The United States National Park System is full of many treasures, the most famous of which include the likes of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. However, for those willing to travel off the beaten path, there are some true hidden gems that exist within the system that have low visitation rates and incredible historical and geographical value. One of those parks is Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit in far western North Dakota.
In the 1880s a young Theodore Roosevelt went to the North Dakota badlands looking for adventure. Ultimately, he invested in a cattle ranch in the region that was destined for failure due to harsh geographic conditions and several disastrous winters. However, the experience changed him and he often reflected that his time in the region was a formative part of his character and success as president of the United States. Eventually, the region was turned into a memorial park named after Roosevelt and finally achieved National Park status in the latter half of the 20th Century.
The park is divided into three distinct units – the North, South and Elkhorn Ranch units. While they all have unique qualities and are worthy of a visit, the North Unit is especially spectacular in that so few individuals take advantage of it and there is so much to see in such a relatively small physical area.
To access the North Unit from Interstate 94, the main east-west thoroughfare across North Dakota, travel north for 50 miles on US 85 at the Belfield exit. The park entrance will be on the west side of the road and there is a $10.00 access fee per vehicle which is valid for seven days at all units of the park. All roads leading to the park and the 14 mile scenic drive are paved and well maintained.
The North Unit of the park is open year round and the scenic drive is typically open through the winter - the region receives snow, but on an average year there is not a great amount of accumulation. Throughout your journey on the scenic drive of the North Unit, you are likely to see bison, elk, deer, game birds, prairie dogs and the occasional coyote. Remember, even though the wildlife (particularly the bison) may appear docile, they are wild and unpredictable animals, and a healthy distance should be maintained.
There are numerous turnouts along the drive with interpretive signs and breathtaking photo opportunities. Hiking and trail riding opportunities abound within the park, though those familiar with mountain backpacking will want to become familiar with the arid conditions of the badlands and prairie, and pack adequate provisions accordingly. Check with the visitor’s center and the local park ranger for regulations regarding backcountry use. And whether you are traveling by foot or by car through the park, always keep an eye on the weather. The region is known for severe summer storms (harsh as they may be, the color of the sky during these storms against the badland backdrop is stunning – observe the storms with caution from a safe vantage point) and strong winds that can turn a light snow into a whiteout blizzard.
As you wind along the scenic drive, take in the beauty of the North Dakota badlands and the Little Missouri River which helped to shape them. Observe the uniquely adapted vegetation and wildlife. The land can appear sparse at times, but as the sunlight changes throughout the day, the colors of the badlands come to life and you will be amazed at how beautiful one small unknown gem of the National Park System can be – and you will understand why one of the nation’s most beloved presidents was inspired and renewed by the North Dakota badlands.