Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Unit
Ranger Programs: 2
Bug Bites: 2
I had never heard of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but a fellow teacher visited this summer and emailed me about how beautiful the views of the badlands were. I started to read about the park while we were at Glacier and it looked interesting so we decided to keep heading east across Montana before we start to slowly head south for the winter.
Theodore Roosevelt is split into 2 main units, about 70 miles apart. We decided to start at the less visited north unit. Driving all day from Lewis & Clark Caverns put us just on the Montana-North Dakota border. We spent the night in a rest stop wedged between two semis and were up and on the road early.
This meant animals were out munching on their breakfasts. We saw a herd of pronghorn antelope in a field along the freeway and upon entering the park we were greeted by a bison right on the side of the road.
We had our pick of sites in the campground, in fact the only night it was full was Saturday. It turned out to be a nice quiet campground. The sites were well spaced around a grassy field and ours had a little path over to the river and a rocky cliff through the trees. And although we forgot to go out on the night of the meteor shower, we did see a few streak across the sky the next night. It made us think back to a trip to Anacortes in our very first trailer when we got up in the middle of the night to see the show. Have to mark our calendars to remember it next year.
Back to Teddy Roosevelt… If you want to see bison, this is the place to go. Every time we drove somewhere, there were bison on the side of the road. Lone bison laying in their dust patches, giant bulls munching grass, herds with babies wandering the meadows. One day we came back from town to 40 or so bison taking over the road. No choice but to turn off the engine and watch for a while. There were even bison “patties” in the campground. We soon became complacent. Other cars stopped for every sighting. We just kept on going. A bison, big deal, we’ve seen that.
The park has one road, a scenic drive that winds 14 miles from the entrance in the valley up to the grasslands topping the buttes. Along the drive we saw the small herd of longhorn cattle the park keeps as a remembrance of the open range cattle ranching that brought Theodore Roosevelt here in the late 1800s. Apparently because the grass stands tall, poking up through the small amount of snow they get, it’s a good place for grazing even in winter when temps can get to 40 below. Sadly most of Roosevelt’s cattle were killed within a few years due to a blizzard and harsh winter that covered the grass with ice and snow. Still this area shaped his ideals about conservation of the land and he said he wouldn’t have been president if it hadn’t been for his experiences in the badlands.
About 4 miles in the road crests a hill and a stunning pyramid shaped butte of layered sandstone appears right before you. Every time we drove the road it stopped us in awe. And that was what we liked about TRNP, you got close up views of everything. Just past that, by the entrance to the campground are some cool rock formations called cannonball concretions. They look like giant dinosaur eggs that are cracking open. Sometimes geologists crack them open to find a fossil inside. Apparently something like a small plant or animal buried in sediment starts to attract minerals which form layers around it. Millions of years later, when the surrounding rock erodes the harder cannonball is left exposed. At the campfire program one night I learned that the rock in this area was formed 55 to 65 million years ago just after the dinosaur era.
Continuing along the road the difference between the drier south facing sides of the hills and the lusher north facing sides is noticeable. It’s funny because you can look north and feel like you’re in a desert with scraggly sage clinging to patches on the eroding cliffs or turn south in the same spot and see badlands layers rising from green trees and grass. Both vistas are beautiful. The road curves through these differing habitats as it climbs to the gentle hills of the grasslands above. You can imagine that before water worked to wear away the valley below it must have all looked like this. Here is where we often found the bison herd. We never did see the bighorn sheep that live here, but on an evening drive we did see deer, a fox, and a bunny.
It was warm while we were here, in the 90s, but we managed to fit in a couple of hikes on the cooler days. One day we hiked the Caprock Coulee Loop Trail. This trail is the best for seeing all the different rock formations the park has to offer. You also get to experience the 4 different habitats in the park. It starts out in the valley where a juniper forest and an eroded butte meet. This first part is a nature trail with a pamphlet describing the rocks and plants. The great part is they encourage you to get off the trail and go up and touch everything.
After that you enter the shade of the forest and start to climb. At the top you find the grassland with far reaching views. Next you get to walk across the top of the buttes. At points it’s hard to tell which way the trail goes as you have to climb right on the rocky surfaces.
It was so cool! One part looked like you were on the moon. We enjoyed both the close up encounters with the geology and the far reaching vistas on this hike.
One day we drove to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, the reconstruction of a key fur trading post and the site where Sitting Bull surrendered. It was interesting, but not worth the drive, so I’d say skip it unless you’re in the area. What was interesting was seeing the impact the oil boom of the last few years has had on this area. There was always an oil well in sight, it’s head pumping up and down as a nearby pipe glowed with the flame of natural gas burning off, as semis barreled down the highway carrying tanks of oil and oversized loads of equipment. One ranger complained that the food prices were sky high in the nearby town of Watford, but they didn’t seem bad compared to what we are used to in Seattle. Housing prices however seemed high. We saw lots of single wide trailers divided into 4 or 6 sections and that tiny space rented for $425 a week. One of the rangers said that they are fracking so far down that they haven’t had any issues with quakes, but there have been some spills. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to oil or the super concentrated salt-water they use but either would be disastrous.
On our last night we took a sunset hike to Sperati Point. This hike starts at the end of the scenic drive and takes you through the grassland to a point where you can look down on the muddy Little Missouri River and the cake layers of the cliffs it has carved out of the badlands. Looking the other directions you have the sun setting over the grassland covered hills. A mama deer climbed the hill right across from us, and watched us for a long time. Finally she decided it was safe and signaled her babies to come along. They looked like they were on pogo sticks as they bounded off through the brush.
This was the first time we’ve done a sunset hike and it was a great ending to our time at the north unit!