Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, N.Dak. (South Unit) and Watford City, N.Dak. (North Unit) Visited: June 22, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 57 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Rugged badlands, renewed mixed-grass prairies, meandering rivers and creeks, abundant wildlife, wild horses, a birdwatcher’s paradise, petrified forests and altogether stunning scenery. The Park exists on and around lands where Theodore Roosevelt had an open-range ranch. TR’s conservation ethic is celebrated here.
BEAUTY (10/10) Our jaws dropped the second we stepped out of the car and took in the vistas of the Painted Canyon Overlook. Fives days later we were still in awe.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) The exhibits and Ranger talks emphasized that the inspiration for TR’s conservation ethic came while hunting bison (among other things) during his ranching days in the North Dakota badlands. Teddy himself said that his days in the Dakotas made him a man and that without the time spent there he would never have been president. Without his North Dakota badlands muse, perhaps the National Park System would never have come to pass.
CROWDS (9/10) Close to perfect. The campgrounds were nearly full but spots were available. Rangers insisted that the only time sites fill up is on July 4th weekend. We felt a collective sense of wonderment and quiet appreciation. Even the RV’s did not seem too loud and overbearing. Quiet hours are from 8 to 8. The Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit even separates tent campers and RV users. A nice touch.
The scenic drives were not too crowded and the overlook parking almost always empty. Once we started hiking, we saw hundreds of bison, plenty of wild horses, towns of prairie dogs, a few golden eagles and no people.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) Theodore Roosevelt NP is in western North Dakota which is by definition remote. Still, the South Unit entrance is less than a mile from Interstate 94 making it, in that regard, one of the most accessible National Parks. The scenic drives and frequent overlooks allow anybody to see a great deal of the Park. The self-guided Nature Trails are all easy hikes on a paved surface.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) All three Visitor Centers had a good selection of Theodore Roosevelt books. We purchased a new paper back edition of David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, an edition that was not available at the three eastern TR sites. We were tempted by a teddy bear Teddy Roosevelt complete with spectacles and a furry mustache. All of the bookstores also included a good selection of Plains Indians books, geology books and North Dakota history books.
COSTS (4/5) $10 per car, free with National Parks Pass. Backcountry camping is free. Sites at the campgrounds are $10. The value you receive for your $10 entry is exponential.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Our first impression was a Ranger posted at the Painted Canyon Overlook armed with binoculars to share and explanations. We had not yet experienced this simple consideration. The charm did not end. The Rangers never stopped trying to make us feel welcomed. They even stopped by our campsite to answer any questions we might have and to invite us to their 9:30 p.m campfire talks every evening.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) Theodore Roosevelt NP offers many different learning opportunities. Ranger led nature walks take place twice a day. Ranger talks occur both in the afternoon and in the evening. There are five self-guided nature trails. Three Visitor Centers have interactive displays, movies and touch-me tables.
Highlights included a North Unit Ranger-led hike where we learned to identify the seven different types of sagebrush and the alien and native grasses found in a mixed-grass prairie. The hike meandered through badlands buttes, over beaver dams and through the cottonwoods. Our Ranger had worked at the Park for 30 years and was able to identify the Site’s birdlife by ear; a godsend for us confused neophyte birders.
We also loved the South Unit exhibit that showed what Teddy Roosevelt was doing exactly 100 years ago. The display followed his interactions during June and July of 1904. If you are wondering, he was accepting the Republican nomination for president, an overwhelming affirmation of his two years of presidential service.
Sadly, not every class impressed. We were bored by our Ranger talk on the environmental legacy of Teddy Roosevelt; a topic that we think is endlessly interesting. The Ranger kept repeating that it was her first time giving the lecture in between reading the entire speech from a prepared script. We should have been prepared, as we had overheard her wondering aloud why she, a wildlife specialist, had to give a class on history. The reason: short staffing as a result of budget cuts.
FUN (10/10) We woke up to a band of seven wild horses walking within feet of our tent. A herd of at least 50 bison roamed in and out of campsites only yards away. Our tent sat on a small ridge overlooking the Little Missouri River. Badlands buttes rose in the horizon and we went on a 16 mile hike to a petrified forest along trails blazed by the previously mentioned bison and horses. Uh, yeah, we had fun.
Equally fun was the charming small town of Medora, N.Dak. with its clean old west fun and the famous Medora, the Musical, which we did not see. The bird watching was spectacular and the prairie dogs were infinitely funny. We had a great time.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) Wholeheartedly. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was close to ideal. The views, hikes, classes, Rangers, people, lack of people, wildlife, weather, campsites, accessibility and drives neared perfection. TR is an American treasure.
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