met up with David’s cousin Lenzi and her kids to continue on our loop. We stopped to climb up the Wind Canyon Trail, with a view over a bend in the Little Missouri River. From the top we could see wild horses grazing below. Graham was out-of-his-mind excited to have friends to hike with; we’re thinking about adopting Lenzi’s 6-year-old for the trip, because she’s amazing and Graham is nuts about her.

We finished our loop drive, stopping to be entertained by the prairie dogs in one of their towns just off the road. On our way out, we stopped in Medora at their excellent playground to give the kids a little more cousin time before we had to hit the road.

Our time at Theodore Roosevelt was short and sweet. We always want to spend longer at every park we visit, but we had to rush here even more than normal and we were sad to miss the North Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch, as well as the petrified forest. Because we’re blogging about this, I feel guilty when our visits don’t even pretend at comprehensiveness. But rather than feel guilty, I am just going to say that we loved this park, as much for its quiet and peacefulness as for its beautiful buttes and animals.

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