Good and Bad in the Lands of North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit
Nights: 4
Hikes: 1
Bug Bites: 0
Meals with family: 1

After loving the north unit we were a little disappointed by the south unit. I kept trying to put my finger on what was different and I’m not sure I ever figured it out entirely, but I think the north unit just felt more personal.

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In the north, you got to get up close to the rocks and the valley was narrower so you felt like you were right in the badlands. The South unit was more vast. It gave you better far reaching views of badlands cliff after cliff, the best of those from the Painted Canyon visitor center on I-90, a worthwhile stop for anyone in the area. In the north the eroded cliffs appeared pyramid-like and more dramatic, while in the south they were more rounded mounds.

Then there were the campgrounds. We loved the quiet, peacefulness of Juniper Campground in the north. The sites were laid out around a grassy oval. Although many sites on the outer edge were in the trees and dark, we had lots to pick from and ours came with grass and views. Our site at Cottonwood in the south was more the dusty, dirt in the trees type. Although to be fair there were a few sites in the campground with great views, especially some of those in the tent area, but since half the sites are reservable and it was busy here you had to take what you could get. It probably didn’t help that it was really hot when we arrived, and there was a huge storm that night with thunder, lightning and hail that kept me awake, but we just didn’t like the south unit as much as we liked the north.

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Still we did manage to find some interesting things. We drove the 24 mile scenic loop and climbed to the high point for a great view. We hiked to the original entrance station (more cool Civilian Conservation Corps handiwork) and to a spot where a coal vein burned continuously for over 20 years.

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Again we saw lots of bison here. In fact one day I looked out the trailer window to see the tail end of a bison running through a nearby campsite. But by now bison are so old hat that when a family told us there were bison near the campground entrance we sarcastically replied “Oh, great.” I later felt bad that perhaps we rained on the kids’ excitement.

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The south definitely is the place to go if you want to see prairie dogs. On the scenic drive you go right through 4 different prairie dog towns. They didn’t do much for me, but it was cool to see a badger popping his head out of a burrow in one of the towns.

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At the visitor center we enjoyed seeing the Maltese Cross Cabin which was originally built for Teddy Roosevelt at the nearby Maltese Cross Ranch. This was the first cattle venture Roosevelt was part of and the log cabin is where he stayed while he split his time between the Dakotas and New York before he built his own ranch at Elkhorn. Inside they have his original writing desk and trunk. In the visitor center they had more of his belongings, including his riding gear.

The visitor’s center and park entrance are in Medora. My niece has worked the last 4 summers in Medora, but I never really knew where it was or what it was all about. The town was started in the 1880s by a French Marquis who named it after his bride. In the 1960s an entrepreneur  turned it into the thriving old west tourist town it is today. It is famous for it’s nightly musical show and pitchfork fondue which, along with most of the town, is run by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

While we aren’t much for tourist attractions, we did walk around town a little and enjoy a nice dinner while catching up with our niece. We have the distinction of being the only family to ever visit her here!

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You can just barely see the yellow “weather” rope on the right. My niece knows nothing about its occasional disappearance 🙂

And so, that winds up our time in the badlands. Some good, some not as good, but I can’t really say any of it was bad.

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