National Park Primer: Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park named after a president, and this singular honor could not have gone to a more deserving figure. When Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, in his wake he left a mind-boggling list of new federally-protected areas: 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, and 4 national game preserves. Five of his national monuments, Petrified Forest, Lassen Peak, Cinder Cone, Grand Canyon, and Mount Olympus, and one federal bird reservation, Dry Tortugas, would go on to become either national parks themselves or part of one.

All together, Theodore Roosevelt would preserve 234 million acres of wilderness, and due to expansions at some of the sites since then, that total today stands at an amazing 300 million acres. Yeah, lovers of American wilderness owe him a huge thanks. (For a fascinating account of his conservation efforts, read Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.)

Having Roosevelt’s name on this park isn’t just fitting for his role in the expansion of national parks, but also because he once called the North Dakota Badlands his home away from home. Prior to his rough-riding, trust-busting, Panama Canal-building days, Roosevelt made an ultimately unsuccessful foray into the cattle ranching business in this area, spending long stretches of time hunting and relaxing at his Elkhorn Ranch. He fell in love with the region’s unforgiving harshness and austerity, qualities which further cultivated his legendary toughness and bravery, to the point of later admitting, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota”.

It’s easy to see why Roosevelt was so smitten with this landscape.

Roosevelt’s ranch may have failed, but the nearby national park is a wild success. Let’s take a look.

Park: Theodore Roosevelt

How to get there: Go West, young man—unless you are coming from the west. Or are a woman. Or are no longer young. Regardless of your age or sex, Theodore Roosevelt can be reached via Interstate 94, about 30 miles east of the North Dakota/Montana border. The park is divided into a north and south unit, with the south unit adjacent to I-94 and the north unit about 80 miles further north. In between the two units is the Elkhorn Ranch historic site, which was Roosevelt’s living quarters during his time as a cattleman.

Where to stay: Go for one of the park’s campgrounds. You could stay in nearby Medora, which offers plenty of entertainment itself, but to get a richer taste of the North Dakota Badlands that enchanted Roosevelt so deeply, pitch a tent or park a camper at the Juniper campground in the north or Cottonwood in the south. You can also camp in the backcountry if full wilderness immersion is your thing.

For me, camping at Juniper was an adventure in itself. As I lay in my tent one night, eyelids heavy with road trip fatigue, a bison ambled by at an uncomfortably close range. I heard the rhythmic whooshing of its cavernous nostrils and could feel the vibrations of its footfalls as it clomped through the brush, not more than ten feet from where my easy-to-squish-with-one-step head was located. My heart began to pound even harder as I realized there was only a thin layer of nylon separating me from a living steamroller, and that one bark from my dog Ursa could attract unwanted attention from a protective mother bison, but thankfully Ursa was snoring lightly and essentially dead to the world. (So much for her being my guard dog.) The breathing faded into the distance and my heart settled back into my body. Unforgettable.

Highlights: I only visited the north unit, as according to my guidebook, it contained the attractive combination of more bison and less people, and I was hoping to photograph the former while avoiding the latter. It took a whole five minutes of driving on the main park road before seeing my first bison.

Like employees around the water cooler, the bison of Theodore Roosevelt National Park gather in the middle of the road to share the latest park gossip. I wanted to be angry at them, but I have a soft spot for beautiful icons of American wilderness.

Along with plenty of bison, TRNP is also home to elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, prairie dogs, and most wondrously, wild horses. Counter-intuitively, wildlife thrives in the merciless Badlands.

As you continue along the park road, vista after vista of geologic art presents itself. The Little Missouri River has been hard at work sculpting this land for millennia; Michelangelo could have learned a thing or two from this talented river. Just gorgeous.

TRNP is easy on the eyes.

Because I had Ursa with me, I was unable to go into the backcountry, but two days of scenic splendor and ubiquitous bison gave me all the untamed thrills one could want.

After a long day of walking the park roads and observing bison from the safety of the car, Ursa settled in for some much needed campsite repose.

TRNP is a jewel itself and is also a handy stopping point for other westward journeys, especially Yellowstone trips. If you can get into the backcountry, by all means do so and perhaps a herd of wild horses or bighorn sheep will greet you. Even if you stick to the park roads, bison will be hanging around, mugging for the camera and altering your travel timetable. Fortunately, this delay will give you even more time to soak in the scenery; you will never have a more enjoyable wait.

Theodore Roosevelt knew a good thing when he saw it, and the park named after him in North Dakota’s Badlands will capture your heart just as it did his. Get there.

Me so itchy.