Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Traveling to Medora

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On September 8, 1883, twenty-four-year-old Theodore Roosevelt traveled from his New York home to the Little Missouri badlands of western Dakota Territory so that he could hunt a buffalo before they were extinguished from the Great Plains. He arrived in the middle of the night at the depot in Little Missouri near the Montana border. Exhausted, he found lodging on a cot in a bunkhouse hotel near the tracks. Next morning, the young Harvard grad, up-and-coming in the New York legislature, whose wife back east was expecting their first child, would hire a local guide and set out on what he would later term “the romance of my life.”

On September 10, 2014, after Sean and I completed our hike at Devils Tower National Monument, we were ready to head to North Dakota for the second half of our Dakotas adventure. We did, however, need to make a brief pit stop back in Rapid City. Sean had inadvertently purchased two tops and no bottoms for his new long underwear (necessary since the temperatures in western North Dakota were expected to dip into the 30s and the region was under a frost advisory). So back we went to Rapid City.

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Bear Butte State Park, South Dakota Image: Sean M. Santos

We were both more or less glad to be back in the Dakotas after Wyoming. Sean had a stronger feeling about it than I did, but we both felt a vibe that was different in Wyoming. Nothing overt, nothing we could necessarily point to and say, that was weird, but definitely a different, and not wholly pleasant, vibe. We were in Wyoming for less than twenty-four hours, so its almost unfair to mention it. But since we both independently felt it, it constitutes part of the trip.

Back in Rabid City and back at Scheels, we felt right at home. Sean exchanged his long underwear. I decided to play it safe and buy a new winter hat and an extra layer of pajama pants. We also grabbed a package of instant hand warmers. We stocked up on water and a few more sundries from Target. Then it was time for lunch. Sean found Smiling Moose Deli, which served up great sandwiches. Unfortunately, we had to wait for them to make another pot of coffee. I had not eaten enough, and it was almost 2pm, so I was getting angry with hunger. And honestly, I felt like we were losing a whole day of the trip with this long detour back to Rapid City. So I asked Sean if he would wait for the coffee, and then I went and gassed up the Jeep.

Finally, we were on our way to North Dakota, through the town of Sturgis and then north passed Bear Butte State Park.

The weather painted the landscape apocalyptic. Rolling brown fields under a gray-green sky. It rained constantly, save for the moments when it turned to sleet. We began to notice the first of many, many large tankers on the highway as we entered the southern edge of the Bakken oil fields.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

DJ Sean chose Janelle Monáe‘s “The Electric Lady” album, jarringly discordant with the region in its sonic explorations of jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop, and R&B, but absolutely in concert with our surroundings in its futuristic, dystopian sci-fi themes. I cannot hear the album now without seeing that gray-green sky.

Of the 2,300 miles we drove on the trip, this was the hardest section for me. The weather was awful, I felt like I wanted to rush in order to get to Theodore Roosevelt before it got too dark to see anything, I was nervous about the impending freezing temperatures (my base layer was still drying out) and it was about an hour longer than I’d been prepared for.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established in 1947 by President Harry Truman. In the years between Roosevelt’s death in 1919 and the National Memorial Park’s establishment, the area had been slowly moving toward protection of some sort. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed camps and roads in what was then known as the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area. In the late 1940s, it would become the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The creation of the National Memorial Park would transfer its management to the National Park Service.

On November 10, 1978 (two days before I was born…and the same day as Badlands National Park), the area was upgraded to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and 30,000 acres of the park were designated wilderness under the Wilderness Act.

The park is divided into three units, South, North, and Elkhorn Ranch. Each unit touches the Little Missouri River as it flows north-northeast toward the Missouri River. The units are connected by the Little Missouri National Grassland, managed by the Forest Service.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We finally arrived in Medora, North Dakota, the gateway to the South Unit, in the late afternoon. The town, population 129, was established the same year that Roosevelt first arrived in Dakota Territory, and it would swiftly overtake Little Missouri as the center of economic and social life in the badlands region. The town is nestled along a still-in-use rail line in a valley surrounded by badlands. I-94 passes nearby through the southern edge of the park.

Approaching Medora and the South Unit along I-94 from the east is impressive. The flat expanse of western North Dakota fields gives way abruptly to a rolling, multi-hued landscape of bluffs, hoodoos, hills, and valleys. You realize that you’ve left the Great Plains behind and entered somewhere else.

We wanted to set up camp before it got dark and the temperature dropped precipitously, so we blew through Medora and headed directly for Cottonwood Campground. It was quiet, but not as deserted as we’d expected on such a rainy, chill evening. We selected a beautiful site on the Little Missouri and pitched the tent under the shelter of some cottonwood trees.

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To the west across the river were the bluffs of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness.

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Although it was still raining, it had let up considerably, and it would soon stop entirely. We were thrilled to see that the campsites boasted small, raised grills and that we were allowed to burn wood in them. A campfire would be the perfect thing to keep us warm and prepare us for a damp, near-freezing night.

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Up on the prairie above the valleys, the clouds were so low that it seemed you could touch them.

While it was still light, we drove back into Medora in search of firewood. As we descended into the valley, a train was passing through, a scene not entirely dissimilar to what Roosevelt must have experienced.

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Medora these days is almost entirely focused on tourism surrounding the park. It is also the home of the North Dakota Cowboy Museum and is the county seat.

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Near the park entrance, we found the Medora C-Store with firewood for sale. We got some gas, some hot dogs and mac and cheese, a bottle of wine, and several cords of firewood. Then, feeling much better about the evening and night ahead of us, we headed back to camp.

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On the way back in, up and over the prairie bluffs, we spotted our first bison of this park, grazing near a stretch of the park road that was under construction.

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Soon we had a warm fire going, with which we toasted ourselves in addition to our food as the evening turned colder and colder. It would ultimately dip to about 35 degrees that night. But we were fine with our layers and our three-season, mummy-style sleeping bags.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

I couldn’t help thinking the next morning that Teddy likely would have described our damp, chill camp with an enthusiastic, “Bully!” or “Deelighted!”

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Next morning dawned mostly clear and cold, perfect for taking in the view over a cup of strong, hot coffee. We noticed that the two fellows in the campsite adjacent to ours had spent the night not in their tent but in their little red car with Wisconsin plates. Sean decided that their names were Will and Will’s Friend and that they were probably kissing.

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After breakfast, we were ready to spend a day exploring the South Unit.

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