In 1883, at the age of 24, having just been reelected by the widest margin of any legislator in New York, Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota territories. Having a love of nature and an interest in collecting bird and animal specimens from a young age, he saw these Dakota lands as “the living, breathing end” of the frontier. He came to hunt bison, knowing that the herds were quickly vanishing from the West.
“It was still the Wild West in those days . . . It was a land of vast, silent spaces. of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman.”–TR
He made quite the impression among the locals when he arrived in the small town of Little Missouri. Small in stature, puny and be-spectacled, he had spent a small fortune to look the part of a ranchman. Besides the big hat, the buckskin shirt, chaps, bridle, and silver spurs, he had fancy alligator boots, a silver belt buckle, beautifully tooled leather belt and holster, a silver-mounted bowie knife purchased from Tiffany’s. His Colt revolver was engraved with scrolls and geometric patterns and plated with silver and gold. His initials were engraved on one side of its ivory handle, the head of a buffalo (that he intended to kill) on the other. And he gloried in dressing that way.
If ever the term “city slicker” applied, I’m sure he fit the description. He had a long way to go to prove himself, but that was exactly what he ended up doing. He hired the services of a local ranchman to be his hunting guide and they set out to bag his bison. It took ten long days of hard riding and living on the land before he found success. But he thrived out on the badlands and proved he had what it takes to live there. Moreover, he had bonded with this land, a place where he felt he belonged. Before heading back East, he invested $14,000 with his two new partners, with instructions to buy a herd of cattle and build him a modest cabin. He was committed to being a rancher in the Dakota Territories.
“I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom, for I am very fond of hunting, and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling limitless prairies, with rifle in hand, or winding my way among the barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque deserts of the so-called Bad Lands…” –TR
Anyone who has traveled our country knows Theodore Roosevelt’s name. In his lifetime he traveled extensively, through much of the West and wild places. He left his stamp on many of them, as president setting aside those naturally unique areas as national parks and monuments, wildlife preserves and bird sanctuaries. It is inconceivable to imagine what this country would hold for us today were it not for the foresight and determination of this one man. As with the park itself, so too we hoped to learn more about this man.
“It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” –TR
Located within a stone’s throw of I-94, the South Unit is the more popular destination of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Still, it isn’t what you’d call a crowded park, even at the height of the summer season. Nevertheless, each night the campground filled and we were glad we had reserved a site. With hot summer days ahead, the campground was ideally situated in a thick stand of cottonwood trees. Shade in this particular climate can make a huge difference to one’s comfort level.
In the coolness of early morning, we set out to explore the land. Once again, the Little Missouri was a focal point of a big piece of this park.
A highlight of the South Unit is the 36-mile Scenic Loop Road which is a convenient way of experiencing this park for short-term visitors. Indeed, as is true in many of our national parks, the vast majority of people rarely venture far from the touring roads. Not so with us. We pulled into the parking area for the Wind Canyon Trail, one of the first pull-offs on this Scenic Loop.
After winding our way up a steep grasslands path, a high ridgeline view affords a panorama of badlands landscape. Once more, the course of the river leads into a rugged terrain that was created by the deposition of sediments, volcanic action and finally, erosion. Beyond the river is the nearly untouched Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness Area, which we would be exploring in the days to come.
You won’t be driving far through either unit of this park without seeing the grazing bison. Indeed, we were informed, don’t be surprised when they’re holding up park traffic awhile. Yes, we found that to be the case.
If not for the foresight of a few individuals including Theodore Roosevelt, the American bison could have become extinct. Warnings and attempts to protect the bison came as early as 1776, but it was not until 1894 that the first federal legislation protecting these animals was enacted. Killing of bison became punishable by a $1000.00 fine or imprisonment, and the law was strictly enforced.
In 1956, 29 bison were brought from Nebraska and released in the South Unit of this park. They had 46,000 acres to roam on and by 1962 the herd had increased to 145 animals. That year, 10 bulls and 10 cows were relocated to the 24,000-acre North Unit. We were informed that today the South Unit has about 500 bison living here.
Settlement of the Great Plains in the 1830s marked the beginning of the end for the great bison herds. Between 1830 and 1880, hunters and fur traders organized large-scale bison hunts, killing hundreds of thousands of bison for their hides. Thousands were killed just for their tongues, which were considered a delicacy. As many as 250 bison could be shot in one day by a skilled hunter, and a good skinner could remove the hide in five minutes. The peak of the bison trade was between 1870 and 1880. By the turn of the 20th century, the thundering herds of millions were reduced to less than 300 wild bison.
Cow groups usually consist of 20-60 animals composed of cows, bulls under 3 years, and a few old bulls. The herd is led by an older cow. They cover 10-15 miles a day as they graze. Most bulls live alone or in bachelor groups of up to 20 animals. Bulls tend to become more solitary with age.
One of the highest points along the drive is the Boicourt Overlook. Named for a family who had homesteaded here, it not only provides spectacular views of badlands formations, it is generally a good place to see the park’s feral horses.
Luck was with us this day; we happened to see them while on the overlook trail.
Descendants of domesticated stock, feral horses have existed in the Badlands of western North Dakota since the mid-1800s. Cattlemen regarded them as a nuisance and worked to exterminate these animals throughout the West. In the 1950s and 60s, efforts to preserve feral horses began. While ranching here, Theodore Roosevelt wrote:
”In a great many – indeed, in most – localities there are wild horses to be found, which, although invariably of domestic descent, being either themselves runaways from some ranch or Indian outfit, or else claiming such for their sires and dams, yet are quite as wild as the antelope on whose domain they have intruded.”
As high noon approached, the temperatures rose. Predicted to be near 90 degrees, we knew it’d be a hot afternoon. With the following days due to be considerably cooler, we put off hiking for the days to come. Instead, we spent time in the Visitors Center, and did some in-depth studying about Roosevelt’s life. It turned out to be quite rewarding.
Five months after returning from the Dakota Territories, Theodore’s wife and mother both died on the same day in February. They were sudden and unexpected deaths, leaving him devastated. Roosevelt recorded in his diary a large “X” and wrote only a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.” He began to erase the memory of his beloved wife, destroying any correspondence that made reference to her, and never spoke of her again, even to their daughter. Roosevelt dealt with his immense grief by immersing himself in work, laboring with almost superhuman fervor. He began working relentlessly for a party candidate to be the Republican nominee for governor. Considering another Republican candidate ill-suited, he was sorely disappointed when his man didn’t win.
This was a turning point in his life. He informed the Republican party, in which he held high stature, that although he’d remain within the Party, he would not be taking part in the coming campaign. Instead, he planned on returning to his Dakota ranch for an indeterminate time. Members of the Party were dumbfounded.
And so began his “other” life, where he would spend most of the next two years. His Maltese Cross Ranch was established, the cabin considered a “mansion” by locals. With wood flooring, 3 separate rooms and a gabled roof with attic space, these were features rarely seen in the Territory. He soon was investing half of his entire holdings on a new ranch and cattle investments. He began construction on a larger ranch house, forty miles to the north of the Maltese Cross Ranch. Wanting to be off to himself where he could write, his nearest neighbors would be 10-15 miles away. Located in a clump of cottonwoods by a bend in the river, it was sumptuous with 8 rooms, numerous windows, a stone fireplace, and a cellar that Theodore was to use as a darkroom for processing his photographs. A front porch faced east, towards the river, where after the day’s work Theodore used to sit in a rocking chair, reading poetry.
He was on the frontier he had dreamed of and imagined for as long as he could remember, living a life free of more than just fences. Background, family, all the conventions of polite society, counted for nothing. Nobody knew his family or particularly cared. He would write to his older sister: “I have been fulfilling a boyish ambition of mine. We are so very rarely able to, actually and in real life, dwell in our ideal ‘hero land’.” He began writing The Winning of the West, a study of frontier living and the character of his frontier neighbors. It becomes evident that the beauty and solitude he found living here in the badlands helped to overcome the setbacks and losses he’d suffered.
Then a severe winter came along. Following a summer of drought and excessive heat, the winter that followed was extraordinarily harsh. Snowfall came early and turned out to be the worst in memory. Extreme cold temperatures killed humans and animals alike. All told, Roosevelt lost nearly 60% of his cattle while most area cattlemen came closer to 80% losses. In a letter to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt wrote: “Well, we have had a perfect smashup all through the cattle country of the northwest. The losses are crippling. For the first time I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch. I shall be glad to get home.”
And so ended his time in North Dakota. Once he sold his Elkhorn Ranch and remaining holdings to his two friends who were working for him, he never did return. But it would become clear in the years to come that his time spent on his two ranches left an indelible imprint on his character and his perspective on this country. From those frontier days Roosevelt carried with him an enthusiasm and genuineness that common people connected with, and this rapport was the foundation of Roosevelt’s later political success. His enthusiasm for cowboy life spurred him to form the Rough Riders, the notable cavalry unit that brought Roosevelt national recognition during the Spanish-American War. Importantly, the cattle ranching collapse and his experiences in the wilderness began to solidify in his mind the need for conservation, which he pursued notably in his Presidential years. To him, the place where “the romance of my life began” became as much a beloved part of his past as it was a stepping stone for his future.
His Elkhorn ranchlands are part of the park today, although all that remains are the foundations of the buildings. Interpretive panels provide insight into his life here on the banks of the Little Missouri. Perhaps a bit of his spirit also remains, as you gaze out on a landscape not unlike what he used to see. It seems fitting to have this land preserved in his honor.
“I do not believe there ever was any life more attractive to a vigorous young fellow than life on a cattle ranch in those days. It was a fine, healthy life, too; it taught a man self-reliance, hardihood, and the value of instant decision…I enjoyed the life to the full.”
Back at camp as evening came on, Chris enjoyed reading his newly-purchased biography of Roosevelt, while I reviewed my notes. From our prime campsite location near the banks of the Little Missouri, we enjoyed the ambiance of those rugged, worn-down hills as evening shadows lengthened. We recalled how Roosevelt would end the days on his veranda, savoring similar sights and sounds. Coming to know this land was helping us to understand the man who would become a president.
And later that night, when the sky blazed with the colors of a fiery sunset, it proved once again in a different way, the Badlands aren’t just about vast barren mounds and desolate lands.
True to the forecast, the following day would have a much more agreeable climate. Perfect for hiking—something we had been missing since our Canadian departure. I had my eye set on two different trails, at opposite sides of the South Unit. Each taking in different aspects of badlands terrain, we headed first to the one in the east.
The Painted Canyon trailhead was located about 5 miles down I-94. Considered a Rest Area, it had its own Visitors Center as well as a very scenic overlook into the canyon. Two trails led out from here—a shorter Nature Trail and the one I had selected, which would drop down and wind through a badlands canyon. It promised to be one outstandingly scenic trail.
Once down on the canyon floor, the trail winds through ravines and gullies, traveling across to the opposite canyon wall. Instead of looking out across the expanse of badlands, we had the front-row seat. It brought to mind something read yesterday when Roosevelt described this landscape “so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”
Indeed, a trail worth taking.
The next day we headed off for the other trail, on the far western edge of the park. Actually within the Wilderness Area, once again we drove down the interstate to arrive at the access dirt road. Highly rated by the park rangers, this trail offered an extra bonus to what was seen in the rest of the park—an ancient petrified forest.
But first you must scale yet another rugged badlands terrain, gaining elevation as you climb to the top of a badlands butte.
What a surprise when you discover what’s up there . . . a seemingly endless stretch of wind-swept grassland, as far as the eye can see. A great change of pace, we were really beginning to like this trail.
What goes up . . . sometime later we found ourselves standing on the rim of the opposite side of the plateau. Switchbacking down the slope, there were more badlands ahead.
That’s when things really began to get interesting. Add hoodoos into the equation. Protruding from the canyon floor, organic-looking spires of rock came in an assortment of shapes and sizes.
Eventually the Hoodoos gave way for the main attraction of this hike—the Petrified Forest. Spread out over the landscape are the grand, stark, gnarled and massive petrified stumps of giant cypress trees. It is the third largest concentration of petrified wood in our country. Despite what climate exists today, fossil evidence strongly suggests that this place was once a vast tropical swamp, teeming with the ancestors of crocodiles, amphibians and bald cypress trees some 55-67 million years ago. Standing there next to the remains of a tree that was at least 100 feet high growing in a forest with many other behemoths like this, we try to grasp the concept of geological time and picture the scene that was here.
The Petrified Forest Trail is actually two-pronged. We had taken the left-hand route, and then, once at its end, made the somewhat spontaneous decision (“rash” might also apply) to go cross country and hook up with the other trail, taking it back to the trailhead. An interesting and somewhat fool-hardy experience ensued, but in the end we did manage to see both trails. And had one last impressive Badlands view.
Later that evening I returned to that Painted Canyon we had hiked the day before. Having realized it had promising potential, I wanted to capture a lasting image. Standing on the canyon rim, I watched the sun go down, casting sharp beams of light on the badland’s ragged peaks with its last piercing rays. Then, after many minutes passed, in the fading twilight, all the multi-hued layers of rock came out. I had my Badlands pictures.
When he became President in 1901, Roosevelt pursued his interests in conservation and resource protection. One of his most lasting legacies was his significant role in the creation of 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 federal bird reservations, 4 national game preserves, 150 national forests and by establishing the U.S. Forest Service. By the end of his presidency, he had protected 230,000,000 acres of pubic land.
“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” –TR
Leaving the rugged western lands for the fields of the Midwest,
Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris,
heading home once again.