Roaming Bison, Running Horses and A Dusty Pay Phone
Around 1873 a Kansas fellow by the name of Dr. Brewster Higley penned a poem that highlighted the desire for a "home where the buffalo roam." That poem was later set to music and eventually became the state song for Kansas. Of course, most of us are familiar with the song Home on the Range. And, while Kansas is certainly a pretty place to visit, the words from that poem/song came to life for us in a state north of Kansas, as we entered through the southern gates of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
Just a short drive into the park, visitors can view herds of majestic bison contently grazing in the wild prairie grasses under perfectly blue skies. It's also there that the deer, elk and horses play. Can any place be so peaceful, magical, and exciting all at once? Yes, it can and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in 1978. It was first created as a national memorial park in 1947. Its boundaries have been adjusted through the years and today the park consists of more than 70,000 acres. That's a lot of land for the buffalo to roam!
We headed to Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the Midwest. As we drove across North Dakota toward the park's south entrance, we took a quick pit stop along Interstate 94 at the park's Painted Canyon Visitor Center. There are three Visitor Centers for the park; the North Unit in Watford City, the South Unit in Medora, and Painted Canyon off of Interstate 94.
The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is a rest area squeezed in between the interstate and a colorful canyon. From the parking lot it does have a rest stop feel more so than that of a national park. There were several semi-trucks in the parking lot giving it that truck stop vibe. Don't let that dissuade you from stopping. It's definitely worth a visit.
It was just before Labor Day and the parking lot was active with last-minute family vacationers trying to squeeze in the remaining bits of summer. We eagerly walked up the sidewalk toward the building brimming with people. Inside, the Visitor Center was complete with books, shirts, hats, patches and all things souvenir. We're not knocking it. We enjoy visitor centers and dig cool national park t-shirts just like everybody else. But, once back outside we wanted to explore the surroundings.
We made our way through the crowd of people hanging around the front door and past a dusty phone booth (a.k.a. interesting time machine) toward an area few seemed to be visiting. It was an oasis behind the building called the Painted Canyon. The Painted Canyon is a rugged area described as "badlands" on the informational board at the lookout. With its multicolor hues and interesting textures, the area was not bad at all. It was breathtaking. The canyon extended for as far as the eye could see. We took pictures and enjoyed the scenery before walking a short trail that followed the ridge overlooking the canyon. Additional trails are available for explorers, but that brief taste of beauty at Painted Canyon made us eager to move forward to our South Unit destination before it became too late in the day. Onward we traveled.
The South Unit Visitor Center is located in the county seat of Billings, North Dakota in a town called Medora. It's not a big place. Only about 120 people live there full time from what we understand. Even so, the town offers visitors plenty to do. There are a variety of accommodations, restaurants, stores, shows and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We drove through town and past all the shops knowing we'd come back later and headed straight for the park's south entrance. A quick show of our America the Beautiful National Park Pass at the entrance booth and onward we rolled through the park gates. There are fees to enter here and you can pay for a single entrance or purchase a pass option to visit this and other national parks. More information about park pass options are available at www.nps.gov.
Make sure you have a camera ready when you visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park is home to hundreds of plant species and animals. As you drive through the scenic South Unit of the park, you'll have the pleasure of passing large prairie dog towns.
We've mentioned prairie dogs in some of our past blogs, but we have to say that they are simply fun to watch. Prairie dogs pop up and out of their holes and disappear just as quickly. The park makes sure there are plenty of places to pull off in your vehicle to watch the goofy rodents. When you're trying to get a photograph of a prairie dog it can be difficult because they're quick. And, noisy! We've included a short video in this blog to give you a feel for their squeakiness.
The burly bison in the park are simply phenomenal. We drove through the scenic park loop taking photos and then went back and drove through again and again. And, yes, we stopped for a while just to observe them. Most of the large creatures were roaming together in large herds that were complete with baby bison. As we drove the scenic loop road thinking we had passed most of the bison, we spotted one high upon a hill. He appeared to be alone and simply was watching everyone who was watching him.
The national park has a long list of animals that inhabit the park. You don't have to look hard to find some of them. Our best advice is to have a camera ready during your visit! Some will appear and disappear quickly. Other animals seem to enjoy putting on a show and posing for you. We spied feral horses running through the canyons. We learned the horses are only seen in the South Unit of the park, as they originally descended from domesticated stock. They were so pretty and we felt lucky to see them. Though, unfortunately, even holding camera in hand we weren't quick enough to capture a clear photo.
Like us, several people brought their fur babies with them. Pets are allowed in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but must remain leashed. There are plenty of places pets can accompany you within the park, but keep in mind they are not allowed on some trails due to the abundant area wildlife. Nonetheless, there's still a lot to see with them in tow and you'll find there are plenty of places to walk/hike with your furry buddy both inside and outside the park's boundaries.
Just remember to keep an eye on your pet's needs depending on the time of year you visit. Make sure to find shade or warmth when they need it. Water is always essential to have available. Keep some doo bags in your pocket. The park, and everybody else, appreciates it if you clean up after your furry friend. We also bring sneakers for our pup when we travel to protect the pads of her paws from hot pavement in the summer or ice/snow in the winter.
As the sun started to go down, we headed to a nearby campground. We reserved a place to stay at Sully Creek State Park in Medora. Sully Creek is just off the beaten path. It is a rustic, quiet place to stay. Our campsite had electric and water hookups. There was a shared dump station for sewer. The campground was a small, no fuss place to stay with few amenities other than a quiet atmosphere and pretty views. It's definitely the right place to stay if you like to stargaze. We like that the campsites were spaced with plenty of elbow room. That's always a big plus for us and we will generally exchange some modern amenities for natural views and more privacy. Expect a bit of dust from the red graveled sites and roads within the campground. Don't expect to get more than an occasional blip of cell service.
The Sully Creek Campground office was closed when we arrived, so we proceeded to the site we reserved in advance. The park ranger made the rounds later to make sure we were the folks who had reserved the spot. Yes, Sir! We're us and thanks for checking. The ranger was very nice. We were told the sites in the small campground fill quickly and we have no doubt that's true.
There is another campground in Medora if you like to be a little closer to town. We're sure their cell service was much better, but their campsite elbow room appeared a bit tighter. As always, try to do some research via Medora's website so you know what's available before you go. As with many places, availabilities for lodging and businesses may change with the seasons.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open to guests all year long, but check the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov for the hours of the various Visitor Centers. The availability of each center differs and may change with the seasons. The park offers primitive camping at certain locations and times of year. Current weather advisories can also be found on the park website and they do come in handy.
The South Unit was having a bit of road repair during our visit. That meant closing a several-mile section of the park's scenic loop drive, though that didn't impact our enjoyment of the park. The beautiful scenic drive allows people to visit the park without having to leave the comfort of their vehicle. However, our advice is to get out and look around if you are able. Dr. Higley was certainly onto something back in 1873. A few moments watching the buffalo can do wonders for your spirit. Those dang prairie dogs will bring a smile to your face, as well. Oh, and the HORSES!
We hung around Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the town of Medora for a couple of days, took lots of walks and then continued with our journey toward Montana's Glacier National Park and the land of the everything huckleberry! Yum! More about that later.
Thanks for reading. Check out RubysWindingRoad.com for past blog posts, photos and videos of other places we've recently visited.
We hope to be on the road again soon. Our winter wandering has been postponed briefly while one of us has some unexpected dental work (ouch). In the meantime, we still have some interesting blogs lined up from our fall 2022 trips that might give you some future travel ideas. Sign up for free to receive blog notifications sent right to your email inbox. Stay tuned.