MEDORA: For travelers looking to visit all 50 states, North Dakota is often one of the last to be checked off. It’s not exactly on the way to anywhere else, and flying there is expensive.
It ended up being 49th on my 50-state quest (sorry, Idaho!). Part of the challenge was deciding what to do there and how to get there. I had to choose between visiting Fargo in eastern North Dakota (and the name of one of my favorite movies) or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the west.
It’s 330 miles (530 kilometers) between them, and I didn’t have time for both on a week-long road trip that also included Montana’s Glacier National Park and Idaho’s Craters of the Moon.
In the end, Roosevelt Park won out. Photos of its badlands and prairies enchanted me, and the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s sojourn there following the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day intrigued me.
What was it about this place that allowed this future president to grieve and recover — while at the same time inspiring him to become one of America’s most influential conservationists? I needed to see it for myself.
My husband and I flew to Denver — by air from New York, the cheapest jumping-off point — and rented a car (unlimited mileage, of course). We then drove 600 miles (965 kilometers) north through Wyoming and South Dakota to the tiny North Dakota town of Medora (population 132), at the entrance to the park’s South Unit.
Fortunately, those 600 miles were easily done in a day, thanks to speed limits of 75 and 80 mph (120-128 kph) in many spots, and little traffic outside Colorado. Still, it felt like we were heading to a pretty remote place, and I wondered if the park would hold its own against national parks I’d visited in Alaska, Hawaii and the Southwest, not to mention Yellowstone and Yosemite.
About 700,000 people visit Roosevelt Park yearly, compared to the more than 3 million annual visitors at places like Montana’s Glacier Park.
THE LOOP AND WILDLIFE
Teddy Roosevelt Park is open 24 hours daily. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. one day at the tail end of last summer. Map in hand, we drove the 36-mile (58-kilometer) scenic loop around the park’s South Unit, stopping at many of the nearly 20 points of interest along the way.
Within minutes, we came upon a prairie dog town. Dozens of the tiny creatures scampered back and forth, popping in and out of little holes amid scrubby grasses. We’d see three more prairie dog towns before we completed the loop, along with wild horses grazing on a hill by the roadside and in another spot, a herd of bison.
The wildlife encounters were thrilling and unexpected surprises.
The landscape was thrilling too. The scent of sage perfumed the air, and bursts of red foliage punctuated the gray-green grasslands. Stripes of peach, cream and mud-brown earth and stone lined the curving banks of the Little Missouri River.
Framing it all were the famous badlands stretching to the horizon: flat-topped stone formations with striated slopes in tawny yellows and russet reds, dotted with bright green trees and patches of grass. They looked like the crusty paws of some massive alien creature on the verge of rising up.
We did most of the hikes along the loop drive, some just a few minutes’ walk to an overlook, others 20 to 40 minutes along hilly trails covering a mile or more. At every stop, we were awed by the scenery, from the astonishing palette of earthy hues to the stone shapes etching land and sky.
An exhibit at the visitor center tells Roosevelt’s story. On his first visit in 1883, he hunted bison and invested in a ranch near Medora. He’d been a state assemblyman in his native New York, but after his mother and wife both died on Feb. 14, 1884, he left politics and returned to the badlands to mourn his losses.
He lived in a small ponderosa pine cabin now located just steps from the visitor center. It’s furnished with period pieces and some of his belongings, including his traveling trunk, a replica of his writing desk and a rocking chair.
Roosevelt lived the cowboy life, spending days riding and herding in what was considered America’s last frontier. His experiences there were formative: He lost more than $24,000 when blizzards decimated the cattle he’d invested in. He witnessed the environmental damage done by overgrazing. And he realized that the bison, who once roamed the plains in the millions, had dwindled to the hundreds.
Roosevelt wrote three books inspired by his Western sojourn. He eventually returned to politics, serving as New York governor and from 1901-1909, as US president. His accomplishments included the conservation of 230 million acres of land, a legacy that led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.
For me, Roosevelt Park ranks among the most interesting and beautiful I’ve seen. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to visit, and I hope someday to go back and absorb more of the place that Roosevelt called “a land of vast silent spaces — a place of grim beauty.”