Last summer I took a road trip to hit up a bunch of National Parks, and I have to admit it was one of the best trips of my life. It was a lot of hours in the car, crazy weather (it snowed in August), hotel swimming pools, nights in tents under the stars, and more emotions than I could ever put into words. I saw some truly wonderful National Parks and Monuments, but of all the places that I encountered last summer there is one that stands out above the rest:
Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
This is, sadly, a park that many people haven’t heard of let alone visited. It’s located in North Dakota, and on this particular trip it was our first official National Park stop. We came in from the east and so our first stop and our first glimpse of TRNP was at the Painted Canyon Visitors Center. The visitors center was very, very crowded with people who were primarily passing through, but we were happy to be able to stretch our legs after sitting in the car since leaving Fargo.
It was here that we got our first glimpse of the park, walking to a scenic overlook area just off the parking lot. If you haven’t been here before it looks quite a lot like the Badlands smashed together with grassland to create absolutely breathtaking scenery. I wish I could better explain how gorgeous it was with all the strange craggy rocks rising out of the earth, surrounded by grass and dotted with trees, but it’s nearly impossible to give you a proper visual. The pictures above will give you a better glimpse and show you just how unbelievably beautiful this place is!
After getting our park passports stamped in the gift shop we piled back in the car to continue on to the town of Medora. We would be camping that night at the Medora Campground, which is located right in the town itself just beyond the entrance to the South Unit. We had a campsite that was right at the edge of the area, right against a bank with a path that led to the nearby river. Our site had an electric hook up, a water pump, and a small charcoal grill as well as a shade tree. We set up quickly and then departed from the sight to drive into the park, wanting to see what sights we could fit in before it was time to make dinner and bed down for the night.
We came in through the South Unit, and there was a small line of cars waiting to check in with the ranger station. I had purchased an annual parks pass a few months before we left, so we could drive straight into the parks without paying at each individual station. This worked in our favor as a second ranger was walking car to car and, after checking our pass, let us bypass the line and head on into the park.
As you drive in you immediately pass through a massive prairie dog town, the first of these I had ever seen for myself. We didn’t stop as we entered, however, wanting to get to see some of the overlooks and do a short hike before we went back. So we continued on, driving along the winding road that put us up close and personal with some of the beautiful features of the park. We drove straight to the old East Entrance Station trail (0.8 miles) and found a place to pull off and park. We took our cameras and set out on the dusty trail, passing more prairie dogs who were living in holes right off the trail. There was only a handful of people on this trail, and after a while it was just us.
We didn’t walk all the way to the old entrance, but we got close enough to catch a glimpse of it before heading back. Some more people had arrived as we were leaving, so we were glad to be getting out before there was any kind of crowd making noise. As we started back I made a comment that I’d like to see a wild horse and then, as we came around a curve, one was standing right by the road!
I might have cried a little.
Okay, I cried. I can’t and won’t lie.
To be fair these horses are not truly wild, but are rather free-roaming. The park is fenced in, and every so often they thin the herds in the park by allowing people (who are well vetted beforehand) to adopt the horses. You can learn about each individual horse here, including the one I saw who is named Ranger! At the time I saw him he was living with a herd of buffalo, but has since moved on to having his own herd. Get it, Ranger!
We drove back through the park then, pulling over to the side of the road to watch the prairie dogs. From a distance we saw more wild horses in a small herd, and by now the sun was dipping low in the sky so we headed on back. We cooked burgers and potatoes (using the garlic dill cheese curds we bought in Wisconsin), and then took showers in the nearby bath house. It was still fairly warm out when we crawled into bed, but sometime in the night the temperature took a drop and it got pretty chilly. Not enough to be miserable, but enough to make me wish I’d put on some pants instead of shorts!
One thing we did learn that evening is that the town of Medora shuts down early. We ventured out after dinner to see what was going on, and the answer was nothing. Almost everything was closed! One small store was open so we stopped in to check it out, but we ended up getting in bed early for lack of things to do. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, we did have to get up early to move on, but it would have been nice to have planned better for an evening activity. We had originally planned to do a night hike in the park under the full moon, but it was cancelled due to the smoke from the BC wildfires. Bummer!
There was just something magical about this place, something that spoke to me deeply. I wish I could put a name to what it was, but I really can’t. It was just the experience of it, the way that even though there were other people around this place still felt wild. It wasn’t packed to the gills like Yellowstone, or a little bit intimidating like the Badlands. It was just…beautiful and peaceful, and it was something my soul needed to experience and to feel
I would love to go back here and stay for a week, just camping and taking it all in. We only got a small taste of the place, and it left me wanting more. I want to see new parks, but this one? This one is a place I do plan to return to eventually.
Life List Item: Complete
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