Continuing our quest to visit the national parks, our next stop was in the gateway town of Medora, North Dakota. We parked our travel trailer at the Medora Campground, literally walking distance from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit gate. It is a city owned campground located on the Little Missouri River with great amenities like full hookups, laundry, showers, wifi, swimming pool, propane, firewood and a camp store. Sound great? Well…not exactly. The sites were appallingly close together. It’s like they put 150 sites on a half acre of ground. Maybe an exaggeration, but our neighbor’s sewer hose went under our picnic table. Their slide would have hit our awning if we had an awning, but then I digress. I was so dismayed that I didn’t even take a picture to show you. You’ll just have to take my word. It was awful. Whenever I see this, I have to ask myself—why? However, with little options, there is no shortage of campers willing to squeeze in. The place was filled to capacity.
Though, I can’t say I loved the Medora Campground, I can say I love the small town of Medora. It is a mixture of the old west and the new. The kind of place where it is perfectly acceptable to drive a riding lawnmower down Main Street to the convenience store. A place where friendly folks welcome you with a smile. Founded in 1883, the city is now a tourist destination that swells during the summer. We loved walking the streets, browsing the many shops and boutiques, while listening to the live music spill out from the city park.
One evening soon after we arrived, Grammi and I took a carriage ride. Two muscular horses pulled us through the town as our driver pointed out places of historic interest and made recommendations for us to see during our stay. The clomp, clomp, clomp of the hoofs and the rattle of the leather harness provided the background music as we held hands and enjoyed the ride.
Later, we dined on a second floor balcony at the Little Missouri Saloon and Dining Room overlooking the city. This little town seems to be a magical place.
Theodore Roosevelt came to the North Dakota Badlands in 1883 and fell in love. He subsequently bought a ranch not far from Medora. His time there influenced his life as he witness the over hunting, over grazing, and near destruction of the natural resources. Twenty years later as the 26th president of The United States, Theodore Roosevelt became known as the conservation President. His legacy as President was to establish 150 national forests, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments encompassing over 230 million acres of public land. Much of that land was to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service that he created in 1905.
Soon after Roosevelt’s death in 1919, work begun on how to best commemorate his work as a conservationist. Finally in 1947, The Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established in the area where he once owned and lived on the Elkhorn Ranch near Medora, North Dakota. It is the only national park dedicated to a person.
The park has evolved through the years and now includes a North Unit 75 miles from Medora. During our stay, we visited both the North and South Units. A third Unit, Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, requires a drive over a rough unpaved road. Four-wheel drive high clearance vehicles are recommended for going to this part of the park but it is not required. Checking with the park staff at the visitor center for current road conditions is a good idea before heading out to this area. We did not feel up to driving the dirty, dusty road at the time, so we skipped this part of the park. We didn’t miss much else.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of America’s least visited National Parks. For many people it is too far out of the way, but that is what made it so appealing for us. We loved how easy it was to find a quiet secluded place to immerse ourselves in the beautiful surroundings. The Little Missouri River carves its way through the badlands exposing the layers of colorful sandstone. The vast landscape expands as far as one can see.
As with most people who come here, we spent the majority of our time in the South Unit driving the roads, stopping at the overlooks, and taking short walks to scenic vistas. The views of the canyon, the river and the prairies were amazing. Bison were everywhere. Large herds roamed freely throughout the park.
But Grammi’s favorite (mine too) were the wild horses. To say they are magnificent would be an understatement. We saw dozens of harems scattered across the park grazing on the grass as a lone stallion stood on a nearby hillside with a watchful eye. We went to other areas of the park, but we kept returning each evening to see the horses before the sunset.
Painted Canyon is one of the other areas we went to. It is located in the South Unit, but it is about eight miles east of Medora. The Painted Canyon Visitor Center serves as a rest stop off of Interstate 94 and requires no fee for this part of the national park. Like most rest stops, there are restrooms and vending machines, but there is much more. There is an information desk where you can ask a ranger questions about the park and there is a gift shop where you can buy national park souvenirs. An overlook behind the visitor center is the only view most people ever see of the colorful canyons of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We went there to hike the Painted Canyon Nature Trail that descends into the canyon. It was a short but steep hike into the canyon where we weaved in and out of the cedar trees and traversed large rocks.
Our trip to the North Unit took up a whole day. It was an hour and a half drive each way. Was it worth it? Not unless you are a glutton for the badlands and you have the extra time (as we did) to explore as much of the park as possible. To me…it was more of the same. Because of the remote location there were fewer people to encounter. That was a plus. Certainly there is beautiful scenery all around. The River Bend Overlook was awe inspiring.
Strange were the spherical shaped rocks we saw. Referred to as cannonballs, they can be seen in and around a butte near the side of the road. We were so intrigued, that we had to stop and investigate.
We were uncertain about coming to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is remote and out of the way. But we had to see it. We had to check it off the list. Wow! We are sure glad we did. It was surprisingly a great adventure despite getting too cozy with our camping neighbors. We have learned the destination is not the campground. It is more than that. It is about the places and people around the campground. That holds very true in this case. I am not sure if Theodore Roosevelt National Park will make our top ten list of national parks, but it might. It was that good.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.