Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Dakota’s Connection to the Presidency

View from Painted Canyon Rest Area

Medora, North Dakota

“When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.”

These words, from the National Park Service webpage, concisely describe the relationship between the Western North Dakota badlands, our 26th President, and his love of our natural environment. One the west side of the town of Medora, North Dakota is the entrance to the South Unit of the park. It was here that my wife, Lynn, and I started our tour of the park. As we were just passing through on our way to Montana, we only had a few hours to spend in the park. We would have to postpone trips to the other two units in the park, the North Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch Unit.

At the very least, if you are travelling along I-94 in Western North Dakota, be sure to stop at the Painted Canyon Rest Area. The rest area is just east of the town of Medora, a historic location in its own right. The rest area includes a small park with shelters and a well equipped information center. A sidewalk winds along the fenced edge of the overlook. Near the west edge, we found a short loop trail. It took us about 45 minutes to complete the loop, downhill at first, and then uphill back to the overlook at the same point we started the hike. There is also a trailhead that joins the main trail from the westernmost shelters. Even though the trail is only a mile, bring water, especially on a warm North Dakota summer day. You will be glad you did.

Along the trail at Painted Canyon

From the overlook, the trail looks to be sand, rocks and low growing ground cover. A short distance from the overlook though, we ran into a small forest. On a warm day, the shade was welcome. The trail is an easy walk for anyone with hiking experience. Though there are some steeper descents and climbs, the trail is well marked and should be an easy to moderate challenge for the non-hiker. The few forks we found in the trail always led back to the main trail, no matter which fork we chose to take.


After leaving the rest area, we continued a short distance on I-94 to the Medora exit. After a short drive through town, we came upon the National Park South Unit entrance. The visitor center features a very useful oversize chart of things to do in the park if you are staying for two hours, a half-day, a full day or longer. The organized guide was helpful in determining what we could reasonably expect to do in the three hours we would spend in the park.

In addition to the hiking trail at the overlook we’d just completed, there are many miles of trail within the park itself. Some short, some long enough for a full day’s hike. Our choice for the day, however, was the 36-mile (58 km) scenic drive through the park. Speed limits are low in the park, so expect the drive to take at least an hour. You wouldn’t want to miss anything by speeding through the park anyway.

Just as we were leaving the information center, a gentleman on his way in mentioned that if we want to see buffalo, we should take the left fork and follow the scenic road opposite the direction that most people would take. We would end up doing the tour “backward”, (not that it matters.) We took the gentleman’s advice and in only a few miles, we came upon the herd of buffalo (properly named American Bison.) Except for one individual, they were some distance from the road and even with my 270mm lens; they were too far away from us to get any decent photos.

Even though they were some distance from us, I distinctly heard the bison say to the prairie dog, “No, you CANNOT roller-skate in a buffalo herd!”

In addition to the buffalo, prairie dogs are plentiful in the park. In the photo above, you can see several of the prairie dog mounds that dot the area. Members of the squirrel family, prairie dogs grow to about 17 inches (43 cm) and weigh around 2 pounds (1 kg) on average. They are plentiful in the park.

An American Bison rests by the roadside

Shortly after leaving the area where we stopped to watch the buffalo herd, we were following a large pickup and camper trailer. They were travelling faster than us, and rounding a curve, we were surprised to see them stopped in the right-of-way on the two-lane scenic drive. We stopped behind them and waited for a few minutes, wondering what they saw, considering we’d just passed a turnout to a scenic overlook, there didn’t seem to be too much to see right here. When they pulled away, however, we saw the bison. He was only a few feet from the road edge and was apparently enjoying the view of vehicle traffic along the highway. He was standing at first, but as we came alongside, he lay down and watched us as we stopped and I grabbed a couple of photographs. We didn’t stay long as we didn’t want to find out if the clicking of a camera shutter might be an annoyance to the beautiful animal.

Wild horses on a hillside

Near the end of our drive, we stopped at a scenic overlook; I happened to look behind us and noticed, high on a hillside, a herd of wild horses that live in the park. They were some distance away, and my 270 mm lens was at full extension. Unfortunately, the only photos I took were all a bit blurry because in my haste to set aperture priority to get a sharp photo, I neglected to notice the shutter speed was too slow for hand holding the camera. This was the best shot of the bunch.

It was only a few more miles to the fork where the scenic drive loop brought us back to the information center and the main entrance to the South Unit of the park. We would soon depart for Montana and our stay at Fort Peck that I featured in last week’s blog entry. The North and Elkhorn Ranch Units of the park will have to wait for another time for our visit. We are looking forward to seeing more of this beautiful and historic park in Western North Dakota.

John Steiner


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