Our Love Affair With Theodore Roosevelt National Park


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.

 

Fighting our way through the crowds at an overlook.

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!

 

Parky prefers parks to RV parks. And alliteration, apparently.

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!!!

 

Ours, all ours!!!

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!

 

This overlook all thanks to Lucy (my bike). ♥

Probably my favorite part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are the prairie dog villages. Mel whole-heartedly agrees.

 

This is what Mel had to say, “This park is just as cool as my favorite park… Kitty Litter Box National Monument in New Mexico!

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:

 

Run prairie dogs, RUN!

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.

 

I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” Roosevelt claimed.

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!

 

The wild horses around the park certainly don’t help me be any less obsessed with this place.

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!

xo, Stef



Stef spent 15 years as an educator in both the public K-12 setting and at the University level in Special Physical Education before making the leap to her true passion… the fitness world. She’s currently a personal trainer and wellness coach with a specialty in working with people with medical conditions and injuries. Stef has been a running enthusiast her entire adult life, and shares James’ love of cycling. She feels lucky they have a shared hobby in bicycling that enhances their RV lifestyle.


    13 thoughts on “Our Love Affair With Theodore Roosevelt National Park

    1. Michael Yates

      Great article, thanks for sharing. When our daughter went to Gonzaga in Spokane, WA we made two round-trip adventures there and back for four years. We live in Minnesota, so we had to drive through North Dakota, Montana, a small part Idaho to finally reach Washington. It was from those trips that the idea of a small RV took hold for Lori and I. We enjoyed each of those trips and liked stopping at new places to see what there was to see. On every trip through North Dakota we always stopped at the T.R. rest stop at the edge of the park. We even had to wait out a couple Buffalos who wandered through rest stop, Must have been a relative of your Buffalo of death. You are correct that the park is very different than the farm land that surrounds it. I never knew what road slumps were until I almost hit my head on the roof from one. We are planning a two night stop there next year on our way to Glacier. Can’t wait!

      Reply
      1. Stefany - Post author

        What a nice story, I’m so glad you shared it. I grew up in Minnesota myself, and can imagine that annual drive you made with your own Minnesota daughter vividly; what a wonderful memory you’ll always treasure. On our next stop there we want to go hit the remote and undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Three trips to that park and we still haven’t seen everything!

        Reply
    2. Glenda Price

      This park is on our bucket list and will help complete visiting the 48 contiguous states for us. I’ve only heard good things about this park. Thanks!

      Reply
    3. Dave Staublin

      My wife and I visited last summer for the annual mountain bike race on the Maah Daah Hey trail. Next time you visit, I highly recommend you take your mountain bikes and give it a try. There’s a really great bike shop in Medora, Dakota Cyclery, that can give you advice on how to navigate the trail. My recommendation for a first ride would be to ride out and back from Medora. Teddy Roosevelt National Park is one of the most magnificent places I’ve visited. Thank you for sharing your trip. Love your pictures and story!

      Reply
      1. Stefany - Post author

        Awwww, we saw the cyclery, but never made the time to stop in; next time! Thanks for bringing up the Maah Daah Hey trail, it’s a must-do for mtn bikers visiting the area. We rode a portion of it years ago and loved it!

        Reply
        1. Dave Staublin

          We totally underestimated how difficult the Maah Daah Hey is. We thought “It’s wide open trail in a field! How hard can it be compared to dodging trees through tight, skinny single-track in the forest?” Wow, were we wrong! The climbing and switchbacks are difficult and the heat makes it just plan brutal. Stunningly beautiful and well worth the visit, and a bike ride on- or off-road completes the trip! Thanks again for your blog.

    4. Brenda J Houston

      We stopped here for 2 nights in early July on our way to Glacier, North Dakota was the last state of the 50 states I needed to see and so we decided to got to Glacier via ND. It was a beautiful place and I definitely want to go back and spend more time there and see the other two sections of the park.

      Reply
      1. Stefany - Post author

        Hey, congrats on seeing all 50 states! I have yet to get to Maine and Alaska, but one of these days I will! xo

        Reply
      1. Stefany - Post author

        This will be so incredible if it happens!!! It’s got some sections already done, only needs another 50% for completion. Fingers crossed we see this happen!

        Reply
    5. Will

      One of the great secrets of TR National Park is the Missouri National Grasslands that surround the park. Primitive camps Magpie, Elkhorn, and Wannagan which are perfect for self-contained RVs. The dirt roads are well maintained, the night sky is dark, and literally deer and antelope are everywhere. Visit TRNP, stay in the uncrowded grasslands.

      Reply
      1. Stefany - Post author

        Thank you for putting this on our radar!!! I’m thinking for visit #4, this is EXACTLY what we’ll do. xo 🙂

        Reply

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