Home Away From Home, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The best-laid plans go awry. We decided last night that we would not sleep past 6:45 and would not spend an hour drinking coffee. Well, we didn’t spend an hour drinking coffee after I woke up at 7:15, a little later than planned.

We headed out for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and took the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive. We decided that we would stop at each interesting overlook. Our first stop was Skyline Vista, a short .2-mile loop trail on a short, paved path. It led up to a viewing area overlooking the Little Missouri River.

Our next overlook was at the River Woodland where we could see a portion of the Little Missouri River bottomlands. Cottonwoods lined the river course where their roots got abundant moisture. Juniper trees were abundant.

As we traveled on, the road was lined with cottonwood trees on either side and it was quite shady. The diversity of the park is quite obvious as we see prairie land, Badlands and then verdant grazing lands.

As we wound around the road, we saw a lone bison on a hill at a distance and then when we got to Prairie Dog Town, very appropriated named by the way, we saw another lone bison lumbering along. We slowed down and then stopped as he crossed the road right in front of our car. Naturally, we gave him all the room he wanted.

Next up was Wind Canyon. Labeled a moderate hike with gravel and dirt surface with stairs it was only .4 mile round trip. As we walked up we could see people on the left of the path climbing the rocks and sliding down the sandy dunes. While it looked like fun it was too early in the day for that messy walk for us. We continued on to the top of the high bluff where we were overlooking the Little Missouri River. At the edge of the river, we could see hoof prints but we couldn’t determine what kind of animal made them. As we stood there looking, we started chatting with a couple, Pam and Brian, from Florida who are staying at Medora Campground and leaving tomorrow for Glacier. We chatted for a few minutes and then headed on out.

We saw a dirt road, East River Road and decided to explore a bit off of the beaten path. It actually led out of the park and we ended up on grazing land, land if damaged was punishable by law. We did not see anything grazing though. Kind of a bust.

We ran into Pam and Brian again at our next overlook and chatted for about 20 minutes exchanging ideas and travel information. Further on down the road, we stopped at Coal Vein Trail and there we met up again so all four of us took the trail. It’s a mile loop with numbered posts that explain how the trail has changed since an underground coal vein fire in the 1970s. We saw examples of brick red rock or clinker which formed when the coal veins caught fire and baked the rock above changing it into much harder rock. Sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone are sediments washed down from the Rocky Mountains. We also saw bentonite clay, a substance made of ash from distant volcanoes. Fortunately, the area is dry because the bentonite is very slippery when wet. We caught a slight whiff of something that smelled good and though we finally identified the source we didn’t know the name of the shrub. We had a very enjoyable hike albeit a very hot one. When I got back in the car I checked the temperature and it was 95 degrees!

We quickly got in the car and turned on the AC, then headed on around the Scenic loop until we reached the “Closed” sign. We later found out that the highway from mile 24 to mile 28 had collapsed and it is going to take an engineering feat to repair it and it could take a couple of years. It is the original road that was built from the Old East Entrance.

We then decided it was time to either find a place to picnic or head back to the coach. We had already seen a small herd of horses and a couple of bison so we could leave the park if necessary.

Suddenly as we rode along, we saw a lot of bison on either side of the road turning into the Peaceful Valley Ranch. Of course, we pulled right in and joined the long line of traffic. Since we were either moving slowly or not moving at all we enjoyed our sandwiches right there in the car. Another picnic plan foiled!

As we were returning to the entrance of the park we stopped by Visitor’s Center and got some of our questions answered. There are approximately 400-500 bison in the area and around 200 wild horses. Originally there were many more feral horses in the park but the National Park Service decided to remove all the horses from the park. However, in 1970 a change of policy recognized the horse as part of the historical setting so new policies were written to protect and manage the herds of horses. Now, the park conducts a roundup every three to four years to herd the horses to a handling facility. There they can be sold at public auction and the cost ranges from $400 to $2000 each. More recently, the park is trying other means for herd management including contraceptives, low-stress capture, and genetic research. They also partner with some nonprofit advocacy groups.

We also visited the replica of the cabin where Roosevelt lived. It is located in the back of the Visitor’s Center. There I got one of my earlier questions answered. I knew that Roosevelt’s mother and wife died on the same day, the wife in childbirth, but I never heard anything about the baby. It was a girl and she did survive. Six months later Roosevelt left his daughter in the care of his sister while he returned to his cabin at Maltese Cross Ranch in North Dakota where he began the healing process from his crushing losses.

The park is very close to our campground so we rode back to the RV for a little respite and some ice cream. We couldn’t quite decide what to do with the rest of our day as it was getting too late to go to the North Side of the park. We decided to take a short ride to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and Overlook. It is a nice center with good information. We happened upon a ranger talk and I got to ask him about the flowers that I had been walking through for the last couple of days, both in Devils Tower and here. They are indigenous sweet clover. Good to know. We decided it was too hot and too late to venture out on the one-mile hike.

After the Painted Canyon, we rode back to Medora and walked around for a few minutes, in and out of shops buying nothing. I think we were both so tired from the morning that we just needed to be seated in air condition whether it was inside a store, a car or our coach. It’s difficult for someone who lives at 43 feet above sea level to hike at 2600 feet in 95-degree weather.

As we rode back into the park for our final trip we saw bison several times but the most outstanding sight was at a distance. Two bison on top of a hill at Wind Canyon. We never could get quite close enough for Jerry to get a great picture though he did capture a few shots. We had hoped to see some wild horses but instead saw lots of prairie dogs with a coyote stalking them. Prairie dogs are not actually dogs but a kind of rodent. They get the name of “dog” from the dog-like bark they emit to warn others of danger. I had earlier asked the ranger if they managed the scads of prairie dogs and she said it was not necessary due to the natural predators in the park such as badgers, coyotes, etc.

As we neared the end of the road suddenly, we saw three horses, a mare and a nursing mare with her baby. As we sat there and looked at them eight more mares with babies emerged from the other side of the road. What a treat and what a memorable way to end our visit to Theodore Roosevelt State Park.

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