Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Desolate, Grim Beauty

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Desolate, Grim Beauty

I found Theodore Roosevelt's description of this place to be pretty accurate based on my experience. "I grew very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me."

The landscape is grayish and light brown, the grass isn't extraordinarily green, and the river is a muddy. There are snakes everywhere (I counted over 10 in 3 days). There was a rotting dead buffalo on the side of the road and to top things off I witnessed a young wild horse taking it's last breaths. This all sounds a little depressing and it is but "nature's cathedral" isn't all Yosemite Valley and the Sun shining through the Redwood Forest. Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Badlands of North Dakota showed me the nasty side of nature, the side that isn't printed on a post card to send home or typically shared on a Pinterest page with an inspiring cliché quote. This place must have felt fitting for Theodore Roosevelt after his mother and wife died on the same day which prompted his decision to move out west in search of a new life and to heal his wounds.

Now moving on to the things you can do in the park. The visitor center is decent, it has a lot of good information on the park and some history on Theodore Roosevelt. Behind the visitor center is Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin. You can walk inside and read more about Roosevelt and see some of his original personal items like his desk. This wasn't the original location of the cabin but was moved within park grounds. This also wasn't his "home" cabin. His home cabin is Elkhorn Ranch. 


Elkhorn Ranch is the smallest of three units belonging to park and is a couple hours drive on a dirt road from the South Unit. Though maybe not the smartest decision, having a small 2-wheel drive Nissan Sentra, I decided to make the drive on the dirt road. Hours later I successfully made it to Elkhorn Ranch, but it wasn't Theodore Roosevelt's. After driving back and forth lost, I decided to pull over to look at a map when a women driving by noticed my out of state tags. She asked "Where are you trying to get to?". I said "Elkhorn Ranch". She then said "Follow me!" So I followed her for about 15min only for her to take me to her ranch which just happened to be named, wait for it..."Elkhorn Ranch". Her husband just happened to be waiting on relatives from out of state and she thought I was the relatives. I decided to give up on Theodore Roosevelt's ranch at that point but as far as I'm concerned I found "Elkhorn Ranch".  

One thing you must do whether you have a couple hours or the entire weekend is take the Scenic Loop drive. You will most likely see bison, wild horses, and what seems like an infinite amount of prairie dogs. A few short hiking trails are also just off the road if you want to stretch your legs.

This photo was taken off of Wind Canyon Trail, only a 0.4 mile loop. What isn't pictured is a snake yards away that me and my girlfriend had just dodged.

The best trail in the park is the Petrified Forest Loop Trial. It is a 10.3 mile loop that takes you through two different sections of petrified forest and has very little traffic. Though it is long it is not very strenuous. Directions to the trailhead are available in the visitor center because you'll have to drive outside the park to get to it. 

The south unit provides camping at Cottenwood Campground and in my opinion is located on the best piece of land in Theodore Roosevelt NP and is one of my favorite campground locations at any of the National Parks. It is right up against the Little Missouri River and wildlife regularly wonder through the campground. The only downside to the campground is that you can often hear traffic on I-94 right outside the park.

Here is bison feet away from my tent.

Like every National Park I've visited I enjoyed my short time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was cool to walk in the footsteps of one of the founders of our National Park System and see his initial inspiration for preserving America's lands. It is also always enjoyable to experience a unique landscape not found in other parts of United States.


1 comment

  • Tricia

    I agree about Cottonwood Campground. It is easily in my top 5 NP Campground in the 49 states we’ve visited so far. So sad you witnessed the animal deaths, natural or not, but the point that TRNP pushes visitors into the wilds is well taken. I really can’t wait to visit again.

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