For the most striking landscapes in North Dakota, head to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Watford City. The South Unit near Medora gets most of the glory (and the visitors), but if you want to see dramatic scenery while enveloped in some much needed peace and quiet, the North Unit is my pick.
I adore the South Unit’s grand vistas and its easy accessibility just off of I-94. I’ve written about my hikes there, detailed a few favorite spots in Medora and mused about the beauty of the countryside around the park and I certainly intend to go back to the South Unit whenever I can.
But the North Unit demands a return trip too. It’s a little more off the beaten path, located off of US Highway 85 near the small town of Watford City, but it’s worth the trek.
For one thing, the badlands just look different up here. They’re a little steeper, a little craggier, just a bit more stately. The landscape is greener too, which makes the countryside around the park seem like the foothills of a mountain range instead of the badlands bluffs layered with burnt shades of terra cotta, tan and bone colors further south. And when you’re cruising along on 85, the northern badlands make a dramatic appearance.
I was behind the wheel during this leg of the trip I took with my brother Jake a few summers ago (Why I didn’t share this story earlier is beyond me!) and I distinctly remember the moment I realized this place was something special. I’d had the vehicle on cruise control, and had been leisurely chatting and sipping coffee, lulled into complacency by hours of wide roads under my tires and vast prairies and farm fields outside my window.
Suddenly, the road seemed to twist and turn and the bluffs felt like they were pressing in on every side. I tapped the brake, took the car off cruise and proceeded to drive with the focus of a driver tackling a steep mountain road. This is a place that makes you sit up and pay attention. We grinned at each other as I drove on.
We parked my car and my friend and colleague Jessie Veeder Scofield (who you might know from her blog, Meanwhile, back at the ranch…, her columns in various North Dakota newspapers or as a celebrated country and folk musician) showed us around. Jessie is a fourth generation rancher and the fierce beauty of this place colors both her music and her brand new book, which you can learn more about here.
The northwestern corner of the the state has been cattle country for years. This region saw the 1880s cattle boom in Dakota Territory, and reminders of that legacy pop up within the North Unit of the park as well. This marker, which highlights a historic cattle trail used by cowboys before statehood, is just one of the stops on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit Scenic Byway. True to its name, it’s a particularly pretty drive that highlights local history, scenic vistas, wildlife and unique geological formations within the park itself.
I thought the cannonball concretions were particularly cool. They look like something out of a science fiction movie. Geology was never my best subject, but it makes a lot more sense to me when I can look at a real life example!
“What’s that smell?” I asked Jessie, as Jake and I ambled out of her pickup. We’d been wondering this for days. The air smells different in western North Dakota — clean, fresh, with just a hint of something mellow and sweet that we couldn’t quite define. We’re farm kids, raised in Minnesota and used to tramping through the outdoors. But this wasn’t anything we recognized.
“Sweet clover,” she replied, gesturing to the tall, bushes with spiky clusters of yellow flowers standing proudly near the fence posts that lined our path. They were giving off the exact soft, green and vaguely vanilla-tinged scent that had been haunting me since the first moment we stepped out the car in another county days before.
Now that I’d noticed the sweet clover, I could see it was everywhere — growing thick and tall along the hiking trails branching off from the byway and snaking deeper into the park, trampled down under the dozing bison a few yards away and growing along the ridgeline of what I consider to be the prettiest spots along the scenic byway, the River Bend Overlook and the Oxbow Overlook. Both offer gorgeous views of the Little Missouri River and its lush, green valley below.
The Oxbow Overlook is one of the most beautiful spots in North Dakota. Only Wind Canyon in the South Unit can challenge its beauty. And this overlook is a bit more accessible for those with mobility issues. There’s even a small shelter where you can sit in the shade and take in the view.
Here’s Jessie doing exactly that, looking exactly like the laid back cowgirl/musician that she is. She gamely tried to get me into cowboy boots at her mom’s store in Watford City, but my super wide and incredibly high-arched feet refused to comply. I’m strictly an ankle/knee-high/hiking/combat boot kind of girl. And that’s more than enough boots, surely…
Isn’t this a gorgeous spot? I seriously could have sat here all day. Now that the weather is warming up again, I can’t wait to get back to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Those hiking trails are calling my name. And I finally have the boots to do them justice.
What about you?
What do you like to do or see when you visit the North Unit?
Do you prefer the North or South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park? Why?
What’s your pick for the prettiest view in North Dakota?
What do you love about this National Park?
What’s your favorite National Park?
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