We traveled north out of South Dakota into North Dakota. This would be our first visit to North Dakota. The first town we came to was Bowman. As we continued north out of Bowman our Tire Pressure Measurement System (TPMS) alarm went off. I am so glad we had purchased the TPMS. Because of it we were able to get off the road safely with no damage to Texas Pete or further damage to the tire. We contacted our FMCA Roadside Assistance and they dispatched a service truck from Dickinson, ND some eighty miles away. After about three hours we were back on the road again. Our next stop would be the Bad Lands of North Dakota.
To be honest I didn’t even know there were Bad Lands in North Dakota. We had chosen a boondocking spot just three miles from Medora, ND on the boarder of the Southern Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We were in the Little Missouri National Grasslands in a place called Scoria Pit Dispersed Camping. We parked on the top of a hill and this turned out to be an epic spot. We could see for miles.
April 1, 1883 Marquis de Mores established the town of Medora and named it after his wife. Medora became quite the cattle town almost overnight. Growing quite rapidly to over a thousand people. The Marquise had quite a plan. Instead of driving cattle all the way to Chicago he would build a meat packing plant and send the meat via refrigerated train cars east and avoid the Chicago middle men. Cattlemen from all over the west had discovered the Bad Lands and deemed them some of the best cattle country in the west.
Theodore Roosevelt had first come to the Dakota Territory in the summer of 1883 to hunt buffalo. While on this trip he invested $14,000 in a Wyoming Cattle Ranch. This would be his first venture into ranching. He returned home and faced the worst tragedy of his life. On February 14, Roosevelt’s mother and wife both died eleven hours apart in the same house. A few months later he headed west to the Dakota Territory once again. He went, in part, to find solace for such great loss. Just a few miles outside Medora he purchased the Maltese Cross Ranch along with 450 head of cattle. He would later purchase what would be called the Elkhorn Ranch where he would have a house built on a bend of the Little Missouri River. This would become Roosevelts favorite spot in the Dakota Territory. He would eventually build a herd of 4,500 cattle. But the second winter in the Dakota Territory the cattle were struck by disease and a brutal winter that devastated the herd. After two years the ranch was bankrupt and Roosevelt returned home to New York.
It would be hard to estimate the impact those years in the Dakota Territory had on Roosevelt. In 1918, he said “I have always said I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” His time in Dakota Territory were the basis for his preservation efforts and a shaping force of his character. As president he established the US Forest Service and the Antiquities Act. He proclaimed eighteen national monuments. Along with congress he created five National Parks and 150 National Forests protecting 250 million acres of natural beauty.
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in 1947 to honor his legacy. The park makes up the area of his ranches. It has three different Units the Southern, Northern, and Elkhorn Units. The main park headquarters and visitors center is located in the Southern Unit. The entrance to this Unit is in Medora. There is a thirty plus mile scenic loop where great vistas can be seen along with a variety of wildlife. You might see buffalo, wild horses, prairie dogs, white tail and mule deer, bighorn sheep and a variety of birds and other critters. There is an area of petrified forest which is accessible by way of a hiking trail and there are many other rails for hikers.
The Northern Unit is about a sixty-mile drive north of the Southern. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the main part of the park is in the south and the other Units are just more of the same. We enjoyed the Northern Unit the most of the three. There is a 28-mile scenic drive in the Northern Unit which follows the Little Missouri River. The Bad Lands in this Unit are by far the most beautiful of those in the south and even those in South Dakota. There is plenty of wildlife to view. There are amazing geological features to see and enjoy. The scenic drive runs along the top of the Bad Lands and the river runs through a valley down below providing gorgeous views.
The Elkhorn unit is a thirty plus mile drive on dirt roads that leads you to what was Roosevelt’s home in the Dakota Territory. Don’t let the dirt road discourage you. It is in very good condition and you should have no problems. When you turn off the “main” road to head down to the Elkhorn Unit the road conditions are not quite as good, but the day we were there any car should have been able to make the journey. The Park Service does suggest you consult them to get the condition of the road because rain can cause erosion on the park road and make it a bit more difficult. Roosevelt’s ranch house no longer stands but the foundation stones still remain. It is one-and-a-half-mile hike back to the homeplace. When you get there, you will find a gate. Pass through the gate and go to the right and you’ll see the foundation.
In the summer Medora has a musical simply called “Medora the Musical”. We really enjoyed this show and highly recommend it. Just make a night of it and be sure to have the Steak Fondue at the restaurant next door. It’s quite the experience and the food is plentiful and delicious. We were there July 4th and went to the parade in Medora. It was truly a western parade with lots of cowboys and cowgirls and of course dozens of horses.
We really enjoyed Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are worth a place in your bucket list.
Leaving the Bad Lands, we traveled east toward Bismarck. Along the way we took the Enchanted Highway. This highway has a number of massive metal sculptures along the route. Our next stop was Fort Abraham Lincoln. This is a nice park with a restored Native American village and the Western home of George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary. There is a nice campground in the park where we stayed for a couple of nights. While we were in the area we traveled northwest to the Louis and Clark Interpretive Center. Located on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River this is a fine museum with a lot of information and displays about the Corps of Discovery. Two miles down the road is Fort Mandan where Louis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent their first winter. The actual location of the fort has never been discovered. It is believed that the Missouri River changed course and that the fort site lies somewhere nearby under the river. A full-scale model of the fort has been built at this location based on the notes and diaries of members of the corps. A park ranger was there to tell the story of the fort and that first winter of the Corps of Discovery and their relationship with the local tribes.
One surprise in North Dakota was the amount of agriculture there. Crops such as wheat, corn, soy beans, and canola were plentiful. There is much more we would like to see and do in North Dakota so we will definitely return someday.