September 16: Today was a Critter Day. In spades.

I don’t know what time the rain quit hammering on Merlin’s roof last night, because it was still going strong when I fell asleep. But I woke to bright sunshine and only a few fair-weather clouds, which made me very happy. It was cold, though. Not quite as cold as that night in the Colorado Rockies where it frosted on me at 9600 feet, but I’m pretty sure it got down into the forties last night after the clouds cleared off. Thank goodness for warm sleeping bags.

I got to do something this morning that I didn’t think I’d ever get back here to do. I drove the entire fourteen miles of the scenic drive at the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I think I mentioned that the last (and only, or so I thought at the time – I mean, how often does one go to North Dakota?) time I was here, the road was closed about six miles in due to slumping. Well, this morning it was open, and I drove all the way to the end. Lots of pretty scenery, and the CCC made its presence known again, and bison! A couple of lone bulls, and a small herd of females and half-grown youngsters. So that was fun.

Cottonwood forest at the not-eponymously named Juniper Campground.
Cottonwood forest at the not-eponymously named Juniper Campground.
Off through the Badlands in TRNP's North Unit.
Off through the Badlands in TRNP’s North Unit.
Golden cottonwoods and badlands.
Golden cottonwoods and badlands.
CCC viewpoint house above the Little Missouri River.
CCC viewpoint house above the Little Missouri River.
Part of the view from the viewpoint house.
Part of the view from the viewpoint house.
Bison herd in the distance.
Bison herd in the distance.
Bull bison *not* in the distance.
Bull bison *not* in the distance.  I eased around him *very* slowly, but he just ignored me, so that was good.  He’s about the same size as Merlin.

By the time I left the north unit and drove the sixty miles back down to I-94, it was getting on towards lunchtime, so after I strolled along the walk at the Painted Hills overlook, which is the only cross between an Interstate rest area and a national park visitor center that I’m aware of, I stopped in the rather self-consciously Old West town of Medora and ate lunch in the saloon (the second saloon I’ve eaten in on this trip, the first one having been in Virginia City, Nevada, way back in early June).

A view from the Painted Hills overlook.
A view from the Painted Hills overlook.

Then I headed into the south unit of TRNP, and took its scenic drive. The last time I was here, in June, 2012, it was 100dF, and blowing about 70 mph. Which is why I didn’t camp in the park the last time I was here. Today it’s been in the mid-60s, and the breeze has never been higher than pleasant. So I had a much better time than last time. I saw more bison (actually, where I saw more bison was at the Painted Hills rest stop, right along the freeway, which was kind of bizarre). I saw several prairie dog shows [g]. There are three huge prairie dog towns in the park – watching them scuttle around and make their incredibly loud chirps (I can hear them inside Merlin with all the windows closed and the engine running) is great fun. And for the first time in my life, I saw wild horses! Two different groups of them (are they herds if there’s only half a dozen or so individuals?), one of which crossed the road directly in front of me. Such absolutely gorgeous animals. I’ve seen wild burros before, in South Dakota’s Black Hills, but never wild horses. It was amazing.

Wild horses!  Those mounds in the front are part of a prairie dog village.
Wild horses! Those mounds in the front are part of a prairie dog village.
The other herd, which had just crossed the road when I took this photo.  Aren't they beautiful?
The other herd, which had just crossed the road when I took this photo. Aren’t they beautiful?
And one more shot of the second herd.
And one more shot of the second herd.
Prairie dog!  I almost hit one sunning himself in the middle of the road, but fortunately I was going very slow, and he got up and waddled off onto the shoulder.
Prairie dog! I almost hit one sunning himself in the middle of the road (at first I thought he was dead, that someone else had hit him), but fortunately I was going very slowly, and he got up and waddled off onto the shoulder.
Doing the lookout thing.
Doing the lookout thing.
This really isn't scoria, it's clinker (rock that has burned, believe it or not), but the local term for it is scoria.
This really isn’t scoria, it’s clinker (rock that has burned, believe it or not), but the local term for it is scoria.

I’d been sort of debating about whether to camp here or drive on to Glendive or Miles City, Montana (I’m only about 25 miles east of the Montana state line, and Glendive’s about thirty or forty miles on beyond that), for the night, but the Cottonwood campground here in the south unit looked so pleasant that I decided to stay here.

I’ll drive on to Billings (about 300 miles) tomorrow, and then we’ll see what we’ll see. It did occur to me that, coming from the northeast as I am, I could approach Yellowstone over the Beartooth Highway, which I’ve never driven the entire length of. That is if it’s still open for the season. It goes up over 10,000 feet, and is closed most of the year due to snow. It’s supposed to be one of the most spectacular drives in the U.S., though, and if it’s still open I’ll probably do it. I’ll check online tomorrow night in Billings.