The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in western North Dakota, is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.
In 1884, Roosevelt retreated to this wide-open country after his wife, Alice Lee, and his mother, Mittie, died only hours apart. “The Bad Lands” he wrote of the area, “grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.” In later years, he credited this landscape as having soothed him after his personal tragedies and set him back on course. “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once noted.
The North Dakota Badlands, not to be confused with South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, have been cut over eons by the muddy Little Missouri River as it flows north, and the national park comprises three separate units totaling more than 70,447 acres.
The South Unit lies along Interstate 94, adjacent to the tiny gateway town of Medora and serves as the main recreational focus for most visitors with its scenic driving loop and two dozen trails. The North Unit lies 70 miles away (an 80-minute drive), and while it has services such as a visitor center and a road through the badlands, it receives far fewer visitors. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit—the home site of Teddy’s Roosevelt 1880s cattle ranch—lies in between. It has no services, and most visitors make it a quick stop. Visiting them all is manageable over two or three days.
Summer is peak season for the park’s 700,000 annual visitors, but even then you’ll be all alone on hiking trails in the park’s far corners pondering with the same awe what Lewis and Clark must have experienced when they stumbled on these badlands during their 1805 journey across the continent.
Many visitors drive up from South Dakota’s Black Hills, home to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, 260 miles to the south (our route was in the reverse direction). The route along U.S. Route 85 offers some of the best stretches of the unbounded openness of the Great Plains. You’ll see views that extend so far off into the rolling distance that it often feels as if you can see the Earth’s curvature.
Shoulder seasons when visitor numbers drop are the best times to visit. Summers are hot with average temperatures in the high 80s and the occasional thunderstorm. Spring rain showers often transform the hillsides to a bright green interspersed with red rock outcroppings. In fall, leaves of the giant cottonwood trees along the Little Missouri River turn golden and there may be no better time to camp in the park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers two campgrounds for tents and RVs, although no hookups. Both are found in cottonwood groves near the Little Missouri River with views to the bluffs beyond. Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit has 72 sites; Juniper Campground in the North Unit, 48. Sites are spread out enough that you have some privacy and each has a fire grill and a picnic table. The camps have potable water and flush toilets in summer but no showers.
At a glimpse
Total acres: 70,447
Miles of trails: 100-plus miles spread over 36 trails
Main attraction: The Badlands overlook at Painted Canyon.
Cost: $30 per vehicle for a seven-day permit
Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of its many trails through the Badlands or relaxing on an overlook as the sun sets
When to go: Fall (September and October) when the leaves of the giant cottonwoods turn golden
It was here that the romance of my life began.