Today’s post is 1935 words, 31 photos, a 7-minute read. Enjoy!
This week I take you to the beautiful and wild Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. My regular readers will likely remember that I’ve posted several articles on this park, the most recent in April of this year. That visit was in late November 2021, right around Thanksgiving. Here’s a link to that post if you’d like to see this park during the “off season.”
My most recent visit occurred the first few days of September during a hot spell when the temperatures reached into the upper 90’s. I say few days because I took in both the South and North Units of this vast park on different days.
The South Unit
The most visited section of this National Park is the South Unit. Conveniently located along I-94 in far western North Dakota, this unit is accessed by taking the exit into Medora, the county seat of Billings County, population 121. More on Medora in a bit.
For drivers on I-94, the first glimpse of the park is at the Painted Canyon Overlook a few miles east of Medora. The overlook provides a majestic view of the North Dakota Badlands. A dry, fragile landscape today was once a warm, swampy environment that supported many fish and reptile species. Volcanos to the west filled the swamps with ash, sand, and mud. Over time, these sediments were smushed (technical term!) together to form sandstone, limestone, and shale. The ice age that moved from present day Canada into the northern United State created water erosion as it began to warm and melt. Over a few million years, the nearby Little Missouri River carved the soft layers of earth leaving behind buttes, hoodoos, caprocks, and the landscape you see today.
The day I stopped at Painted Canyon, the parking lot was filled with cars, camping outfits, and a few 18-wheelers. The overlook also doubles as a rest area. I checked in at the Visitor Center looking for anything new since my last visit. Then I headed out to look and photograph those now protected Badlands. Here is what I saw:
Even though it was mid-morning, the temperature was already above 90 but hey, it was a dry heat! It truly was, about 15% humidity. Good thing I had plenty of water with me.
After taking in the majestic scene, I headed down the highway and entered the park. After showing my Senior Pass at the entrance kiosk (saved me the $30 vehicle fee), and a quick stop at the Visitor Center, I turned on the 36-mile scenic drive. Oh, wait a minute, it’s now shorter as part of the drive is closed for road repairs.
My first stop was the Medora Townsite Overlook. The village lays in a valley surrounded by buttes. It’s a pretty site, at least for me. My Traveling Partner and I secured our marriage license at the County Courthouse in Medora just over 50 years ago.
As I drove along, I noticed the buffalo were hanging out near the Little Missouri River. There, the tall cottonwoods provide shade and the river a source of drinking water, a respite from the hot sun. Even the abundant prairie dogs were less active, forgoing foraging for food above ground for the coolness of their below ground dens.
Since I was short on time and the sun was hot, I made a stop at the Wind Canyon Overlook, one of my favorite places in the park. I walked the Wind Canyon Trail to the overlook where I took in the scene, the bend in the Little Missouri River, the flat plains along the river and the high buttes off in the distance. I chatted with a couple from Virginia. This was their first ever visit to TRNP, they were in awe of the rough terrain, the deep ravines, and the abundance of wildlife. And they didn’t mind the heat because, well, it was a dry heat! I wished well them on their trip to the west.
On the way out of the park, I made a stop in Medora for a bit of lunch, a cold drink, and a few photos. Medora is one of the most popular tourist sites in North Dakota. There’s lots to do and see including the Medora Musical with nightly performances from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This pageant celebrates the old west during the time that Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, lived in North Dakota. Teddy always credited his four years ranching and hunting near Medora as preparation for the presidency. Medora still reflects this days-gone-by atmosphere by preserving old west architecture and giving visitors a sense of our collective history.
The Rough Riders Hotel looks much like it did back in the day, all that is missing are the swinging doors to the saloon!
Down the street and around the corner is the Ferris General Store where local residents purchased staples to supplement game they preserved for the long, cold winters. Now it’s sells novelties and trinkets to tourists.
Visitors can see the village and learn more about it’s history on a buggy tour. Even the horses were moving slow on the hot day!
After a quick stop at the Harold “Waxy” Shafer Heritage Center and The Capitol Gallery-West, I passed St. Mary’s Catholic Church. It was built in 1884 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. And still a working church.
There is a fundraising campaign underway to place the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora. This move isn’t without controversy but it appears to be on track to being built and open sometime this decade. The expectation is that more visitors will come to Medora to learn about and from the former president. Doubters question putting the library of such an important American in a remote part of a remote state. Time will tell. I for one will visit early and often.
My last stop in Medora was at what I call “The Nut House,” otherwise known as Chateau Nuts. This seasonal business is run by 96 year-old Norma Myers pictured below. Besides the tasty treats, Norma dispenses wisdom and local history with her sharp as a tack wit. I’ve talked with her several times when I visited Medora. Her son does barbed wire art including a likeness of Teddy Roosevelt. I bought several pieces from her that are displayed in our TR themed family room. When I mentioned that my Traveling Partner is a native of Billings County, Norma recounted a few stories of my now deceased father-in-law and his brother. Earlier this year, I found Norma’s signature on the recently release 1950 census documents where my Traveling Partner’s family was listed. She told me that census taking was a slow job because she was invited in for coffee by lonely farm wives, sometimes a meal, and on a couple of occasions stayed overnight with a family. She loved every minute of that job. If you find yourself in Medora stop by The Nut House to meet Norma and buy a package of nuts. And make sure you have plenty of time to visit. Click here for a recent article about Norma from Medora.
The North Unit
A couple of days after visiting the South Unit, I rolled out of bed at 0’dark thirty and headed for the North Unit. I wanted to arrive at sunrise for a chance at better photos and avoid the hot sun.
The North Unit is more remote than the South Unit, they are separated about about 75 miles of highway. A few miles closer if you take the gravel backroads which I would recommend but have a full gas tank and pack a lunch. The scenery is worth it.
I turned off Highway 85 onto the fourteen-mile scenic drive. I immediately felt the tension release from my body, I’m sure my heart rate slowed and my jaw relaxed. This a place to unwind and enjoy the rugged and unique landscape. The air is fresh, it smells like prairie, an aroma that is hard to explain. It’s similar to walking in the forest when the leaves are falling but add a bit of juniper and sage, just enough to clean the palate. Then listen to the warning of the killdeer and the song of the Western Meadowlark. It’s a place where emotions are free to be express, besides there are very few people to hear and see you! My happy place.
I stopped at the Cannonball Concretions Pullout. The cannonball like rocks are “oddballs” in the geological field of study. They form when minerals seep into spaces between sedimentary particles, gluing them together. Over time this hardens and forms in a spherical shape, adding layer after layer. They are exposed when erosion eats away the surrounding softer soil. Several years ago I took one of favorite photos in this location. Unfortunately, due to erosion or vandalism or both, the scene has changed dramatically.
I was on the lookout for wildlife as I slowly drove the scenic drive. After a short distance, I turned a corner and spotted a young buck with a nice set of antlers. We looked at each other for a few moments, then he walked off on a trail through a ravine, I continued my journey. Later, I did see a flock of turkeys feeding on the tall prairie grasses.
The buffalo were harder to spot. Usually, in the North Unit, they are abundant and close to the road. With the recent hot weather, they’ve taken shelter near the tree fill ravines and Little Missouri River. I did by chance see these two bulls off in the distance kicking up some dust to keep the flies at bay.
The River Bend Overlook provides a stunning view of the Little Missouri and flat plains below. The stone shelter on the overlook was built by the CCC.
Here are a few more views.
Can you spot the herd of buffalo in this photo? They are on the sandbar in the center of the photo, in the shade and near the water.
A few miles up the road from the River Bend is the Oxbow Overlook. This is one of my all time favorite places in any National Park that I’ve visited. I could stand here all day gazing and reflecting on this scene. It was here that I took one of my top five photos ever, a four image panorama on a mostly cloudy day that I stitched together and made a print 12 inches high by 40 inches long. It hangs in our living room over the piano and is a point of conversation when we have guests.
While I was looking over the valley below, a fellow walked up and stood about five feet away looking at the same scene. We struck up a conversation and talked about what lay before us. He was fascinated by the eagle riding the thermals on the look out for his next meal. The fellow was from Washington State headed towards Niagara Falls. There he would meet up with his wife, she decided to fly instead of driving and towing a trailer across the United States. He told me his next destination in North Dakota, a place where we lived for six years. I gave him a few pointers and we parted ways after several minutes of silence absorbing the scene.
Too soon, it was time to leave, my mind filled with memories and camera with a few photos. Hope you enjoyed another look at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Here’s the last photo I took on the way out of the park.
Until next week, happy travels!