Everyone knows about the Badlands of South Dakota. How many know about North Dakota’s own Badlands? Or that there is another Badlands national park?
Really. It’s true! We owe the fact that we have national parks at all to Teddy Roosevelt. So it’s kind of odd then, that the park dedicated to the founder of all national parks – Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota – seems to be practically unknown in the vacation media. You only hear of the South Dakota Badlands. That’s okay, keep it to yourself until after your visit and the place will be a tad less busy and stay closer to nature. After all, you know how pesky some tourists can be, so don’t tell any of them. Shhh!
The park is where Roosevelt spent much of his pre-political life. When he lost his mother, and wife who was giving birth to his daughter, all on the same day, it was here he spent much time putting his life back together before tackling the job of the presidency.
He said: “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” and “The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.” Source
Erosion, burning coal veins, strong winds and winding rivers have carved the hills into forms beyond mere words. Prairies seem to dip away before you as you walk the trails. Where there once was firmament there are now the wondrously carved bluffs and gorges defying description. Valleys between these bluffs team with a surprising amalgam of cottonwood trees, grass, cactus, wild flowers and sage teaming with avian and mammal life. And everywhere you look, or listen, prairie dog songs blend with the melodies of meadowlarks punctuated by the flitting but brilliant plumage of birds like Lazuli Buntings.
Trails too are punctuated, but with a different set of marks. The scat of bison, horses-both domestic and wild, deer and caribou litter the trails. It seems that animals like to use paths as well as humans. And watch for the prairie dog homes, lots of them.
While not a fearful person, I do respect the ferocity of nature. So when we saw a rattlesnake crossing the road between the campground and the picnic area, my hackles were raised. A bit later we saw another snake dead on the side of the road, victim of what or whom, we could not tell. We could tell however that it was not a rattle snake. No rattle.
Luckily cell service is available in the area of the park near town and the campground, so we did a quick check and the deceased snake was a Hognose snake. We also discovered that rattlesnakes are very rarely spotted in the park and there are four other varieties which are non-poisonous and far more plentiful than rattlers.
Believing, or rationalizing (?) that not every snake I might come upon would be a rattler, I girded up my loins (too much information?) and gathered just enough courage to allow me to have a wonderful time on the trails. But like all good hikers, I made sure to know upon what I set each footfall. (The only drawback I couldn’t counter was the fact that the sun had decided to stay hidden most of the day and my photos are not the best.) 🙁
We also were told of the most perilous thing on the trails this week. Mud. Specifically, wet clay mud. It has been raining his week and the ranger informed us that even four footed creatures, large and small, dealt with this mud by avoiding it. (As my grandpa used to say, “Slick as snot on a doorknob.” I’m sure your grandpas all said something similar, or you may have wished they did. My grandpa was fun!) But this mud was sticky enough to add about a pound and a half to each hiking boot before we reached the end of our hike.
We hiked about a mile or so into the Lower Paddock Trail and back out again. The hike was beautiful, even though the skies were overcast and threatening. We had moderately good light and were able to see much more detail of the land around us. No squinting required and that was very much appreciated.
South Unit has many trails but the main roads are built around a circle drive, over 25 miles long. If you cannot hike then use or Roadtrek as your feet on this route. If your visit (and you are going to visit aren’t you?) lasts overnight, then drive this circuit twice, once each way. What you see coming from the opposite direction will make you believe you are in different park.
The South Unit of the park in Medora North Dakota is found on Interstate 94 at exit 32. Medora was once to become a capital of the meat packing industry. But that slow failure gave way a hundred years later to the position of gateway to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In the summer it is a North Dakota destination in itself. And along with the beauty of a wondrous park, you have at least one other reason to visit North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
P-ssst!! Be sure to make the trip, but keep it to yourself.