Tag Archives: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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.

September 15: In which I run into a couple of old friends. Very old friends.

I saw this on my way out of Bismarck.  Made me wonder if there were transplanted Roswell, NM, residents here.
I saw this on my way out of Bismarck. Made me wonder if there were transplanted Roswell, NM, residents here.

It rained a bit during the night, but had cleared up by this morning. The weather prediction was for it to be overcast most of the day, with a few scattered showers, and I believed it. More fool me.

To be fair, it didn’t do much more than spit as I drove north from Bismarck towards Fort Mandan, where Lewis and Clark built their home for the winter of 1804-05. There they stayed from October till April, waiting for the temperatures to warm up from the minus forty it hit several times that winter, and for the ice to melt on the Missouri River before they headed on upriver to the Pacific Coast – eventually.

It was funny how much the reproduction (the original is under the shifted Missouri River somewhere) fort looks like the reproduction Fort Clatsop in Oregon, where the Corps of Discovery spent their second winter. Or maybe not. Anyway, it reminded me of home, in an odd way, hence the subject header of today’s post. Not that I’ve ever lived in a hand-built log fort or anything…

I love this quote, for obvious reasons.
I love this quote, for obvious reasons.
The front of Fort Mandan.
The front of Fort Mandan.
One of the pierced tin lanterns, lit up.
One of the pierced tin lanterns, lit up.
Inside Fort Mandan.
Inside Fort Mandan.
A blunderbuss.  I'd read about them, but I'd never seen one in person before.  The guide let me try to lift it -- it's *heavy*!
A blunderbuss. I’d read about them, but I’d never seen one in person before. The guide let me try to lift it — it’s *heavy*!
The obligatory statue of Seaman, Lewis's Newfoundland dog.  I'm pretty sure every L&C site I've ever been to has had one.
The obligatory statue of Seaman, Lewis’s Newfoundland dog. I’m pretty sure every L&C site I’ve ever been to has had one.

It had started raining again by the time I left Fort Mandan, and was coming down fairly well by the time I got to the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center a few miles back down the road. It’s a very nice museum, dealing with both L&C as well as North Dakota agricultural history, which is more interesting than it sounds, especially as the first farmers in what later became North Dakota were the Mandan Indians. Apparently a fair number of our commercial corn and bean varieties are descended from those the Mandans grew, including my favorite dry bean, the Great Northern. I’ll never look at taco soup the same way again [g].

Double life-size statues of L&C and the local Mandan chief in front of the L&C interpretive center, just down the road from Fort Mandan.
Double life-size statues of L&C and the local Mandan chief in front of the L&C interpretive center, just down the road from Fort Mandan.
Nifty bison statues at the interpretive center.
Nifty bison statues at the interpretive center.
The Missouri River near Fort Mandan.
The Missouri River near Fort Mandan.

The rain did not stop. Oh, it slowed down a little, but when I arrived at the Knife River Villages National Historic Site a few miles to the west, it was too wet to go hiking out to see more earth lodges. But there was a fellow in the visitor center who played a wicked Native American flute (I wish I could have recorded him – he was that good), and a very helpful ranger who gave me the phone number of the ranger station at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit.

See, the last time I was in this part of the world, in 2012, the road into the North Unit had been closed because the land underneath it had slumped. Slumping is the primary way the badlands of the western Dakotas are formed, so it’s nothing unusual, but I had been rather disappointed at the time. So I wanted to see if the road was open again before I drove out of my way to go see it. And yes, it is. And the campground is still open this late in the season, too.

The beginning of the Badlands.
The beginning of the Badlands.

So on westward I went, through the rain and about twenty miles of unpaved road construction (dear godlings, was that not fun), and finally made it here to TRNP’s north unit, where I’m ensconced in a campsite, listening to the rain pound down on Merlin’s metal roof (I’m always glad I’m not tent camping, but I’m really glad tonight).

It’s supposed to clear up tomorrow, and it darned well better. I have a drive I want to make [g].

Three weeks ago, Day 10

In which I almost blow completely off the face of the earth.

The wind was howling this morning.  Quite literally howling as it swept around the building loudly enough to wake me up.

But it was sunny and also well over 70 at eight in the morning, and I had the other half of a national park to visit, so I ate my breakfast bar and packed up my luggage, and headed west again.

Belfield is only about a dozen miles east of  Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, which abuts the freeway for about a dozen miles on its southern edge.  Coming from the east, the first stop in the park is actually a combination rest area/visitor center/viewpoint at a place called Painted Canyon.  The name fits, I must say.  And I was grateful for the big plate glass windows in the visitor center that overlooked it, allowing me to enjoy it without getting blown off the edge of the canyon and hurled to the bottom of it.  I asked the young man staffing the desk what the weather forecast was for the rest of the day, and he said, oh, it’s supposed to get windier later.  Might even get up to 60 mph sustained.  And the temp’s supposed to go up over 90.  He smiled.  I did not.

But it was my one day to go enjoy what the South Unit had to show me, so I got back on the freeway and drove the few miles to the town of Medora, and the main entrance to the park.

Medora, North Dakota, is to TRNP’s south unit what Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is to the Great Smokies.  Not just an adjunct to the park, but sort of a theme park in its own right.  I would check it out later, though, and I headed immediately to TRNP’s main entrance, which is rather oddly situated right in town.  I showed my parks pass, acquired my brochures, and drove up and over the interstate, which actually passes through the southern edge of the park for a few miles, into the park proper.  I don’t know if the highway came first or the park did, but TR is the only national park I know of with part of a freeway running through it.  It’s much less intrusive than I’d have thought such a thing to be, though, perhaps because this southwestern corner of North Dakota is such an isolated place to begin with.

The park’s main access is via a thirty-odd mile loop road, winding up and down and around from the edge of the bluffs to down in the bottom of the valley and back several times in its course.  I drove slowly, enjoying the badlands views.  I stopped at a prairie dog town and watched the noisy antics of the whack-a-dog game they seemed to be playing with invisible hammers.  I had forgotten what a racket prairie dogs can make.  You know how some people put their fingers in their mouths to create a piercing whistle?  That’s about how loud prairie dogs are. 

I saw more beautiful views than you can shake a stick at, and walked a couple of nature trails, one of them to the top of a hill with a magnificent vista.  The only problem was trying to take photos of it while the wind was blowing hard enough that I could not hold the camera still.  I literally had my feet planted at least two feet apart and was leaning forward at about 10 degrees off plumb just to stay upright.  But it was worth it, and down in the canyon the wind wasn’t bad at all.

And it wasn’t 90 degrees quite yet.

I was about halfway around the loop before I saw my first bison, a lone male lying under an overhanging ledge out of the wind.  Smart critter.  I passed another one soon after, but I was beginning to wonder if I was going to see the main herd at all.  At last I came around a corner to see a number of mama bison and their babies, grazing peacefully while the wind whipped around them. 

They were sharing their meadow with more prairie dogs, too.  That was nifty.

I had been planning to spend the night at TRNP, in what would have been a nice campground in better weather, but I changed my mind and drove back down to Medora, first stopping at the visitor center on my way out.  My main reason was to see Theodore Roosevelt’s first ranch cabin when he came out to North Dakota as a young man (in his mid-20s, actually) after the horrible experience of losing both his mother and his young wife on the same day back in 1884.  The cabin has been moved around the U.S. several times over the years, but has come back and it now sits directly behind the visitor center.  A ranger took several of us on a tour of the three-room cabin and talked mostly about the differences between it and more typical cabins of the place and era (for starters, most cabins then and there were one-room affairs, and did not have bookcases in them). 

It was by then well past lunchtime, and I ended up in Old West Medora looking for somewhere to eat.  Medora may be a tourist town, but on this hot, windy June Tuesday, the tourists had pretty much forsaken it.  I did finally find a hamburger stand, and then poked through a few of the shops before deciding to head on west.

I drove, fighting the wind which kept trying to yank the steering wheel out of my hands every foot of the way, across eastern Montana, where the only real amusements were some of the exit signs.  I got as far as Miles City, Montana, where it was 99 degrees according to a bank sign and the local news said there’d been 70+ mph wind gusts.  I holed up in a second-story room in the air conditioning in a Motel 6 and spent most of the night waiting for the power to go out or the roof to get blown off.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures
http://mmjustus.com/fictionrepeatinghistory.html

Three weeks ago, Day 9

 Theodore Roosevelt National Park — the north unit

I believe I even had oil workers for neighbors in the campground last night.  At least they had camping gear.  One of them even had a trailer.  They were as nice and polite as could be, though, and since we all cleared out at about the same time the next morning, they didn’t even wake me up trying to get to work on time.

 Fort Buford and its campground were about an hour north of the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just west of the town of Watford City, where I had tried to get a motel when I was going through my bout of reservation-making a couple of days before.  When I actually drove through it, I was glad I hadn’t been able to.

Do you ever create mental pictures so strong of places that you haven’t been to that when you actually arrive you think you can’t actually be in that place, it has to be wrong?  I did that with Watford City.  Maybe because it’s a town on the edge of a national park, and in my experience towns on the edges of national parks are a bit more attractive than, say, a construction site.  Watford City was one big noisy dusty construction site.  I suppose it was understandable enough given the circumstances, but still. 

But then I drove a few more miles south and the whole world changed.  The edge of the land dropped off from undulating prairie to the bluffs and buttes of the North Dakota badlands, and when I turned off from the highway onto the main (and only) road into the park, I got that lovely feeling I always get in national parks, of being in a place where nature matters.

I stopped at the visitor center, where mine was the only non-NPS vehicle in the parking lot.  TRNP’s north unit is one of the least-visited units of the national park system, and I can testify that it was pretty darned empty the day I was there — I think I saw two other cars the entire time I was in the park.  I looked at their exhibits, then I headed further into the park on a leisurely tour. 

I like badlands.  I like the texture of them and the shape of them.  I like the exposed layers and the unexpected look of the formations.  There’s just something about them that jump-starts the imagination.  Rocks shaped like cannonballs, ledges so flat and chiseled you could balance an egg on them, pyramidal rocks with more layers than an ice cream cake.  Just wonderful stuff.  The weather was nice, too, if a bit warm.  The only disappointment was that the road was only open about halfway into the park.  Apparently the land had slumped under the road, taking the pavement with it, and they hadn’t repaired it yet.  Since slumping is a major method nature uses to create badlands, I couldn’t complain, and I didn’t.  I got out and walked a small piece past the barricade, then decided that it was just a bit too lonely to walk far.  What if I had a close encounter with a bison?  They do live in the park, along with wild longhorn cattle and feral horses.  As it turned out, though, the only critters I saw in the north unit that day were birds. 

I walked a nature trail at the campground, down to the Little Missouri River, and I ate my lunch in the picnic area, well-shaded by more enormous cottonwoods.  Wrote a while.  Then I headed on south to I-94.

I have this book, called the Quilter’s Travel Companion, that lives in my car all year.  It’s basically a national phone book for quilt shops in the U.S. (and Canada, too, come to think of it).  Anyway, it had a listing for a quilt shop in the city of Dickinson, located on I-94 a few miles east of where I met up with it.  It was still the middle of the afternoon, so I decided to go see if I could find some good North Dakota-themed fabric as a souvenir (fabric is a very useful souvenir, especially after it makes its way into a quilt where it reminds the quilter of the good time she had acquiring it).  The shop was adorable.  And I found some wonderful fabric, of course. 

Then I headed back west, Dickinson having been the easternmost point on the entire trip, and found the motel room I had managed to snag in the small town of Belfield, which is apparently just out of commuting distance for the oil workers, and on my way to the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  But that was for the next day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Repeating History, “A GRAND yarn you can’t put down.” Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasures
http://mmjustus.com/fictionrepeatinghistory.html