We’ve hiked through a myriad of parks all over the United States in the last few years. They all have their own beauty and value. This one stands apart from the rest in its uniqueness. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota isn’t a madhouse choked with crowds but feels more like a mellow ranch.
Bison graze the roadsides. Wild horses play in the rain. Double rainbows appear above undulating grasses and golden eagles soar above prairie dog towns. The landscape is one of badlands, plains, wild rivers, and riparian forests.
It is a fitting tribute to a man shaped by North Dakota’s natural trials. Theodore Roosevelt was a man who lamented at the degradation of our country’s wild resources and fought hard to conserve them. As we hike Teddy’s park, we keep him in memory and high esteem. Without him, we may not have this precious gift left for our people…these lands of remarkable beauty set aside from greed and exploitation.
Even as I write this, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an island in a sea of human industry. His park, like the others, is a sacred space much like a cathedral on a seedy city street. Here one can step out of a sordid world into a palace of light and quiet. It is a place where one talks in hushed, respectful tones, giving respect and tribute to nature’s delicate resilience.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota:
Teddy’s park is composed of two main units. The south is more crowded and has services. This is where you have a good chance of seeing wild horses. There are plenty of hiking trails in the south unit to explore. If you’re in good shape and enjoy an adventurous hike, try the Lower Paddock Creek Trail.
Lower Paddock Creek
On this path, you’ll get to see a massive prairie dog town and, if you’re lucky, golden eagles searching for a meal. We connected this trail with the Badlands Spur, Lower Talkington, Jones, and CCC to make a 10.5-mile loop. You may need to do multiple, slippery creek crossings on the Lower Paddock, depending on the time of year and rainfall. We were there in late June when thunderstorms are common. That’s what I mean when I say an “adventurous hike”. We both took spills in the creek, which brought both curses and laughter.
Make sure you have a decent map. Once we got to the Badlands Spur, we lost the trail and did some wilderness hiking. Along the way, we spied a herd of pronghorns and a horse skeleton. This is another reason to label this hike as “adventurous”. Route-finding skills are necessary.
Petrified Forest Hikes
We created a 9-mile loop of South Petrified, Maah Daah Hey, and North Petrified Trails. This hike was unforgettable for us because it began with an escort. Three scarred and pugnacious stallions hiked in a column before us, leading us into the badlands. Here they left us to wallow in the dirt and nip at each other’s haunches.
From them, we ascended onto the prairie. The landscape conjured a feeling of nostalgia for a land long lost to us…one we’d heard of in books and Americana legend. It was a wild prairie with rolling grasses undotted by human enterprise. A single pronghorn pranced in the ocean of grass and a pheasant lifted from its hiding place.
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The north has fewer people and services. If you’re in good shape and enjoy a challenge, try the Buckhorn Trail. This 11.4-mile loop is scenic and full of wildlife. The southern portion of the trail hugs the park road and is rather boring. Its saving grace was the herd of longhorns we discovered lounging in a cottonwood grove.
The portion north of the park road is wonderful. You will have elevation, a creek crossing, and bushwacking. The trail is hard to find at times. It’s a lesson and a joy. We surprised a bison herd in the forest. They snorted in alarm and pounded past us in a flurry. It was a bit scary really but amazing.
The wood lilies looked like they’ve been placed in the ground by Willy Wonka. Their bright orange, polka dot petals look like candy to be plucked and eaten. Prairie dogs barked at us as we passed, wagging their tails furiously in warning before darting abruptly into the ground.
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- Wildlife can be dangerous. Be aware of your surroundings and keep your distance.
- Hikes are fully exposed. Prepare with proper desert clothing, sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses.
- Pay close attention to your surroundings, noting memorable landmarks. Look behind you occasionally to note appearances. Take a map.
- Take plenty of water.