The man who would become the 26th President of the United States first visited the Dakota Territory badlands in September of 1883. On return trips to the region, Teddy Roosevelt invested in the cattle business, and the badlands toughened him up both physically and mentally. Living in the rugged terrain and being eyewitness to rapidly occurring changes such as over grazing and loss of wildlife had such a great impact on Roosevelt that he became an ardent conservationist. As president, he established the U.S. Forest Service, created five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations and four national game preserves — an important legacy that may never have occurred had Roosevelt not visited the region. “I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” he said. So it was more than fitting that Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established on April 25, 1947 to commemorate Roosevelt’s conservation legacy. It later gained National Park status in 1978.
Compared to the size of the first National Park that Roosevelt signed into existence — Yellowstone — his namesake park is tiny, a mere 70,416 acres, as opposed to Yellowstone’s 2.2 million. And Theodore Roosevelt National Park is not as frequented as Yellowstone, so visitors who want to experience the badlands much the way Roosevelt did — with untrammeled views of abundant wildlife, unimpeded by traffic jams — can generally find what they’re looking for here.
The park is divided into three sections: North Unit, South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Throughout the North and South sections, visitors may see bison, white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn and prairie dogs. Travelers in the South Unit may also encounter wild horses and elk, while North Unit visitors may spot bighorn sheep and longhorn steers.
Much of the park (29,920 acres) is officially designated as wilderness — meaning no “wheels” allowed — so anyone hiking through the backcountry should grant animals plenty of space, since help will not be immediate if a wildlife encounter turns less-than-tranquil. Even the cute prairie dogs can bite, so visitors should give them room.
This does not mean, however, that travelers along Scenic Loop Drive, the 36-mile excursion through the South Unit, shouldn’t stop to admire the prairie-dog town between the Medora Overlook and the Skyline Vista. Numerous other worthy photo opportunities exist along Scenic Loop Drive, and visitors with only time enough for a half-day visit should certainly explore this road, which begins and ends at the Medora Visitor Center.
The North Unit Scenic Drive requires a 28-mile out-and-back trip, yet what it lacks in loopiness, it makes up for in memorable views. This section of the park is generally less visited, yet one ranger who works in the park declares that the scenery along this route is more impressive. As visitors gawk from the River Bend Overlook and the Oxbow Overlook, they will most likely agree with the ranger. Also, a variety of trails start along the drive.
The park’s two primary campgrounds are open year-round, can accommodate boondocking RVs and are first-come, first-served. With nightly fees of only $10 in high season, RVers can easily pay tribute to our 26th President.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park,
(701) 623-4730 ext. 3417 (South Unit) and (701) 842-2333 (North Unit), www.nps.gov/thro.