THEODORE ROOSEVELT NAT’L PARK—Badlands Have Been Given a Bum Rap

Just when you were thinking you’d heard the last of us (for the time being), here comes another post popping up! Having arrived back home in Indiana a week or so ago, this is a post I felt compelled to include. After leaving Canada behind, we took our time getting home as we drove a route never before taken. Many new places and towns were seen, all interesting and worthy of a post of their own. But with our trip closing down, there was little time in which to write about them. Until coming to this special place, the subject of my final posts. I knew it would be significant, but not to the extent it turned out to be. Oh yes, we stayed awhile—more days than anticipated. It was that good. And perhaps, it must also be considered that we weren’t quite ready to leave this lifestyle behind . . . living the good life where each day is fresh and experiences are new, where it’s more about what trails to take rather than what chores needs doing. And where the great outdoors, the lure of the landscape, is calling to us. Indeed, we will miss these times.

There are many destinations off the beaten track, but not nearly as many places are at the far corners of the world. This National Park might not be found at one of those distant corners, but it surely is located a good distance off the beaten track. To reach this special park, first you must get to North Dakota, one of our few states that really isn’t on the way to anywhere. And if this park didn’t have an interstate highway running through it, it might surely qualify as our least-visited national park. That would be a shame of the first magnitude, for this national park is unique—preserving not only an extraordinary landscape, but also the memory of an extraordinary man. Theodore Roosevelt National Park honors a president who probably did more for our national park system than anyone before or since.



Coming from the west through Montana, we entered North Dakota—one of the few remaining states we had never passed through, much less stopped and stayed awhile. Another one of those Midwest prairie states where the Great Plains’ horizon stretches on to infinity.


A state where agriculture is big business—90% of the state’s area is used in farms of croplands. It is a leading producer of many cereal grains and sugarbeets, as well as many oilseeds—canola, flax, safflower and mustard. But it is the sunflower crop that steals the show I think, as we passed many fields where rows of sunflowers stretched far as the eye could see.


4-6D-2312-EditxHard on the heels behind agriculture, the energy industry is a major contributor to the state’s economy. Having both coal and oil reserves, a lot of money goes into the state’s coffers. The significant Bakken oil fields are located just north of the national park, and present many controversies for co-existence. Although slowing down a bit these days due to lower gas prices, still the evidence of the oil discovery is seen everywhere, from rigs and pumps standing in farmlands to the parade of oil trucks moving down highways and back roads. It is a striking clash between two different ways of life.


And yet, the national park seems a world away. Once passing through its borders, the immensity and drama of the landscape surpasses all the hustle and bustle of oil production going on in that outside world. Currently, the park has few buffer zones, such as an adjacent wildlife preserve or national forest, that is often the case with other parks. Any action taken to remediate this situation would require action from our federal government, and although Winthrop Roosevelt and other family members are working on the action needed, it seems to be a long shot under present circumstances.

It was not without breathing a sigh of relief that we left that industrial atmosphere behind and entered a world more to our liking. Ahead lay a wild and rugged land, full of earthy colors under a clear western sky. No, it wasn’t the Rocky Mountains, but nevertheless a place of awesome beauty. Feeling like we were home again, we couldn’t have felt more welcomed.


Within a short time after the death of Theodore Roosevelt in 1919, there were proposals to establish a memorial in his honor. Various studies took place across the country that included ideas for national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and scenic roads as well as state parks. An appointed committee selected the small town of Medora, North Dakota as being a good site. In 1921, the North Dakota legislature instructed their representatives in Congress to assist by setting land aside for a national park.

The Little Missouri River badlands were explored by a group of 40 in 1924 to outline an area for this park. The following year, a tour of “cowboys and congressmen” conducted an inspection camping trip through the Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri in order to
cement the park idea. Yet the proposal was not without its critics, as the land was too valuable for local ranchers and their livestock.


Then came the “dirty thirties”. Drought, overgrazing, and crop failures forced many homesteaders and ranchers to sell their land to the federal government for as little as $2 an acre. In western North Dakota land was acquired mainly for setting up leased grazing and rehabilitation. Today, much of that land is now part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands. A portion of these new federal holdings was earmarked for the establishment of a park. In 1934 the Roosevelt Regional Park Project was set up, in hopes that someday it would become a state park. Then the CCC and WPA workers moved in and began building roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds and other buildings.


All projects ended in 1941. Shortly thereafter, North Dakota’s state government decided that it did not want the land as a state park. That announcement led to yet another study being called for, for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of inclusion into the National Park System. NPS officials resisted this proposal and the next few years saw further studies and political maneuvering.

In 1946 the land was officially transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge after legislation to establish a park was vetoed because some felt the area did not possess those qualities that merit national park ranking. After several compromises were agreed upon and the perseverance of Congressman Lemke of North Dakota, President Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Additional lands were to be added to the original plot over the following few years.


As a memorial park, it was the only one of its kind in the National Park system. Eventually, besides being connected with a president, the land was recognized for its diverse cultural and natural resources. On November 10, 1978, the area was given national park status when President Carter signed the bill.

4-G16-3432xKnowing very little about the park’s background or its makeup when we arrived, we began formulating our knowledge simply by experiencing the place. Composed of three different units geographically separated, each one had its own entrance. We began our introduction in the North Unit, setting up camp at Juniper Campground. While Chris made notes on our day’s travel, I took the adjacent path leading to the banks of the Little Missouri, within easy earshot of our site.


Warm evening light casts a rosy patina on the Little Missouri waters.

Without much heads-up notice (no cell coverage put us at a distinct disadvantage), dark clouds blew in and shortly thereafter, the skies opened up. As temperatures dropped and wind picked up, it was a dramatic introduction to our first evening here. We waited it out and started dinner preparations, enjoying the atmosphere from within. Until, just as suddenly, the storm was over. As evening skies began to clear, I had a premonition. Spontaneously donning outer garments and grabbing keys, I made a hasty departure. Breaking through the cover of cottonwoods in our campground, I gasped at the sight before me. Nature was putting on a dramatic display and I had only moments to capture the show.


The grasslands of the North Unit are illuminated in this ephemeral moment.

I took this as an omen . . . a sign of what was in store for us. This park held treasures, special places to see, if only you take the time and recognize the signs. It opened my heart in the coming days and the beauty of this park flowed in.

I continued on down the road awhile, once the initial display had passed. The yet unseen landscape began to stretch out before me, revealing tantalizing scenes that I’d eagerly return to in the coming days. For now, I just relished the scenery, how the last rays of sunlight were burnishing the hills. And as the sun made its drop below those hills, I was given yet one last shot . . . a dramatic view as only the clearing skies of a passing storm at sunset can give.


The North Unit of the park, separated from the South Unit by several miles, is a much less visited, and therefore a quieter place, than the South. It is every bit as scenic, having a mixture of both badlands and grasslands. I found it to be more compact, with only one out-and-back road running its length. Trails and scenic overlooks are found along its 14-mile route. Perhaps because of its more intimate accessibility, or maybe because it is, in fact, the case, I found it to be more scenic, more colorful, with easier access to its backcountry. Or it might just be on account of one special trail that seemed to traverse every type of topography found within this Unit.


Sunrise casts a bronze glow on the rugged formations at Caprock Coulee trailhead.

Caprock Coulee Trail is a jewel—a microcosm of the badlands, giving the hiker a distant as well as intimate perspective of the stark, yet picturesque formations. Moreover, it continues over other terrains, showcasing everything the North Unit has to offer. This nearly 6-mile loop goes through prairie and woodlands, and while passing over a high ridgeline, presents a panoramic view of the Little Missouri River. Never has six miles seemed so short and the passage of time so irrelevant.

The start of the trail gives a taste of what is waiting ahead.

The start of the trail gives a taste of what is waiting ahead.

From grasslands to badlands, the trail traverses both.

From grasslands to badlands, the trail traverses both.


From views that span great distances to in-your-face panoramas, this trail provides a full range of vistas.


A high ridgeline perspective affords a grand view of the serpentine course of the Little Missouri carving its way through the badlands.


Halfway through the loop, the trail passes by the River Bend Overlook. Built by the CCC in the 1930s with native materials, its design fits well with the landscape. Sitting on a high bluff, it has a superb view of the surrounding scenery. I felt sure this would be a place to return—perhaps an early morning sunrise?


Oftentimes, the best way to capture the essence of a place is to just get in your car and take a slow drive. It certainly helps if there’s a scenic road provided, which in this case there was. Sinuously curving over and around some of the park’s most outstanding features, the road seemed built for optimum viewing. I thought the best thing I could do was simply motor down that road, soaking in the scenery as I went.


There wasn’t a better way to spend this beautiful afternoon.

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“The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.” –Theodore Roosevelt

I hadn’t forgotten that certain spot . . . the River Bend Overlook high above the Little Missouri. I wasn’t about to leave without giving it a second shot. I was hoping for good morning light.


First light breaking over the North Dakota Badlands.

Leaving the park, it’s an eighty-mile circuitous route to get from the North to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, changing time zones as you go. You see more of that impressive North Dakota landscape, passing plenty of those oil tanker trucks as you go.    Marc and Ann—your advice was true, the North Unit was a winner!

Looking ahead to more Badlands landscapes,
Airstream Travelers,   Melinda and Chris



About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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2 Responses to THEODORE ROOSEVELT NAT’L PARK—Badlands Have Been Given a Bum Rap

  1. Chris says:

    Excellent Post. Just like being there.

  2. Merrilee Bauman says:

    That is WONDERFUL!! I am grateful that you included a blog about that national park. How very red-tape like that it took from the beginning of the idea to have a national park to commemorate Theodore Roosevelt in 1921 before it was finally established in 1978. Whew, a long time, but worth it…the saving of the land meanwhile as the project progressed. Beautiful, as ALWAYS, photographs. In one of the pictures in the slide show, are there BISON in the lower right corner? I love Badlands. Your descriptions of them are so right. Stark but picturesque. I can certainly imagine it is something of a let-down coming home to less new scenery, but I am glad you do come home from time to time. I can’t say enough about how much a enjoy and appreciate your blogs, the information, and the artwork. I haven’t read about Yoho yet. I will have to go back and do that later. It is almost midnight, and even I want to get myself to bed. Love you so much, and am so glad you are home, but very grateful for the wonderful travel adventures you have had and share with us!!!

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