Friday, September 22, 2017

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the North Unit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt is a larger than life historic figure. Really larger than life if you consider the size of his face on Mount Rushmore!
The New York native has ties to the Adirondack Mountains that we call home.
He spent a great deal of leisure time there even writing a book about birds common to the region. Roosevelt was in the Adirondack Mountains, climbing Mount Marcy (the region’s highest peak) when William McKinley succumbed to gangrene after being shot 8 days earlier.  Roosevelt was intercepted on the mountain with news that McKinley had taken a turn for the worse. A 5 hour midnight ride over 35 miles of mountain roads took him to the North Creek train station where he learned of the President’s death. Roosevelt continued his travel by train to Buffalo where he was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States. The Adirondack Museum on Blue Mountain Lake has the “Midnight Ride” carriage on display.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency is noted for many achievements. My favorite of those are the steps that he took to preserve land for public use including the formation of the National Forest Service and the designation of National Parks and Monuments.

Roosevelt traveled to the Badlands in 1883 investing in the Maltese Cross Ranch.

Grazing bison
He returned to the Badlands in 1884 when personal tragedy struck as he lost his Mother and his first wife on the same day. Roosevelt took refuge in the stark landscape of the Badlands, starting his own Elkhorn ranch and spending most of the next 2 years working the land and healing his heart. He later credited that time as instrumental in his personal growth:

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota”    Theodore Roosevelt 1918

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is built on that land. It’s over 70,000 acres are divided into 3 units North, South and Elkhorn Ranch.
The North Unit includes a 14 mile scenic drive over mostly paved roads through the Badlands. That drive and a few short walks were our destination for the day.
We were surprised to see a herd of Texas Longhorns just past the Visitor Center.
The park is also home to bison, elk, pronghorn, 2 types of deer and bighorn sheep.

The orange layer is iron oxide
These Badlands are different than those we saw in South Dakota.
It is quieter here and less populated.. We only saw a dozen other vehicles on our drive, and a few backpackers. It is September and school is back in session but I suspect that the fewer numbers are because this is a more remote place.
North Dakota residents don’t seem to expect tourists. We are frequently asked “What are you doing all the way up here?” when people see our NY licence plates.
The mountains are similar in color with distinct layers of brown, tan and grey. There is a beautiful red-orange layer of iron oxide near the top of the hills and an almost perfectly straight line of silvery gray granite in the lower third.
There are some unique rock formations in the North Dakota Badlands.

Cannonball Concretion

We have seen more of those eerie petrified wood stumps.
Caprocks also called mushroom rocks occur in areas where a hard rock like granite sits on top of sandstone and the softer stone is weathered away leaving a top heavy formation. Its odd to see these in a cliff wall, they look like door frames and porch roofs.


Caprock or Cannonball Concretion? I couldn't decide.
Cannonball concretions are fascinating. They are spheres of all different sizes that were formed when suspended sand grains joined with minerals dissolved in groundwater as an ancient river carried them along. You can find them sitting alone like a lost ball at the base of a cliff or see the edges of them being exposed through the rock wall as softer stone around them erodes.
Partially exposed cannonball.
The scenic drive has some amazing overlooks.

The Little Missouri was pretty empty after a very dry season.
River Bend Overlook at about mile 9 shows the Missouri flood plain opening up below you. The views are fabulous and can be enjoyed from a rustic stone shelter built by the CCC in the 1930’s.

Stone shelter at the Riverbend Overlook
There is not much water in the Little Missouri this year but we could tell where it usually runs from the dried mud in the bottomland

Fred enjoying the view at Oxbow Overlook
Oxbow Overlook is at the end of the drive at mile 14 where the road forms a loop to send you back to the Visitor Center. There are a few trail heads here. When you walk a short trail to the edge of the cliff you can see where the river makes a big oxbow turn. The Park Ranger manning the overlook pointed out a nest of Prairie Rattlesnakes that had just hatched the week before. He warned us that the tiny creatures liked to warm themselves in the sun on the path.

Park Ranger with snake warnings at the Oxbow Overlook
We are so glad to have visited this remote park.
It may be a road less travelled but that just adds to it's peaceful beauty.
I like to think that Teddy Roosevelt would be happy at what his ranch and the surrounding Badlands have become.
When you visit. Bring your own food and water. The Visitor Center here is a small trailer without services and there are no nearby stores. You can use the restrooms at the campground but there is not a source of drinking water near them. Wear boots, because apparently the snakes like to sun themselves in the middle of the trail.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Unit Visitor Center
208 Scenic Dr.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota


  1. That's the one park we missed on our detour into South Dakota. We did see it in 1996, but we definitely want to revisit it in the future. Love the cannonball concretions, Bonnie!

    1. They were pretty amazing. I have seen smaller round rocks in glacial potholes in New England but nothing the size of these.