I just completed a 5,400 mile road trip to Seattle and back that included a seven-day Alaskan cruise and visits to Theodore Roosevelt, Glacier, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks as well as the Black Hills National Forest. Each stop was beautiful and breathtaking; an epic road trip.
My first stop after leaving Traverse City and driving across the U.P. to intersect Interstate 94 was Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I spent two days touring and hiking around the park and found it’s only 28th on the visitation list for our national parks; a good reason to visit. In contrast, crowds were huge in Glacier, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore National Parks.
Its location in western North Dakota is probably one of the main reasons for lack of visitors to the park. It’s not on the way to many other attractions, but consider the park itself the appeal for making an easy, two-day drive to explore this hidden gem.
The park, sometimes called the Badlands, which sweep across much of the landscape, is the result of eons of erosion and a long-ago glacier that turned the Little Missouri River eastward, helping to carve and shape topography. Prior to the glacier the river flowed north to Hudson Bay.
The landscape is almost like a prism dispersing pale colors that reflect from the rocks, especially around sunrise and sunset when they seem to shimmer. The Painted Canyon Visitor Center and Overlook, just off I-94, offers a magnificent panorama of rugged, broken topography robed in colorful hues.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is spread across three units that swallow over 70,000 acres of jaw-dropping natural wilderness. It was appropriately named for the president who established five national parks and birthed the country’s conservation movement; a fitting monument.
There are scenic drives through the North and South Units as well as the short drive to the Painted Canyon. Both the units offer campgrounds, and there are numerous spots off highway U.S. 85 you can drive back into the park interior to pitch tents. U.S. 85 connects the two units. There are also numerous motels in the town of Medora, location of the South Unit Visitor Center, and nearby Dickerson.
The North Unit scenic drive is 28 miles out and back, with lots of pullouts and informative tidbits about the area. I saw buffalo, a distant elk and a handful of longhorn cattle on the drive. Most of the hiking trails in this unit are longer with few loops. The River Bend Overlook offers a short walk to an impressive view of the Little Missouri and its floodplain. The stone shelter, much like we have around northern Michigan, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s. At the end of the road, before retracing your drive, is a splendid vista called Oxbow Overlook of the river and valley as it turns eastward. You can often spot bison herds milling around the river.
The South Unit scenic drive is supposed to offer a 36-mile loop drive, but near the end of the loop a portion of the road fell into the valley this spring, making it a long out-and-back drive. It is well worth the effort to make the longer drive with its many overlooks and short scenic hikes. Again I saw more buffalo, but really enjoyed the many wild horse herds roaming free across the landscape and stopping at a couple of prairie dog towns to watch their amusing antics. Their colonies are scattered all along the scenic drive.
There are numerous short hikes you can make to various outstanding overlooks. The Boicourt Overlook, with a half-mile uphill hike, offers one of the best Badlands view, and Buck Hill, second-highest point in the park, overlooks highlands, sheltered valleys and creeks. Wind Canyon Trail is a loop of a mile or so that teeters along a cliff high above a Little Missouri River horseshoe bend that is pure “eye candy.”
The vast majority of the park’s visitors come during the summer, but fall would also be a picturesque time of year to plan an excursion. A National Geographic Traveler survey ranked Theodore Roosevelt National Park tied for eighth among 50 U.S. and Canadian national parks for stunning scenery, wildlife, history and recreational opportunities. It’s well worth a visit, and you need at least a couple of days to explore both units. My next column will be on the South Dakota visit that includes stops in the Black Hills and Badlands, another easy two-day drive from Traverse City.