Summer. It’s one of the most popular times to visit national parks.
It makes sense, of course; the weather’s wonderful, the kids are out of school, and the days are delightfully long.
But it also means you’re more likely to find yourself elbowing your way to the front of the pack, or viewing some natural wonder you’ve waited your whole life to see while standing on your tiptoes and peering over fellow tourists’ heads.
Our parks show off some of the most dramatic and breathtaking landscapes in the entire world, so it’s no wonder they can get overcrowded. But not all of them do!
Although North Dakota does have two National Historic Sites, (Fort Union Trading Post and Knife River Indian Villages) Theodore Roosevelt National Park is North Dakota’s only national park. Because of its more remote setting on the western edge of the state, it doesn’t get very crowded. That gives it major bonus points for James and me, so much so this was our 3rd visit.
Crossing into Theodore Roosevelt National Park is such a pleasant surprise. The whole area outside the park is pretty typical North Dakota… idyllic in its own way but nothing out of the ordinary as far as Midwestern scenery goes. All that changes once you’re in the park proper. It’s like you’ve crossed some invisible divide and BAM you’re now on an entirely different planet.
The park’s landscape is super diverse. From its arid Badland areas to the lovely Little Missouri River slowly meandering its way through the entire park, there’s lots that will cause your jaw to drop.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park actually has 3 different ‘units’; the North Unit (where I had my terrifying Buffalo of Doom experience on a past trip), the very remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit, and the most popular South Unit, which also happens to have the added bonus of the quaint small town of Medora right at its entry. The Little Missouri River divides the units and it’s a pretty big drive between the North Unit and the South Unit. This trip, we stayed in the South Unit.
There’s a lovely campground right inside the South Unit, and we got lucky scoring a spot even though we didn’t have a reservation. I know, very out of character for me not having a reservation, and trust me I tried. Only half the spots are available on reservations, and those were all booked up. We decided to roll the dice and hope for one of the first come sites to be open, using one of the Medora RV parks as a Plan B. Score for Parky!
The South Unit has a must-do 36 mile scenic drive, with lots of pull-outs and interpretive signs. Although at the moment, there’s a portion of the road closed off due to road erosion and ‘slumping’, making it a 24 mile out and back.
This is actually kind of good news if you’re a cyclist, because that portion of the road that’s closed? It’s still open for cyclists up to the point of this barrier! We had that whole part of the park to ourselves. Naturally, we were beside ourselves giddy about this. I mean, really. How many instances in life do you have a whole road to yourself and can actually ride in the middle of it without dying?! Me, I can count those on one hand. IT WAS ABSOLUTELY GLORIOUS!!!
Before you go pointing your RVs and your beachcruisers in that direction, be warned the biking on the closed stretch isn’t for the faint of heart. As my thighs screamed at me and my lungs joined in, I looked down and saw I was climbing 12% grades. TWICE. Since it’s out and back, that meant some deathgrip downhills, too. Exhilarating for sure, but you’ll get a workout!
There were even overlooks that were on that closed-off stretch!
Probably my favorite part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are the prairie dog villages. Mel whole-heartedly agrees.
I even love the sound prairie dogs make. Sort of like a high-pitched ‘pip pip pip’ sound. James had to keep nudging me along, because I wanted to stare at prairie dogs all day. Total cuteness overload right there.
That is, until you spot a coyote smack dab in the middle of one of the villages:
I wonder what Theodore Roosevelt himself thought when he saw all the prairie dogs. Had he even heard of them before? Prairie dogs certainly weren’t a ‘thing’ in New York, where he was from. I bet he was just as enchanted as I am.
Even though Theodore Roosevelt National Park is dedicated to the life and passions of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t actually from North Dakota. His first trip there wasn’t until he was an adult, when he came to hunt bison. He immediately fell in love with the area and invested in a local cattle ranch, and had a ponderosa pine log cabin built as a temporary home. That original cabin sits behind the visitor center and you can step inside to see the small rooms filled with replicas. You can even see some original pieces that belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, like a dining room hutch, writing desk, and a trunk with his initials. It’s pretty interesting to see, especially considering it was rather high-class for ‘out west’ at the time. Having an actual wood floor instead of dirt, and having rooms instead of one open area weren’t the norm just yet. Even having a bed was quite the luxury.
After the heartbreak of his wife and mom dying within hours of each other the year following his first visit, Teddy returned and founded Elkhorn Ranch. This was still years before he actually became president.
That region of North Dakota had made such a great impact on Roosevelt, it inspired him to pursue the preservation of public lands once in office. In fact, he’s probably done more than any other president for the national parks system. He created five national parks which doubled the previous number, signed the historic Antiquities Act and used it to create 18 national monuments (including the Grand Canyon), and also established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, 4 national game preserves… all of that totaling around 230 million acres of public lands…. PHEW! AND HOORAY!
So anyways, go for the fascinating history, go for the incredible landscape, go for the prairie dogs, or go to bike the closed road… whatever it is that moves you, just go! Who knows, perhaps you will be just as enchanted as Theodore Roosevelt was and it’ll change your life, too.
If there’s ever a place that can be life-changing, I’d put money on it being one of our national parks.
Who has already visited and can share a thing or two about your own park experience? Let’s hear it in the comments below!