HOA LogoDestinationsTravel MallTravel LinksGlobal Travel

Traveling the Badlands in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The first surprise came during my first river crossing. My boots were tied together and looped around my neck as I forded the muddy, slick bottomed Little Missouri River. About halfway across, with the murky waters covering my legs, I heard the bushes on the other side rustle. Out stepped a large bull buffalo.

He eyeballed me as he slogged through the murk toward the river. Looking irritated, he snorted, stomped and stared. I'd seen hundreds of buffalo during other hikes or when driving my car at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but there was something especially unsettling about being shoeless, alone, and mid-stream on a seldom-traveled trail while a behemoth bull bison marched toward me.

I had barely finished crossing the river when he passed alongside, several yards away. He tromped through the water, climbed up the opposite shore and, kicking up dust, rumbled up the path.

Bull Bison
Stay out of my territory!

More Surprises

The second surprise came several miles later, while approaching the trail's second ford of the Little Missouri. I heard it before I saw it. Only steps away was a prairie rattlesnake - coiled, threatening, and noisily advising me to halt. Its tongue hissed like a hotly boiling tea kettle, its rattles vibrated like wildly clapping castanets. Warily, I counted eight rattles and, rapt with fascination and respect, studied its body, which at its thickest was as large as my forearm. When the rattler showed no inclination of moving, I threaded my way through the timber to the river.

On the other side, after another barefoot crossing, I dried my feet, rubbed off caked remnants of the gloppy river bottom, put on my boots, and wondered why the river smelled so sour. Steps later I learned it wasn't the river sludge, but a dead bison, which lay on its side, its stomach partially eaten away. Definitely not anxious to meet whatever carnivore I might be disturbing, I hustled past and up the trail.

The range
Herds of buffalo are home on the range

Little Missouri
Chalky cliffs and the Little Missouri River

As I was learning, western North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a place where there's more than one way to get buffaloed. This hike had been along the Achenbach Hills trail, a 10-mile trek in the park's infrequently visited 24,070-acre north unit. I left from Juniper Campground for the hike over the Achenbach Hills past Sperati Point to the Oxbow Overlook, the ending point for the north unit's 15-mile long paved scenic drive.

Up close
Up close and personal!

Buffaloed Again

Later that day, a hike along the more traveled 1-1/2 mile Caprock Coulee Nature trail resulted in uncomfortably up-close and personal visits with two other large males. My wife Mary, who joined me for the coulee hike, overcame her fears of climbing and scampered to higher ground when the first bull, which we met walking toward us only minutes into the hike, veered off the trail and ambled toward our perch. He stopped only a few yards away, studied us, and eventually resumed his walk. Shortly after we stepped back on the trail - surprise – when another single male, this one larger than the first, climbed out of a coulee, marched toward us and provided Mary a chance to refine her newly learned climbing skills.

A few days earlier a 10-1/2 mile loop hike in the south unit, from Peaceful Valley out the Little Paddock Creek trail and back via the Lower Talkington and Jones Creek trails, turned into a "where-the-heck-am-I" cross-country outing when the route seemingly evaporated into a mishmash of game trails.

A Unique National Park

The trails at Theodore Roosevelt National Park offer challenging, sometimes thrilling sights for hikers and equestrians. But even from a vehicle, there is much to see. Over several days, mostly from our vehicle, we saw several hundred buffalo and prairie dogs, along with wild horses, mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorn, coyotes and colorful wild turkeys. Most of the park's half-million annual visitors tour the south unit. It offers the widest diversity of wildlife, easy access off Interstate 94, a paved 36-mile loop road providing dazzling scenic overlooks, trailheads, a campground and commercial horse rides.

Prairie Dog
A prairie dog in his "town"

Wind Canyon Trail hikers

Cactus flowers
Cactus flowers (N.P. Service)

Entrance to the 46,128-acre south unit goes through Medora, a historic Dakota Territory town named by the Marquis de Mores in honor of his wife. A French aristocrat, de Mores envisioned creating Medora as a center for slaughtering and shipping cattle. Although his dream failed, his 26-room chateau is a North Dakota state historic site. Influences of de Mores and Theodore Roosevelt shape Medora and the region.

In the Steps of Roosevelt

Roosevelt came to the North Dakota Badlands, a bizarre hodgepodge of shapes, colors and geology, in 1883 to hunt bison. He became a partner in the Maltese Cross and Elkhorn ranches, which served as home for his strenuous life. His Dakota years - "I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," he later said - shaped his attitudes about nature and conservation.

After Roosevelt, called "Four Eyes" by locals, became the nation's 26th President in 1901, he established the Forest Service, signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, and created five national parks, 10 national monuments, and 51 wildlife refuges. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, with its tumultuous geology and abundant wildlife, was created in 1947. His Maltese Cross ranch cabin sits behind the Medora Visitor Center.

Caprock Coulee Trail

Come, Stay for a While

Medora languished until the early 1960s, when North Dakota entrepreneur Harold Schafer began restoring and modernizing it as an old western town. Now, few overnight visitors miss the popular Medora Musical, an extravagant variety show held evenings from early June through Labor Day at the spacious 2,900-seat Burning Hills Amphitheater. A potpourri of attractions, from pitchfork fondues, interesting shops, and the chateau often parlays visitors into a longer-than-planned stay.

Near Medora is the Little Missouri National Grassland, with a self-guided auto tour that covers 58 miles. It takes three or four hours to view its wildlife, badlands, cattle ranches and historic sites, including a camp used by General Custer's 7th Calvary Regiment on their way to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

But the focus is Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the backcountry traveling isn't easy and the country remains truly wild. It's a place "Four Eyes" would still love.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Story by Lee Juillerat
Photos by Lee and Mary Juillerat

HOA LogoDestinationsTravel MallTravel LinksGlobal Travel