National Parks the world over owe their protected status and universal adoration to one singular and titanic personality: that of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt established the National Park Service in 1916, blazing the trail for the creation of 59 National Parks and hundreds of NPS sites nationwide. Countries across the globe quickly realized the merit of placing this protection over their most beautiful and unique lands and soon followed Teddy’s example. I personally owe my entire journey to the foresight and wisdom of this great man.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in 1978, long after the death of its namesake. This particular area of land had inspired Teddy, and along with the sequoia groves of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, aided the creation of the NPS.
I arrived at the Park in mid-afternoon from Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. The drive from Grasslands involved very little of note, as eastern Montana is mostly, in this traveler’s opinion, a desolate wasteland… Entering western North Dakota, however, the landscape changes drastically to that of rolling buttes dotted with green, orange, and yellow trees. Interestingly, Interstate 80 runs through a large part of the Park, with crossroads in the Park itself passing over the highway. The Park is divided into two units, situated some 50 or 60 miles apart; the North Unit and the South Unit. The North Unit is more remote and seemingly wild; however, the South Unit offers more infrastructure, including the Cottonwood Campground – the only well-developed campground in the Park.
As I only had a few hours until the arrival of night, I embarked upon a 6-mile loop trail, which I calculated I could complete in short order. Perusing the map of the trail, a river crossing appeared necessary less than a mile from the trailhead. Up to this point in my trip, every river crossing I had encountered had involved a bridge. I had assumed, incorrectly, that a bridge would be provided for hikers here as well. My assumption, as per usual, was incorrect, and I was forced, upon arriving at the river bank, to remove my boots and socks, roll up my pants above the knee, and wade across the muddy river. It was impossible to determine the depth of the river, but luckily it only came to my thighs at its deepest point, and my pants remained dry through the fording.
Replacing my socks and boots, now somewhat damp and muddy from my feet, I ascended a steep path up to the top of a plateau, upon which I discovered a large prairie dog town, gorgeous views of the Park, and what I estimated to be 30-40 mph winds.
The prairie dogs chirped loudly at me as I traversed the established path through their neighborhoods, yelling, I imagine, “Get off our lawns!” After gazing for a few moments at the horizon and wondering aloud how much time I had until the sun would set, I descended the opposite side of the plateau and looped back around the other side of the trail. Two more water crossings awaited me on this stretch, but I was able to deftly leap over one stream and tiptoe over the shallows of another so that neither required a full fording as the first.
Along the trail, I passed dozens of astonishingly large piles of buffalo excrement, but only perceived a single specimen a few hundred yards to my right, grazing lazily on a clump of grass. Just then, game birds shot out of some bushes with the crash cannon fire, causing my heart to leap into my throat with surprise… I soon returned to the point of the loop trail where I would need to re-cross the river. Repeating my prior route, I kept my socks and boots off until returning to my car, where I was able to use a jug of clean water and a quantity of paper towels to thoroughly wash my feet of the thickly caked mud accumulated from walking along the embankment.
Only having planned to spend one night in the Park, I arranged my car, after returning to my campsite, in the manner in which I would be able to sleep within.
The next morning, I decided to drive a 25-mile scenic loop around much of the South Unit, on which scenic vistas of the Park and various wildlife abounded. Of particular note was one turn of the road where, after completing almost the entire loop, I came upon a herd of 15 or so buffalo standing idly in the middle of the road. Throwing my car into ‘park’ and removing my camera from the passenger seat, I spent 5-10 minutes watching and photographing the group while I waited for them to vacate the road. One elderly creature was noteworthy in that one of his horns had evidently been broken in some dispute with a fellow buffalo and whom, through chance, I was able to photograph licking the inside of his own nostril…
North Dakota, on the whole, proved about as exciting as one would expect, having grown up on the East Coast and never having traveled to the much maligned midwestern state before. This one corner of the state, however, is beautiful and extraordinary enough to warrant a visit. The stratified buttes, wild buffalo, winding rivers flanked by yellow aspens in autumn, and expansive skies deserve consideration from any outdoor enthusiast, and seem, in my opinion, to distinguish the land effectively enough to justify sharing its name with President Theodore Roosevelt.