Photograph by Prisma Bildagentur, AG/Alamy
Location: North Dakota
Established: November 10, 1978
Size: 70,447 acres
Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man. It honors the president who probably did more for the National Park System than anyone before or since.
Theodore Roosevelt, who would later establish five national parks and help found the U.S. Forest Service, first came to Dakota Territory as a young man in 1883 to "bag a buffalo." He tried cattle ranching with no luck, but returned many times over the next 13 years, developing into a confirmed conservationist. It was the rugged badlands that taught him a healthy respect for nature while toughening him physically and mentally. "I would not have been President," he would later say, "had it not been for my experience in North Dakota."
The history of the North Dakota badlands, however, goes back long before Roosevelt—65 million years, to be exact. It was then that streams flowing from the newly arisen Rockies began depositing sediments here that would later be carved by the Little Missouri River and its tributaries. The results of this ongoing process of deposition and erosion are spectacular: wildly corrugated cliffs; steep, convoluted gullies; and dome-shaped hills, their layers of rock and sediment forming multicolored horizontal stripes that run for miles.
This austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife. Bison, pronghorn, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, wild horses, and bighorn sheep inhabit the park, as do numerous smaller mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. After a rainy spring, a wealth of wildflowers colors the river bottomlands and prairie flats. And perhaps best of all is the shortage of one particular mammal—human beings. This relatively isolated park is hardly ever crowded, so you can experience the gorgeous loneliness of the badlands much the way Roosevelt did more than a hundred years ago.
How to Get There
South Unit: From Bismarck, 130 miles east, take I-94 west across the prairie to the entrance near Medora. From points south, use US 85 north to Belfield, then I-94 west 17 miles to Medora. North Unit: US 85 north from Belfield will bring you to the North Unit entrance. Airports: Dickinson and Bismarck, North Dakota, and Billings, Montana (280 miles).
When to Go
Although this is an all-year park, portions of the park road may close in winter, and services are quite limited from October to May. Summer is the most popular time to visit; the days are very long.
Late spring and early autumn are best for wildflower enthusiasts.
How to Visit
If you have only one day, take the Scenic Loop Drive in the South Unit, allowing yourself time for nature trails and longer hikes. A second day can be devoted to the Scenic Drive in the North Unit, 70 miles away. A visit to the undeveloped site of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch or a guided horseback trip from the Peaceful Valley Ranch in the South Unit can fill out a longer stay.
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