The Man and His Legacy: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1918

Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota is the only one of America’s 59 national parks to be named after a person. Created as a national memorial park in 1947, it honored Roosevelt’s legacy in preservation and his love for the badlands area where he lived. While in the park, we spent time in all three units, united by the Little Missouri River flowing through them. We hiked, drove scenic roads, paused at vistas, and learned more about the life and conservation legacy of the man who was president from 1901 to 1909.

We had encountered hot weather during our time at Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks in South Dakota, and North Dakota was no different, with temperatures in the high 90s F. So we approached our planned activities with the weather in mind, hiking in the mornings and taking scenic drives in the afternoon (during the hottest part of the day). The first afternoon we arrived at the park’s largest protected area, the South Unit, adjacent to Interstate 94. A viewpoint right off the interstate provided us with our first glimpse into the park, in an area called Painted Canyon. It looked similar to the badlands we had seen in South Dakota.

View from Painted Canyon Overlook

A few miles down the road, at the South Unit Visitor Center, we learned more about Roosevelt by viewing exhibits in a small museum. We also took a short ranger-led tour of the Maltese Cross Cabin, where Roosevelt stayed when he first visited in the Dakota Territory in 1883. The cabin actually stood about seven miles away, south of the town of Medora.

Maltese Cross Cabin

After checking into Cottonwood Campground, on the banks of the Little Missouri River, we set off to drive the 36 mile Scenic Loop Drive. We saw more badlands formations, but also noticed some differences from what we had seen in South Dakota. There were more grassland and trees, and the colors of the rock formations had grays and blacks included in its color palate. We learned that the dark band was a lignite coal seam.

View from South Unit Scenic Loop Drive
View from South Unit Scenic Loop Drive

We were fortunate to see numerous wildlife, including a lone bison, and a group of feral horses. The horses are free roaming animals that descended from domestic stallions that strayed, escaped, or were released into the wild.

Lone bison by the side of the road
Feral horses along the scenic drive

The late afternoon sun shone vividly at the Badlands Overlook, near the end of the loop, making the colors of the rock formations stand out.

View from Badlands Overlook – Scenic Loop Drive

Satisfied with our afternoon’s activities, we drove back to our campsite. A short path from our picnic table led right to the Little Missouri River.

Sunset along the Little Missouri River behind our campsite

We got an early start the next morning on an ambitious 11 mile hike through the heart of the South Unit. On our way to the trailhead we came across a badger taunting a prairie dog town. He crossed the road just in front of us.

Badger crossing the road

Our hike linked several paths together, beginning on the Jones Creek Trail. The trail traveled along a grassy area, with several creek crossings. One of them was ridiculously steep, so I slid down on my bottom to get to the creek bed.

Darren hiking the Jones Creek Trail
Sliding down the steep approach to a creek crossing

After a few miles we turned off to the Lower Talkington Trail. The terrain changed to more grassy hills, and we began to feel the heat while climbing them. Along the way we passed some rock formations and petrified wood.

Lower Talkington Trail
Lignite coal seam on rock formations near the trail
Hiking near the badlands formations
Petrified wood on the trail

We had some trouble with route finding and spent about 20 minutes looking for the turn to the next trail, along Paddock Creek. Once we were going in the right direction, the path descended repeatedly to the creek and then climbed steeply up the other side to a plateau. Feeling hot and weary from the numerous trail descents and ascents, we stopped under the shade of one of the few trees we had seen on the entire trail and took a short break.

Lower Paddock Creek Trail
Coming down to a creek crossing

With the end of the trail in sight before we joined a road for the final walk back to the car, we came upon a large herd of bison. As anxious as we were to finish hiking and get out of the sun, we had to slowly walk off the trail to avoid any interaction with the animals.

Herd of bison close to the trail

Our hike finally complete, we went into the town of Medora for a well-deserved lunch at an air conditioned restaurant.

Of the three park units, Theodore Roosevelt only lived in one of them. The next day we drove to Elkhorn Ranch, about 35 miles north of the South Unit. In February 1884, Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother died on the same day. He decided to return to the Dakota Territory permanently and become a rancher. Elkhorn Ranch, built with two partners, was an eight room house that stood 30 by 60 feet, with seven foot high walls. To get to the ranch site involved a drive on dirt roads, something that our 4×4 SUV had no trouble negotiating (even with maneuvering through some unexpected construction), but it could have been difficult for a passenger vehicle.

When we arrived at the site, we hiked 3/4 of a mile each way to the bank of the Little Missouri and a grove of cottonwood trees. Large stones on the ground marked the former foundation and all that remained were a few interpretative signs and the peaceful scenery. We saw no one else on the road there and back or on the site. Walking around the same land where Roosevelt once lived, I wondered what it was like to exist in such a beautiful but remote place.

“My home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri, the nearest ranch man above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me about ten, miles distant.” — Theodore Roosevelt, 1887

It was Roosevelt’s time at the Elkhorn Ranch that he said shaped his conservation ethic. He lived there from the ranch’s completion in 1885 until drought and blizzard in 1887 destroyed most of his herds. At that point Roosevelt moved back to New York and resumed his political career. As president he established the U.S. Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which enabled him to proclaim 18 national monuments. He was also involved in the creation of five national parks, 150 national forests, and federal reserves, totaling over 230 million acres of protected land.

View of Elkhorn Ranch
Little Missouri River at Elkhorn Ranch
Cottonwood trees at Elkhorn Ranch
Foundation stones at Elkhorn Ranch

The final area of the 70,467 acre park was the North Unit, which we reached after driving about 90 minutes from Elkhorn Ranch. As we did in the South Unit, we began our time there by driving the 28 mile total (out and back) scenic road. In contrast to what we had seen, the road paralleled the Little Missouri River and climbed to a plateau, with several viewpoints along the way. One of the most photographed places in North Dakota is the Little Missouri from River Bend Overlook, and we enjoyed the scenic vista.

View from North Unit Scenic Drive
River Bend Overlook
View from North Unit Scenic Drive

After spending the night at the unit’s Juniper Campground, our intention was to hike into the backcountry for our final night in the park. However, the blazing heat, with temperatures now approaching 100 degrees F, had resulted in a heat advisory (with strong recommendations against any long wilderness hikes) and a ban on propane stoves in the backcountry. So we decided to limit our hiking to a four mile loop on the Caprock Coulee Trail. One of the most scenic trails in the park, the path starts out on a ridge with views of the Little Missouri River below. We ended up at the River Bend Overlook again, with a different view of it in the morning sunshine. On the tops of some of the rock formations we could see a blue-gray layer of bentonite, comprised of volcanic ash.

Darren at River Bend Overlook
View of formations with bentonite layer

The entire park was ranked 28th in 2016 visitation, with 753,880 people visiting one or more of the three units. The North Unit receives much fewer visitors than the South Unit, and as we hiked the Caprock Coulee Trail, we saw just a couple of other people. After leaving the ridge along the Little Missouri River, the trail climbed through grassy hills, into the prairie, and skirted some badlands formations. The end of the path took us on to an interpretative nature trail into a coulee, or narrow valley. In its shade we got some relief from the relentless heat as we took our final steps in the park.

View from Caprock Coulee Trail
Caprock Coulee Trail

Our time in the park complete, we drove west in the early afternoon towards Montana, where we had booked a hotel for the night. While at Theodore Roosevelt, which was elevated from national memorial park to national park in 1978, we not only gained a greater appreciation for the man, but learned about his conservation efforts that arose from his time in the stark beauty of the area that we had hiked and camped. His efforts transcended our time in this park and made us grateful that he paved the way to protect so many places we had been privileged to visit on this TTP NPS journey.

“It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” — Theodore Roosevelt

The 25th park on our travels and next stop will be Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

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