A great day!
We had breakfast and bid adoo to the Comfort Inn, then gassed up, bagged some grub for lunch, and headed for points west. As we left Bismarck behind, the scenery began to change from the prairie and river valleys of the Missouri country to a drier, more desert-like country with interesting sculpted buttes. We were entering the breathtaking badlands of North Dakota.
The entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is heralded by the Painted Canyon Overlook, a large highway pullout where you can preview the stark, rugged, multi-colored buttes and marvel at giant rock formations as far as the eye can see. A few weeks after returning home, we watched the Ken Burns documentary on national parks, and this site was the one that kept coming to mind as the talking heads rhapsodized over the transcendent experiences available at national parks. I couldn’t help wondering if any of these people had ever actually visited a national park. If so, I’d like to know their secret for contemplating nature while sharing the grandeur with a busload of screaming, giggling teenage girls snapping cell-phone pix of their male counterparts pretending to hump one another.
With courage undaunted, we proceeded on through the cute western town of Medora to the main entrance of the park. Towering buttes surround the visitors’ center, where we watched a short film and saw some good exhibits about Theodore Roosevelt and his time in the Dakota ranchland in the 1880s. Roosevelt, a 25-year-old Harvard graduate and scion of one of the wealthiest families in New York, came out west on a hunting trip while trying to cope with crushing grief — his mother had died suddenly of kidney disease on the same day that his wife died giving birth to the couple’s first child.
Roosevelt ended up falling in love with the place, buying into some ranching ventures and living in the Dakotas for several years. In this forge of personal tragedy and hard, adventurous work, he quite literally became a different person. Not only was he more rugged physically, but he eventually returned to New York braver, more confident, and commanding beyond his years. Roosevelt often said that if not for his time in the Dakotas, he would never have been president. We got to see some of his guns, his western clothing, the shirt he was wearing when he was shot by a would-be assassin in 1912, and the tiny “Maltese Cross” cabin where he had his ranch headquarters in 1883.
Then it was off into the park on the spectacular scenic drive. It’s hard to describe the beauty of the rugged canyons and splendid, fantastical mountains here. Roosevelt used the phrase “savage beauty.” All around us we saw striated buttes and amazing eroded rock formations. After stopping for a while to watch cute prairie dogs squeaking and playing around their burrows, we had lunch in a beautiful cottonwood grove near the Little Missouri River.
The park drive is 36 miles of great overlooks and scenes that just seem to build and build. In some places, red scoria rock was visible, the product of lignite coal fires burning far underground, which bakes the rocks to a bricklike red. We spied some antelope (or possibly muledeer — hard to tell) tiptoeing along a ridgetop, and thrilled to the sight of a lone buffalo high on a grassy hill, eating grass and twirling his tail.
Every stop had a new explosion of wildflowers. Wild horses roamed within view, though in a reminder that this was reality, not paradise, we also saw a horse down near the road. One of many highlights was a short hike through Wind Canyon, a spectacular site with the Little Missouri River running through a beautiful canyon carved with rugged rock formations. Here we saw two antelope race along the hills opposite, while another crossed the park roadway right in front of us.
Maybe Ken Burns’s talking heads are right after all. This is a great place, even if you do have to listen to your fellow Americans bicker with their kids amidst the beauty. Compared to some national parks I’ve visited, it wasn’t even that crowded (the North Dakota location isn’t “on the way” anyplace else). I loved thinking about Teddy Roosevelt coming here to heal his broken heart, and the way this land shaped his character and the destiny of our nation.
The amazing grand finale was yet to come. As we neared an old ranch site called Peaceful Valley, where they outfit visitors for trail rides, we came upon a herd of 15-20 buffalo! This herd appeared to be mothers and calves, some lying around in the grass, others grazing and posing for the nickel. Some were close enough to the road that you could have reached out and touched them (if you were a damned fool). Once so ubiquitous on the plains, a few hundred once again roam free in this park. I was thrilled to see these magnificent animals alive and doing so well.
Wowed beyond belief, we did ourselves proud in the gift shop, then reluctantly made our turn for the south and peeled out for our overnight stop in Bowman. We stayed at a cute, comfortable motel called the North Winds Lodge, and on the owner’s recommendation, ate supper at a steakhouse in town called the Hawk’s Landing. This meal turned out to be the best one of the entire trip — a real feast of coconut shrimp and cajun pasta with chicken, shrimp, and sausage. Highly recommended!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is truly the equal of anything this country has to offer. What a fun and satisfying day.
For more reading, check out Theodore Roosevelt and the Dakota Badlands from the National Park Service.