“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
If you’ve never been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the wilds of western North Dakota, make this the year that you go. When the badlands suddenly rise up out of the prairie, they take your breath away.
This is a place that imprints itself on your soul. I can’t think of a better place for my June road trip to end than right here. Theodore Roosevelt National Park always manages to surprise me with its beauty and stays with me long after I leave.
I asked my friend Naomi to come to the little western town of Medora, which sits next to the entrance to the South Unit of the park. (The even more rustic North Unit is located a few miles north, near Watford City.) She’d never driven west of Jamestown, North Dakota and had always wanted to see the badlands.
They made an impression from the second we pulled off of I-94 and stared out at the Painted Canyon. The prairie wind whipped the clouds across a brilliantly blue North Dakota sky, making the weather as unexpectedly dramatic as the scenery.
We drove most of the 36-mile scenic loop around the South Unit of the park and spent more time outside of the vehicle than in it. You can turn around at any point if you need to and cyclists and the occasional traveler on foot shared the road.
The paved loop has a 25 mph speed limit and takes about 90 minutes to drive straight through. But who would want to do that?
We stopped for scenic overlooks and took an absurd amount of photos. We wandered through the tall grasses on the roadside, hiked even more than we intended and pointed out longer trails we’d take next time.
We watched the chattering prairie dogs as they stood like tiny hitchhikers at the side of the road, staring at us with curious eyes. On the way back from our hike, one very large prairie dog stood calmly in front of our vehicle on his hind legs, obviously certain that I’d stop. I did. ”
Want me to get out and ask him to move?” Naomi asked. My son and I laughed out loud when that sassy little rodent just cocked his head and chattered back at her when she did exactly that.
All three of us squealed when we saw a bison (we counted two total) and stood respectfully still as a herd of wild horses gazed at us as they grazed. We watched eagles soar and walked through fields of wildflowers.
“Everybody should come here, even if you’re not into nature,” Naomi said, as we stood surveying the jaw dropping scenery. She shook her head. “People think they know North Dakota, but unless you’ve been here, you just don’t know.” I totally agree. This place is special.
The prettiest hike was Wind Canyon, a gorgeous half mile trail that runs along wind-weathered buttes and climbs up above the curving Little Missouri River. It’s listed as a moderate trail and there definitely is some elevation to consider. But my three year-old ran most of the way and Naomi, who had never hiked before in her life, adored it, so this is a hike that anyone without mobility issues will love.
Photo by Naomi Orre
We stood high on the bluffs, with the sunlight glinting off the water in front of us, the jagged rocks behind us, painted bluffs on either side. I’m not often without words, but I was speechless. There was nothing to do but feel the sun on our shoulders, smile and drink it all in.
Our $20 park pass was good for 7 days and we came back as often as we could. I wish we could have stayed longer. We’re already planning a return trip. This is place that gets under your skin, that haunts your dreams, that makes you want more.
We’ll be back.
“If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go. … This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future.”
– Terry Tempest Williams
How about you?
What’s your favorite wild place?
What’s your favorite National Park and why?
What do you love to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
What would you like to see or do when you visit?
Which National Parks are on your bucket list?
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