This week I took a solo trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the badlands of North Dakota. I’ve been to the more famous badlands of South Dakota several times, but I’d never been to the ones in North Dakota. They have the similar look of bleak, eroded buttes, but there’s more green in North Dakota. It’s an awe-inspiring landscape that sneaks up on you after the flat dullness of the prairie.
Sometimes I get funny looks when I tell people I’m taking a solo vacation. I get it. If it were up to me, I’d bring the family along. But mostly they’re too busy or not interested.
I’m at a point in my life where I’ve realized there are things I want to do and if I’m going to do them, I just have to do them. I love visiting parks and going on hikes and doing stuff in nature. The rest of the family is less enthused. So I go solo.
I’m also an introvert, so going off by myself is a way to recharge.
A few highlights and random recollections from the trip…
I spent my 42nd birthday sitting in a rocking chair watching the sunset over the badlands. I was at an overlook at the end of a 24-mile, one-way scenic drive. It was supposed to be a 36-mile loop, but the road was closed and it became a 24-mile out and back drive, which mean the area was isolated. Not a soul pulled into the overlook for the entire half hour I sat there.
North Dakota has a lot of bison. They’re so prevalent in the park, it starts to feel like the prairie is supposed to be before the mass hunting decimated the bison. Hiking the trails, I came across a lot of bison dung, which made me think the bison must use the same trails—eventually I’d come close to them. Didn’t take long.
Second day I came out of a canyon and onto the prairie, and there were three bison in the distance. I’m smart enough to keep my distance, but they were far enough off that I could close in a little bit. I started moving closer, and then realized that dark shape behind a low, scrubby bush was a bison sleeping. We were maybe 30 feet apart. That’s a little too close for comfort. I started backing up, while taking a few pics. The bison woke up, stood up, and noticed me. Thankfully he was content to ignore me.
The next day I was in the middle of a hike that took me across the prairie and there was an entire herd in the distance. Not a big deal. But there were a few stragglers—the big males—that I kept getting closer and closer to. It looked like we were all going in the same direction. I had to veer off the trail to keep some distance between us. Eventually it became clear we were all going in the same direction and the bison got moving so I could follow along the trail and still maintain distance. Watching the bison climb the steep path up a butte and then along the ridge was something else. So was following a path trod by an entire herd of bison.
It’s actually their park, they just let us enjoy it for a few days.
I came across two bison carcasses. They were pretty far decayed—no smell or swarm of flies. But I was surprised at how much of the animals were left. The park rangers said they’d probably been there through the winter and the cold weather likely explained the lack of decay. Other than roadkill deer, I can’t think of a time I’ve seen that large of an animal dead. Obviously it happens all the time, but it’s pretty rare to see it.
Prairie dog towns are everywhere. I started to think this was an odd expansion and that predators couldn’t keep up. We must be dealing with an imbalanced ecosystem. But it turns out that, much like bison, the prairie dog population has drastically shrunk since the 1800s. Prairie dog towns everywhere is how it’s supposed to be. But it’s not, thanks to urbanism, ranching, and farming. Most folks consider prairie dogs to be a pest, but they’re actually a cornerstone species that’s incredibly beneficial to the ecosystem. One of my hikes took me through a couple prairie dog towns, where they endlessly chirped at me. Apparently prairie dogs have incredibly complex communication, so I’m curious what kind of conversation they were having about me as I hiked through their towns.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is broken into three units—the popular south unit (intersected by I-94), the north unit about 68 miles away, and the remote Elkhorn Ranch (about an hour and a half from the south unit, mostly on dirt roads). There’s not much at Elkhorn Ranch, but it is the former site of Roosevelt’s ranch and cabin.
I stayed at the south unit but decided to visit the other units one day with a looping drive that took most of the day. The north unit had some incredible views, but there’s not as much there. It didn’t seem to have as many short, accessible trails as the south unit. I stopped for lunch in Watford City at Smiling Moose Rocky Mountain Deli, a small chain with less than a dozen locations mostly in North Dakota and Colorado. Sure beat the Subway I planned to stop at.
Much of the driving in North Dakota is flat, endless prairie, but then suddenly it breaks open. That’s how this looping drive was. Mostly boring, probably not great for the family, but it did have some great moments.
Getting to the Elkhorn Ranch wasn’t bad, though if it had been rainy it might have been a different story. The remote location of Elkhorn is most of the draw. There’s not much out there other than oil tankers and ranchers. The actual Elkhorn Ranch involves a short hike of less than a mile to the actual site of the ranch. Once you get there, there are a few signs, and some stones and metal posts marking the original site. There’s barbed wire fencing the area in, I think because much of the surrounding area is actually ranch land owned by the National Forest Service and they’re keeping out cattle. You can’t even get to the shore of the Little Missouri River, which is within sight.
It’s kind of a letdown. I had hoped to set up my hammock somewhere on the site and enjoy the kind of relaxing and communing with nature that Roosevelt advocated. The whole place has a psychological connection with recovering and rest. When Roosevelt’s mother and wife died on the same day, this is where he retreated to mourn and grieve. The whole site is undeveloped and that’s probably intentional, but it could really benefit from a shelter with some shade and a few benches. A rocking chair would be ideal, but that’s probably not practical.
Personally, I didn’t regret the visit, though I had hoped for more. I’m not sure I’d recommend it though. But if you enjoy driving and solitude, it’s pretty good.
Hammocking by the River
I did finally get my hammocking in by going into the campsite and finding a quiet spot near the river under what Roosevelt called the “great, brittle cottonwoods.”
It’s always a little surprising to me how unappreciated rivers are. The Little Missouri River runs through this entire National Park, connecting all three units. It’s a muddy, shallow strip of a river, but it’s still a river. Yet there are woefully few connections to it. A few overlooks. One trail that intentionally fords the river. And this campsite on the river. Even the Elkhorn Ranch didn’t have access to the river. It’s odd to me that this feature isn’t highlighted more. I don’t know if that’s because it’s underwhelming or if spring floods make it unpredictable and risky to build too close to.
At any rate, moving water is always worth a visit, so it made a good place to hammock. When I packed up to go, I looked upstream and a couple bison were standing in the shallows. They agreed with me.
Not Quite an Oregon Trail Adventure
So that was my trip. I made a few stops along the way, including the Albany Home Bakery in Albany, Minn., for a morning donut (excellent!), Broken Down Dam Park in Fergus Falls (the dam collapsed more than 100 years ago and they just left the broken pieces all across the river), Buffalo River State Park in Minnesota (nice river views) and Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota (cool fort buildings and Mandan dwellings).
I saw lots of bison, I forded a river, and I didn’t die of dysentery.