Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - The North Dakota Badlands

A visit to Theodore Roosevelt (TR) National Park took its place on my Life Goal List back in 1986 when I learned of it while reading the Wilderness Society quarterly publication in the Purdue Library during a study break. Later, as I developed a fascination and profound respect for TR, I felt a connection with this unique landscape that I had never set foot in. Now that I have walked, slept, ridden, and driven through the oddly sculpted and seemingly broken land while trying to envision the "strenuous life" TR found so endearing I feel even more attracted to it. I also recognized and welcomed the healing and strengthening aura that TR often spoke and wrote of.

A young TR visited the area in 1883, killed a buffalo, and bought into the Maltese Cross Ranch. He returned in February 1884 as a broken man having lost both his mother and wife on the same day. TR started his own ranch, the Elkhorn, about thirty miles north of the Maltese Cross and the town of Medora, ND. Medora had been founded in 1883 by Frenchman Marquis de Mores with his elegant home, the Chateau de Mores (now a museum), and his meat packing plant as primary structures. While de Mores wanted to send meat to Chicago on refrigerated rail cars TR wanted to raise cattle to supply meat to a growing population of settlers and miners.

A bitterly cold 1887 winter killed almost all of TR's livestock, bringing an end to his ranch as an industry, but the event helped formulate and give momentum to his conservation philosophy because it coincided with the mass slaughter of the bison. The bison had been reduced from more than 5,000,000 in 1870 to less than 500 by 1889.

TR also noted the widespread destruction of the landscape as he traveled across the country. He felt that something had to be done. Yellowstone was already an established national park. TR wanted more lands protected:

“It is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening.”

TRNP was envisioned it its first form in 1919, was named the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park by Truman in 1947 and was officially named a national park in 1978. It is broken into three areas called units: South Unit, North Unit, and Elkhart Ranch Unit. They are accessed by separate entrances. The South Unit is entered through Medora and has 35 miles of paved, winding, and hilly roadway featuring a 24-mile loop. The North Unit paved road winds 14 miles to a turn around. I camped next the Little Missouri River in the South Unit Cottonwood Campground. Juniper Campground in the North Unit looked just as therapeutic.

The combination of Medora, the surrounding National Grasslands, and TRNP present a worthwhile reason for visiting the otherwise out of the way plains of North Dakota. The wonderful people I met from all over the world in this park included: elderly Jerry, who took my photo and discussed the Ever After with me - a 30-something couple from Banff, Canada who, like me, dodged the many massive piles of bison scat on their bikes while riding the park road - Lisa and Jenny, a couple from Seattle who were "just wandering," and Jeremy, a Trinity geology major from Ohio whose internship included working the Visitor Center information desk and presenting the ranger geology talk. And then there were the many animals I encountered. Not pictured below is the prairie dog who first played dead on the road and then attempted to run between my bike wheels. It failed, but managed to run away after the neck crush of my rear tire.

Below are some of the sights I captured during my three day visit.

The bison herd is expanding!
You Shall NOT Pass!

Wild horses might not keep me away, but they will cause me delay.
Applying insect repellent
It just happened . . .

The North Unit has a large bison herd and a longhorn herd

Ralph left a mess - I cleaned it up.
Family life in the grasslands
Teddy's writing table in his Maltese Cabin
TR's Maltese Cabin was a quality structure given the time and place

A gentle post race ride on a challenging loop
Steep climbs and descents kept it interesting when absorbing the scenery - and avoiding the bison scat!
Next stop on the tour . . .

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