Our Visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Looking for Wildlife
How do you know when there is wildlife in a National Park? You look for cars stopped in the middle of the road.
Shortly after we entered the park, there were several cars stopped in the middle of the road. I knew there was wildlife but which one? It turned out to be a small herd of wild horses grazing by the side of the road. It’s only horses, hardly exotic, but I was excited to see these beautiful creatures so soon after entering the park!
Around the bend, prairie dogs who had sentry duty were “barking” their warnings that a harmless human was approaching. I quickly grabbed my camera, switched to my long lense, and snapped away happily. These creatures, while a pest to the farmers, were so cute and cuddly! It was fascinating to watch their behavior.
Two sightings in the first ten minutes of the drive! We are off to a good start!
Theodore Roosevelt (TR) National Park is a diverse park in the sense that it has a little of many things. There isn’t a single, iconic feature, but the park has interesting rock formations, canyons, meadows, grasslands, bisons, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, wildflowers, deer, pronghorn and historic sites.
The diversity made this park interesting. The solitude made this park enjoyable. For example, the North Unit, which took a bit of effort to visit since it was an hour away from the South Unit, had only a couple of hundred people a day. We saw only a handful of people on the hikes we took. We spent plenty of time listening to the rustling leaves and birds chirping.
We drove the 36 mile scenic loop of the South Unit, stopping along the way for multiple short hikes. The drive offered multiple, grand views of the North Dakota Badlands, which are older and rounder than the South Dakota Badlands. The grey / white color certainly gave us a feeling of desolation and we quickly understood why this land was called the badlands by the native Americans and the French alike. It was hard to pass through and near impossible to farm.
Prairie Dogs – pest or cute?
We saw plenty of prairie dogs and prairie dog towns. They are very destructive to land, especially farmland so they are considered pests outside of the park. They are, however, very cute as they stand on their hind legs, and bark like a squeeze toy to warm their clan of danger. When in doubt, they go into their burrows to hide and avoid predators. During a couple of our hikes, the trail was right down the middle of prairie dog towns and we were able to get close to them and their burrows. I don’t know why they are called dogs since they look more like rats. They must have hired a great PR agent because would you want to walk around a “prairie rat town”?
These towns were so plentiful, after a while, it was … there goes another prairie dog … no big deal. If there is ever a guarantee to see wildlife in a National Park, this is it. You can’t help but see them.
We saw bison, otherwise known as American buffalo, in multiple settings. Many times, they graze in the grasslands off in a distance from the road, minding their own business. During our hike of the magnificent Capstone Coulee trail, we were looking down to assure our footing when we came across a bend, and there was a bison grazing 20 yards from the trail. We looked at him and he looked at us, then went back to grazing. We decided to give him a wide berth and went off trail into the grasslands. When I stopped to take a closer picture, he looked up to make sure we were far enough away before he resumed his grazing. The bison can charge you at 30 miles an hour, far faster than people can run so it’s wise to give them room
As we drove the park scenic road, we came around a bend and there was a bison, perhaps even the same bison we saw on the trail earlier, walking down the middle of the road. There was a camper behind him, inching along as the bison walked. When the bison saw my car, he paused, looked up, and continued walking towards my car. A ranger told me earlier that a bison, if he feels boxed in, can be very aggressive. The idiot that drove the camper followed the bison closely and gave him no room. I had to back up so the bison doesn’t feel boxed in. He continued to walk towards me but eventually walked off into the grass. As I passed him, his tail was up and a few gallons of bison dung poured out of his butt. I’m glad he didn’t do it right on the road!
A ranger was standing by his truck, right off the road with a tripod 25 yards away. I slowed and asked him what he was measuring, thinking it was some kind of instrument. He asked me if I wanted to see bighorn sheep and I immediately jumped at the chance because that was one large animal we haven’t seen yet. He had a telescope set up that pointed at the ridge on the other side of a valley. I peered through the telescope and sure enough, there were three bighorn sheep grazing and resting on a ledge. They looked so content!
I was thrilled to be see these sheep with their big, round, curling horns that can weigh up to 30 pounds, more than the weight of the rest of their bones! The horns curl around so much they have to rub the tip off so it doesn’t interfere with their vision. I quickly set up the tripod and the long lens in an attempt to snap a few pictures. What a treat!
Teddy Roosevelt came to the Dakota Badlands a few times, initially to hunt bison but came after the tragedy of losing his wife to childbirth and his mother to typhoid in the same house on the same day so he can recover. The time he spent in the Badlands fueled his passion for conservation. As president, he set aside more land for conservation than any other president. As we traveled around the National Parks, his name came up again and again. The National Parks are part of his legacy and his vision. TR National Park is the only park named after a person, and he richly deserved it.
His first cabin in the Badlands was on display. It was a simple cabin but more elaborate than cabins of its day. Although he proclaimed to lead a “strenuous life”, his cabin had a private room apart from the rest of the cabin, which was “glamping” it for its day.
TR spent most of his time in the Badlands at Elkhorn Ranch. Unfortunately, only the foundation remain and it’s the third “unit” of the park. It required a 90 minute drive from the South Unit on an unpaved road and a high clearance vehicle. We didn’t have such a vehicle so we didn’t make the trip.
Thought for Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
Grand accomplishment require a grand vision, just like Theodore Roosevelt’s vision of conservation was critical to the success of America’s best idea – National Parks
Impressions of Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s diversity of landscape, history and wildlife is an excellent embodiment of its namesake’s legacy. While the essence of this park is the Badlands rock formation, it is so much more. The scenic drives, the hikes, and the large animal wildlife were a joy to visit. It’s also an easy park to visit, once you get there. I knew little about the park before the visit and after the visit, I really like the park.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Top Attractions at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- South Unit Scenic Loop
- North Unit Scenic Drive
- Prairie Dog Towns
- Capstone Coulee Trail
One Day Visit Plan
If you have only one day, drive the 36 mile Scenic Loop in the South Unit. Hike the numerous short (less than a mile) trails along the way.
Practical Info for Visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Spend one day at the South Unit on the scenic drive
- Be sure to hike as many of the trails off of the scenic drive as possible. Most are short and easy
- Spend one day at the North Unit. Even though it’s an hour away from the South Unit and the interstate, it’s well worth the trip.
- North Unit is much less crowded and affords better chance of wildlife viewing
- The Painted Canyon visitor center is also a rest stop. Do not go there for dark sky and star gazing. There are too many trucks and lights.
- Capstone Coulee trail in the North Unit is an excellent moderate trail that goes through multiple climate zones with great vistas
- North Unit is in Central Time zone while South Unit is in Mountain Time zone. The time zone boundary actually runs west to east along the Little Missouri River!
- Dickinson is the closest reasonable sized town. It has the usual complement of roadside hotels and restaurants.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Facts:
- Size: 70,446 acres, ranked 43rd
- Visitors: 796,085 in 2021, ranked 28. 2021 was a Record
- Peak Month in 2021: 176,113 visitors in July
- Low Month in 2021: 2,187 visitors in December
- Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle, $15 per person not in a vehicle
Date Visited: September 20 – 21, 2017