I often say that having a goal, or the over-used term “bucket list” is a means to an end to aid in fulfillment of the old adage, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” If I did not have the goal to see all the national parks in the US, why on earth would I make the journey to North Dakota? Without Theodore Roosevelt National Park in my sights as my 48th national park with a capital “P,” there would be no reason to come to North Dakota. And with that, let me just say that there is no other reason that I see to come to North Dakota!
North Dakota strikes me as a state of dichotomy. Flat planes versus canyon lands and badlands. Just as Big Bend National Park does not look like any of the rest of Texas, Theodore Roosevelt National Park does not look like the rest of North Dakota. They are both isolated islands of natural beauty, surrounded by vast areas of flat, boring plains, oil fields and farmland.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually three different sections, the South and the North Units separated by sixty-eight miles, and Elkhorn Ranch down an unpaved road. (Heavy rains prior to my arrival prohibited a visit to the ranch location.) One must make the effort of a 90 minute drive down a lone two-lane, 18-wheeler transport truck corridor to visit both the South and North Units. Since the South Unit is the larger, more established, I make it my first stop. I figure I’ll decide after a few days whether to venture on up to the North Unit.
The Visitor Center is closed when I arrive. Major construction is underway in the parking lot, and the VC is shut down due to the power being out while they work. So I proceed directly to the Cottonwood Campground, the only campground within the park. There are two loops in the campground. It’s shaped like a figure 8 with one loop having long pull-throughs and more level concrete pads, while sites in the other loop are shorter, closer to the river, and can be a bit unlevel. Still, I choose the left loop to try to avoid generator noise. At this time of year when the temperature drops, it’s a trade-off. Campers in larger RVs tend to spend more time inside running their generators longer to power their furnaces, whereas campers build smoky fires to stay warm. Since the temps are dropping down into the 30’s at night, I won’t likely have my windows open, so I’ll risk the smoke over the constant “rat-a-tat tat” of reverberating generators.
Not knowing whether I would make it this far north, I have done little research. Having to bypass the Visitor Center, I am at a loss to see what this park has to do with Theodore Roosevelt, as there is nothing visible within the park or informational kiosks to link the two together. There’s a 36-mile scenic loop drive and a few short hikes, but otherwise it’s a bit anticlimactic after the South Dakota Badlands.
It’s later in the week when I make the return drive through the five mile construction zone to the Visitor Center that I learn the history of how the park came to honor the man. Roosevelt came to this area in 1883 to hunt buffalo. He purchased the Maltese Cross Cabin as his first temporary home, named for the eight pointed cross used as the ranch’s cattle brand. It was first a temporary home, but after losing both his mother and his wife on the same day the following year (on Valentines Day, no less!) he returned to North Dakota seeking solitude and a place to regroup. He credited North Dakota with altering the course of his life, saying “I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”
He later relocated to Elk Ranch, which is a third Unit of the park, though nothing remains of the buildings. The Maltese Cross Cabin on the other hand, has traveled from the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri to Portland, OR for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, back to Fargo, ND, and then the state capital in Bismarck, ND. Having been restored, it now rests in back of the South Unit Visitor Center.
Roosevelt was known as the “conservationist president for good reason. From the NPS website, “After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments by enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.”
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
It’s difficult to imagine where we would be today without him…or where we will be in the future without the likes of him.
After three days in the South Unit of the park, I am still undecided on whether to make the drive to visit the North Unit. As I sit at the front of the line of traffic stopped for construction exiting the park where the road narrows to one lane, I engage in a conversation with the man wearing the lime green safety vest, his dreadlocks protruding from his safety helmet. He holds the reversible stop sign on a pivoting pole while waiting for the pilot car to lead the opposing lane of cars through the slow five mile crawl, so we have plenty of time for a chat.
He asks where I’m headed, and I tell him I’m still undecided. Either north to visit the other side of the park, or south back in to South Dakota. As Bob Marley tunes blare from his boom box behind him, he tells me, “Skip it! You’ve seen all there is to see! It’s not worth the drive…just more of the same. In fact, skip the rest of North Dakota altogether for that matter, and head back down to South Dakota! You’ve already seen the best of it. Trust me on this…it’s all downhill from here…”