One of my outings that I really enjoyed, was my off trail hike from the Cottonwood Campground. Here I spotted a number of buffalo wallows. Bison clean their hides by rolling in the dust. This activity creates shallow, saucer like depressions, called Buffalo Wallows. These depressions may collect standing water in an otherwise dry landscape, briefly creating water sources for other animals and birds in the area. This moisture also causes the grasses around the wallows to green up earlier in the spring. All of my photos were taken of wallows in the fall. Earlier in the year, if you see a round area, where the grass within is greener than the surrounding area, then you are also looking at a wallow, which due to the additional moisture, has caused the grasses to grow back.
Although I have never seen a bison in the act of wallowing in Roosevelt, I did see this activity in Yellowstone National Park. If you would like to view my video of a bison in a wallow in Yellowstone, click this link, and watch my video, Buffalo Wallow and Gentle Sparing
I thought about driving out to the Elkhorn Ranch Site until I talked to one of the rangers. He said there is really not much to see there; just a few remains of the foundation. The road out there is also long and very rough. The road conditions were even worse than normal because they had a lot of rain recently. The Elkhorn Ranch is only for those of you with a good truck with a high clearance who really want to see it. Otherwise save more time for the two main parts of the park.
Fondest memory: None
The north unit is about 50 miles north of the south unit. I took the 14 mile scenic drive. This is one way and you take the same route back. There are a number of stops along the way most with interpretive signs to highlight important aspects of the area. There are also a number of hiking trails ranging from short trails with interpretive signs to longer trails like the 17.7 mile Achenbach Trail. You can also access the 96 mile Maah Daah Hey Trail here.
Fondest memory: I enjoyed hiking the Caprock Trail.
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three parts: The south unit; the north unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Site. The south unit is 24 miles east of the border with Montana in the nice town of Medora. In addition to the main entrance to the park, there is a Painted Canyon Entrance which has a viewpoint, a visitors center and access to some of the parks trails. I did not go there but used the main Medora Entrance and took the 36 mile Scenic Loop Drive. There are a number of hiking trails in the South Unit ranging from short interpretive trails to longer trails like the 16 mile Petrified Forest Loop Trail. You can also access the 96 mile Maah Daah Hey Trail here.
Fondest memory: The bison walking right next to the car.
The North Unit Visitor Center is located at the north entrance to Roosevelt National Park. Here you can view exhibits about the geology, plants, and animals that live in the park. This visitor center is open from May through September. The remainder of the year, it is open depending on the weather conditions. A staffed information desk can be found inside the center. In the summer, ask at this desk about ranger led activities and programs. A small theater shows an orientation film, which is a good introduction for first time visitors to the park. If it is not playing, ask the staff member at the desk, and they will usually play it for you. You can also purchase information books, and post cards in their small store. Public restrooms and a drinking fountain are located inside the visitor center.
The Medora Visitor Center serves the South Unit, and is located just inside the Medora entrance to the park. A small museum and an orientation film will offer you a good introduction to the park, thereby enhancing your understanding of the plants, animals, and geology you will be viewing. You will also see personal items that belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt. A major feature of the Medora Visitor Center is the restored Maltese Cross Cabin, which was Roosevelt’s first home in North Dakota. Like all the visitor centers, there is an information desk staffed by people who can answer your questions, and help you plan your trip. Mid-June through September park rangers present a variety of programs, so ask at the visitor center or check the park bulletin boards for dates, times, and other information. The visitor center is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Public restrooms and a drinking fountain are located inside the visitor center.
Whether you plan on visiting Roosevelt National Park, or are traveling across North Dakota along I-94 in a westward direction, and do not have time to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you can get a quick view of the park without any detour from your route. Take exit 32 off of I-94 to reach the parking lot of the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. The visitor center not only serves as an introduction to Roosevelt National Park, but from April through October, it also serves as a rest stop, with public restrooms, and picnic shelters with tables. Take time to walk the short, paved trail behind the visitor center, where you will be treated to a wonderful panoramic overlook of the upper margins of the badlands within Roosevelt National Park. During the season that the center is open, if you have time, or if you are on your way to visit the park, stop to view the exhibits and watch orientation slide show about Roosevelt National Park. You may also pick up information about the park, ask questions of the rangers, or purchase books or park postcards.
Fondest memory: The first time we stopped at this center on the way home from Michigan, I had never even heard of Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. We were very impressed with the expansive view across the broken, eroded badlands of Roosevelt. With my binoculars I spied buffalo below us. It was this stop that introduced us to the park. Since then, we still often make a stop here, even if we are headed to the park itself. There have been a number of times that bison were roaming around the parking lot. Be careful! Bison are dangerous, so don’t approach them.
Don’t miss out on visiting at least one Prairie Dog Town. I love watching this interesting, little creatures, and always spend some time watching prairie dogs when we visit Roosevelt National Park.
As you drive the park roads, or hike the trails, watch for American bison, commonly called buffalo. In the early days of America millions of bison roamed the grasslands from Alaska to northern Mexico. Early explores described these herds as being too large to even count. By the early 1800s, however, American buffalo fur robes became very popular in Europe. Because of this, hunting, bison increased, and between the 1830s and the 1860s it is estimation that 200,000 bison were being killed annually. The construction of the railroads across the west, also added to the destruction of the buffalo. Their environment was disrupted, and many people shot them from moving trains, just for sport. Today bison are generally only found on private and protected lands, such as Yellowstone National Park, and Roosevelt National Park.
Fondest memory: The last time we stayed in the North Unit, the campground was full of bison. You could hear them making a low rumbling sound. One evening after returning from a day of exploring the park, we saw a large male buffalo talking to a female in his low, growling voice. He would then lean on her. At times, she would raise her tail high, and he would sniff her. The female eventually laid down on her side, and the male licked her, and again sniffed her all over, while still making vocalizations. She then jumped up suddenly, and lifted her tail high in the air. The male continued to sniff her. The other buffalos in the area were all watching this courtship. Unfortunately, it was getting dark out, and beginning to rain, so we had to go inside, and were never able to discover how it all ended. Still, it was a wildlife experience I will always remember.
Favorite thing: There are no food services in the park, so the best option may be to bring a picnic lunch with you, since there are a few picnic areas. I don't even remember vending machines in the entrance area visitor center! There is the small town of Medora right outside the park, where you can stock up on supplies, or if you're down the road about 30 miles in Dickinson, they have a few grocery stores and a Super Wal-Mart where you can get food and drinks.
This topographical map from Google gives a good bird's-eye view of the dramatic gorge cut by the Little Missouri River and also the boundaries of the 'North Unit' of Theordore Roosevelt National Park. The only road that traverses the park is US Highway 85 as it cuts through its eastern outskirts, with our stop indicated as we gazed down into the gorge below. The actual road into the park where you pay your entrance fee and get the necessary leaflets is a bit further south from where we stopped - on the flat 'white' section down at river level. A short road to the west takes you into the gate, from where you can continue on the scenic drive within the park or pick your hiking trail of choice. The 'Elkhorn Ranch' part of the NP no longer contains any actual ranch buildings, just some interpretive signs and other relics of the place. The 'South Unit' is located 80-km (50-mi) south of the North Unit where US 85 crosses the major east-west Interstate Highway 94.
Fondest memory: Known as the 'CanAm Highway', US 85 is one of the main north-south highways in the vast US mid-west that actually run all the way from Canada to Mexico - being about 2400-km (1500-mi) long. It is a two-lane affair for a good deal of its length (from Saskatchewan, Canada to El Paso, Texas) and we found it to be smooth, quite scenic with changing terrain and not busy with traffic. However, having seen both 'roadkill' and a number of live animals at the side of the highway, we did have to watch out for Deer and Pronghorn Antelope for the entire 930-km of our trip south - the same thing while returning. The 2nd photo shows a Pronghorn that crossed in front of us further south in North Dakota and wiggled through the fencing to emerge onto the Great Plains. They are claimed to be the second fastest land animal in the world (after the Cheetah), with a reported top speed of between 70-86 kph (about 55-mph peak). They did not seem to 'spook' very easily whenever we stopped for a photo opportunity!
Favorite thing: The badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are at best semi-arid and in drought years something of a desert. I did not expect that the land would appear almost lush with verdant rolling hills and stands of ash and juniper trees. This area receives only fifteen inches or so of precipitation in any year and a large portion of that comes from snowfall. But if there is one thing I have learned on my journeys around the U.S. and the world--life is tenacious and given a toehold, it will thrive.
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