At last we reached our goal (other than ice cream treats): Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Teddy spent a lot of time in North Dakota, using his ranch there as a getaway to grieve the loss of both his wife and mother. (In the same house. Within 12 hours of each other! Poor man.) He fell in love with the wild ruggedness of North Dakota, and as we explored the park, we could see the appeal. It’s divided into two units, North and South, and they are 69 miles apart, so we had our fun cut out for us.
On our first day, we entered the North Unit and started driving. A few years earlier, we had visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We were surprised on this trip to learn that North Dakota has badlands too. The North Dakota badlands are geologically older than their southern brethren – about 2 million years older – and so there is much more growth than we would have expected. What could we do but start hiking? We watched the movie in the tiny Visitor Center, then drove the 14-mile scenic drive to its end at Oxbow Overlook and admired the beauty around us. There, we hiked a short distance to Sperati Point, admiring all the wildflowers and grasses on the way.
Driving back toward the Visitor Center we stopped to hike to the Prairie Dog Town (via Caprock Coulee to the Buckhorn Trail, for those of you following in our footsteps). Prairie Dogs are actually a type of ground squirrel, and they live in interconnected underground burrows called towns. On our way out, we encountered and almost ran into a lone bison. I think he was just as surprised by us as we were by him. Fortunately, he decided just to watch us, and not run us out of his turf. But I had to hold Stephanie back from turning around and trying to pet him.
The next day, we entered the South Unit early in the morning and saw wild horses as we drove! There was all sorts of hiking to be had. We set off on the day-long Jones Creek Loop trail. We came across some more prairie dog towns as we hiked. We heard a coyote and saw a print but never actually saw him. There were, of course, more bison to be seen, and there was more fabulous scenery. In fact, that is basically the recurring theme of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: great hiking, beautiful scenery and interesting wildlife.
After our long hike, we drove the 36 mile scenic loop road in the South Unit. Perhaps one of our favorite parts of TRNP was the bison jams. This is where traffic comes to a standstill because the buffalo want to use the road. Often we would turn off the engine and just sit and watch them. At one point, we were doing just that when a leaf dropped off a tree and onto my hand which made me jump (and maybe scream a little). That, in turn, startled the bison, and so two big ones took off because a guy in a car flinched. Yes, we have it on video. No, you can’t see it!*
On our third day, back in the North Unit, we revisited the Caprock Coulee Trail and found the first mile of it was a great nature trail. This differs from a hiking trail in that there are signs explaining some of the stuff we’re seeing around us. For example…
After the nature trail miles ended, the Caprock Coulee became more strenuous, but rewarding as it took us to the top of a grassy butte and along a ridge line.
While we were in the park, the Little Missouri River was running very low. This came in handy that afternoon when we approached our planned hiking trail, only to find it was closed for maintenance. We asked a park ranger for ideas, and he told us the river was so low that we could wade in it! With the oppressive heat, it sounded like just what the doctor ordered. We walked shin-deep down the river, cooling off old-timey style(!) and enjoying the scenery.
Once we were sufficiently cool, we went to our next site to see the cannonballs, more correctly called concretions. This is where minerals in layers of sediment harden into spheres before the rest of the sediment turns into rock. When the outer rock (usually sandstone) erodes, the concretions are exposed. It was tons of fun to climb up and around these things!
And who knew there was a petrified forest in North Dakota? On our last day, back in the South Unit, a nice long hike along the Petrified Forest Loop took us to the remnants of trees that were millions of years old. As if that wasn’t enough, we saw a herd of Pronghorn Antelope, and shared our lunch space with a couple of bison who were too busy looking majestic to pay us any attention.
One of the last things we did before leaving the park was a park-guided tour of Teddy’s original cabin. It was neat to imagine him there, living and hunting and enjoying the beauty of everything we had just seen over the past several days.
Our parting stop on our way out of North Dakota was Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. This was home to several villages of the Hidatsa Indians of the Northern Plains. It was at one time a major local center for agriculture and trade. There’s not much left, but there is a re-creation of an earth lodge – a dome-shaped hut made of earth and wood in which the Hidatsa lived and worked.
North Dakota turned out to offer so much more than we thought it would, including endless photo ops of nature being beautiful. It reminded me all over again that any destination you can think of has something to offer, and *that* is why we want to go everywhere!
*Or maybe you can!! – Stephanie