Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We escaped to the Great Plains to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). In the past, this national park never made it high enough on our list because we worried there was nothing to see, not to mention the long boring drive to a place that is practically surrounded by flat and uninteresting landscapes. However, we were adamant to check it off our list this time. What better way to avoid the crowded places during the COVID-19 pandemic than to visit one of the less crowded national parks.

Knowing that most trails have little to no shade, we visited TRNP in the early fall instead of summer to make the hikes a little more bearable. Still, it was unseasonably hot during our first 2 full days in the park. While it was very chilly in the morning, the temperature quickly rose up to the 90s before noon. We chose to stay in Dickinson instead of Medora even though the latter was literally right outside the park and the earlier was a half hour drive away. We were initially concerned that Medora would become a ghost town during the off season, and we were right. While still limited, there were more restaurant choices in Dickinson since it is the largest city near TRNP with a population of 20K whereas Medora has less than 130 people.

TRNP is the only national park named after a US President and it consists of 3 units (North, South and Elkhorn Ranch). We spent a day in the South Unit, a day in the North Unit, half a day in the Petrified Forest and skipped the Elkhorn Ranch Unit because it is located in a very remote area and may require a high clearance vehicle on unpaved roads. Although the South Unit is twice as large as the North Unit and has more visitors due to its proximity to I-94, we very much preferred the North Unit due to its rugged landscape. One interesting fact is the North Unit operates on Central time while the South Unit operates on Mountain Time. So, while we arrived at the North Unit’s entrance at 8 AM Mountain time, it was actually 9 AM Central time… just in time for the visitor center to open for us to use the restroom. Our most pleasant surprise was to witness the fall colors in TRNP with plenty of hardwoods wrapping around the long winding Little Missouri River. Although we visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota before, the North Dakota’s Badlands are older, look different and have heavier vegetation.

Many oil pumpjacks could be seen in the western North Dakota due to the existence of the Bakken Formation in this area — one of the largest contiguous deposits of oil and natural gas in the US. Unsurprisingly, North Dakota is also one of the largest producers of oil in the US. It is also worth mentioning that most lakes in the western North Dakota contain brine. As the water levels declined at this time of the year, the rings of white salt were visible along the shores of these lakes.

Unbeknownst to us, half of North Dakota’s population has German-Russian roots. Originally recruited and welcomed into Russia in the 18th century, many German people immigrated there looking for better lives. However, due to changes in Russian politics, poor economic conditions and a series of famines, many of them moved on to America in the 19th century, especially to the Great Plains to continue farming. Intrigued by this tidbit, we had lunches in Fargo on our way to TRNP and back home to try some German dishes, such as jägerschnitzel, currywurst, knoephla soup, kuchen, cabbage rolls and fleischkuechle.

To be truthful, we honestly had a very low trip expectation, but this trip turned out to be rather enjoyable — apart from the 9+ hours of boring drive. We had several memorable hikes, enjoyed the fall colors, stumbled upon wildlife and marveled at the rugged badlands in TRNP.

A giant red clinker — created from fire and one of the hardest rocks in the badlands — and epic fall colors in Medora.
Rivulet erosion and cannonball concretions — one of the most unusual formations in the badlands.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
River Bend Overlook in the North Unit has one of the most impressive views of the Little Missouri River valley.
The winding Little Missouri River view from Sperati Point.
TRNP has the third highest concentration of petrified wood in the US, after Petrified Forest National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
While hiking on the Petrified Forest trail, our path was blocked by 2 massive bison about 20 feet away from us: one lying on one side of the trail and another grazing on the opposite side of the trail. We stood there for awhile, locked eyes with the beasts and unnervingly sneaked past them without making too much sudden movements.
White feral horse, blissfully eating in the late afternoon.
Stumbled upon a pronghorn — the fastest animal in the North America. We initially thought it was an albino deer, which prompted us to pull over to check it out.
Both North Unit and South Unit are surrounded by Little Missouri National Grassland — the largest grassland in the US. It was about an hour drive between these 2 units.
Places we explored in the South Unit (right) and Petrified Forest (left). The South Unit was supposed to be a loop, but the last 12 miles of the 36-mile scenic loop was closed indefinitely due to erosion in 2019.
Places we explored in the North Unit. Anything north of the Little Missouri River operates on Central time while the south side of the river operates on Mountain time.
Road trip map.

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