Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the prettiest little national park you’ve probably never heard of. It’s located in western North Dakota, right on I-94, next to the charming little town of Medora, North Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not the first national park ever created. In fact, it wasn’t even created while Roosevelt was alive. But it was the place that inspired Roosevelt to create the national park system as well as the US Forest Department.
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The surreal beauty of this place is matched only by its isolating vastness. The sky seems to go on forever and the buttes give way to meadows and the meandering Little Missouri River. It immediately made sense to me why Roosevelt felt such a connection to this land. I could have stood on these vistas and looked toward the horizon for days. Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883. A year after Roosevelt lost both his mother and his wife (on the same day, I might add), he returned to this beautiful land to grieve and to lose himself in the seemingly endless horizon of these badlands. He became a cattle rancher here and the experience was so defining in his life that Roosevelt himself later said, “I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”
Ultimately, he returned to the East Coast, and the rest is history. How anyone, Roosevelt included, could leave this land for a city is beyond me, but I am grateful for Roosevelt’s choice. Had he not returned to New York to pursue a career in politics, the national park service may have never been created.
These experiences led to the creation of the US Forest Service and the 1906 Antiquities Act, which he used to designate 18 national monuments. Further, alongside Congress, he created five national parks, 150 national forests, and dozens of federal reserves. In all, over 230 million acres of land were set aside and federally protected by the vision and handwork of President Roosevelt and his vision of conservation.
There is something beautiful and raw about a place this breathtakingly beautiful being the healing place for a man who later not only became president of the United States, but used that position to preserve such lands for the public use of future generations. Because of Roosevelt’s vision and legislation, the world, not just America, is able to enjoy places such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Tetons.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was not created until 1947 as a place for us to personally experience the land that Roosevelt loved so much, but also as a memorial to the man himself. The park itself is divided into three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit and Elkhorn Ranch, which is located in between the two and accessible from both. I must confess, we only visited the South Unit, but it was well worth the day we spent there. If we ever return to North Dakota (and I hope we do), I want to take the time to visit the entire park.
While wildlife is never guaranteed at any national park, it proved abundant for us here. The prairie dogs are everywhere and they are adorable and hilarious. While they are naturally cautious of humans, they didn’t really seem to perceive us as a threat. As a result, you will be able to get out of your car at the prairie dog towns without having to worry about spooking them into their holes or having them come up to you. What you will get to experience however, is these cute little communal creatures as they go about their every day, giving you a chance to observe them while they do just that. They scurry about from hole to hole, warning each other with their arm raising and little chirps, as others, curious no doubt, peek their heads up from their respective holes to witness any action that may be going on. We all got really tickled watching them do their thing, and the sheer number of prairie dogs in the park is really amazing.
I don’t know why, but when we came around a bend and saw a small herd of bison on and near the road, I audibly gasped. Why? I don’t know! We had just left the Tetons and Yellowstone, where bison are all over the place. They were not, however, right up on the road like they were here. Maybe it was just timing on our part, or the fact that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is much, much less crowded (human wise) than any other park we visited on this trip. Either way, when we rounded that corner and I spotted the bison, I will admit to shouting, “holy crap!” in front of my kids. And I was promptly scolded by one of my kids.
We also saw wild horses, rabbits and deer, including a sweet little spotted fawn, along with plenty of birds, both songbirds and birds of prey.
One of the wonderful things about this park is its accessibility. You can drive the entire South Unit loop in a day, including stopping at pull outs, overlooks, and short trails. There is a campground in the park, for both RVs and tents. Unfortunately for us, it was full, but we drove by it and it looked lovely.
The road beyond the Badlands Overlook was closed, and as a result, we were unable to walk the Ridgeline Nature Trail. I was disappointed with that, but we still saw some incredible sights. The Skyline Vista and the Boicourt Trail were my two favorites.
It was at Boicourt that I told Kyle I understood why Roosevelt would feel called back to this land to heal his grieving spirit. It makes sense that he would want to come here. We were here during an overcast day, and the way the light filtered through the clouds and lit up the hills and meadows was mesmerizing. I can’t imagine anyone visiting this place and not being affected by what they see and experience here.
The Visitor Center has a movie about the parks history, Roosevelt’s time here, and the native flora and fauna that thrive in this area. Also at the South Unit Visitor Center, you will find a museum dedicated to Roosevelt’s time here, including some of his personal effects. If you want further reading on Roosevelt, I recommend Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough, about his life and The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard, about his time in the Amazon.
If you are ever in the area, it is well worth your time to make the drive over and spend a day or two at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We have been to so many national parks, but this one is easily one of my top five favorites. Have you ever been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park? What was your favorite trail? Are you a fan of Theodore Roosevelt? What is your favorite fact about the man’s life? Let me know in the comments section!