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"Give those men a map!" (Theodore Roosevelt NP)

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

Saturday, 18 June 2022, Theodore Roosevelt NP

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only U.S. National Park named after a person. It has only 70,000 acres (ranked 46th of the 63 parks), with roughly 2/3 of that found in the South Unit, 1/3 in the North Unit 68 miles to the north, and 0.3% located between them at Elkhorn Ranch.

A bit of history is called for. Theodore Roosevelt (often called TR) first traveled to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison, and fell in love with the area. He bought an existing cattle ranch near the boom town of Medora, and bought more land along the Little Missouri River in a place he called Elkhorn Ranch before he returned to New York for the winter.

Tragedy struck him on Valentines Day 1884. His wife, who had given birth to their daughter two days earlier, died of a kidney disease. On the same evening, on a different floor of his house, his mother died of typhoid fever. Devastated, TR retired from politics. By June he returned to the Dakota Territory to grieve as he took up cattle ranching. He hired friends to build him a proper ranch house at Elkhorn Ranch, and taught himself the skills of a cowboy. Here he learned the value of conservation and of natural lands.

His foray into ranching did not last long. During the starvation winter of 1886-87, TR lost 60% of his cattle (other ranchers suffered similar losses). He returned to New York, soon became a war hero with his Rough Riders, and eventually rose to the Presidency. He always averred, though, that he would have had none of that success if not for his experiences in the Dakotas.

Iron Man & I chose to begin our tour of TR Park with a visit to Elkhorn Ranch. As we drove, we quickly fell into standard roles as we gallivanted about the Great Plains countryside: Iron Man took the wheel, and I would tell him where to go (politely, of course). We had the standard Prius GPS to guide us, handy when we had an address for a Visitor Center or a motel. At other times, though, we preferred to see the 'big picture' of where sites lay in respect to each other.

Luckily, Bill had brought along a Vintage Automobile Navigational Aide (VANA) - namely, a Phillips 66 road map dating from 1973. Think of a car version of Wheel of Fortune, where the consonants are the towns and the vowels, highways. "Is Wibaux on our route, VANA?" "This road is too slow. Can I buy an I-94, Pat?" (How many Millennials could figure out how to use this? More importantly, how many could figure out how to fold it back up?)

We found a calling for route-finding skills as we started out for the day. Visiting Elkhorn Ranch involves thirty miles of gravel roads. The NPS website warns you to check with them regarding road conditions - after wet weather, the last three miles may require 4-wheel drive or high clearance vehicles. I did, and they reported that the road should be good to go. (I'm sure that if I'd asked a follow-up question, the ranger would've told me, "Hardly anyone ever goes out there.")

Besides plugging 'Elkhorn Ranch' into the Prius GPS, I had also copied directions from the NPS site:

- Take I-94 to exit 10.

- Turn right on County Road 11 (gravel). Follow it for 8.8 miles.

- Turn right on Westerheim Road, go 6.5 miles.

- Turn left on Bell Lake Road, and drive 11.7 miles.

- Turn right onto FH2 towards the USFS Elkhorn Campground for ~3 miles, continuing past the campground and MDHT trailhead to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit parking area.

Many of the roads appeared on GPS, but they would vanish and reappear. Once we turned on FH2, GPS clicked in again. When it told us to take a right, though, all we saw was two tire tracks heading through the scrubby brush (not that the road we were on was much better). We'd gone almost three miles, so we HAD to be close, so I said. "Well, the GPS insists it's that way..."

A quarter-mile later, we balked at driving further. "GPS says it's just around the corner... Let's park here and hoof it the rest of the way."

That 'rest of the way' took us quickly to a fenced off stable - and a hundred yards away on the other side, we saw the parking area for Elkhorn Ranch. "Okay, so much for relying on GPS."

One pickup truck sat at Elkhorn when we arrived; we passed them on the trail.

The short, flat walk took us by interpretive signs talking about TR and his time here, before reaching the ranch site. Nothing remains of the ranch he had built except for a foundation, but the undeveloped landscape helped us to picture the land as he must have seen it:

sparse trees, eroded bluffs, blowing grasses, the shallow river.

TR's spirit permeated the land. I could see how the harshness of the land could heal his soul, force him to reckon with eking out an existence. Of that time, he said, "Ours is the glory of work and the joy of living."

His persona shines through in the books he wrote of his times here - such as this excerpt from Hunting Trips of a Ranchman:

"This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand--though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset."

We lingered for a few minutes, impressed with the remoteness - his nearest neighbors lay 10-12 miles away. I could not call it quiet, though - it sounded like a cattle roundup was underway somewhere out of sight, and the cows were not shy about expressing their disapproval. I told Bill, "That's quite a cow-caphony."

Time to move on. Navigating north on the gravel roads brought us to pavement in only 18 miles. Of course, we did run into a North Dakota traffic jam,

and had to wait a few minutes for the in-no-hurry cows to clear the road.

Time to look at the big picture again. In this sparsely-populated area, the Little Missouri River formed a 65-mile-long bridgeless barrier running from I-94 to the US-85 bridge. To reach the park's North Unit, we had to head north toward Watford City before dipping south again.

We stopped at the Visitor Center to collect my passport stamp and get a hiking recommendation, orienting ourselves in the park. The ranger gave us the standard warning: "Don't get close to any bison." He then embellished the advice. "Stay at least 25 yards away from them. A good rule of thumb - if you're not sure how far 25 yards is - is to hold your arm straight out with your thumb up. If you can't hide the bison behind your extended thumb, then you're too close."

The ranger recommended the Caprock Coulee Trail, a four-plus mile loop.

From the parking area, we started on the Caprock Nature Trail, with signs describing the area. The trail began by dropping into the coulee (dry canyon), then slowly began ascending through the eroded terrain. When the Nature Trail ended with a 'return the way you came', the loop trail continued by climbing up - UP - the canyon slopes.

With another extreme heat advisory in place (97° heat index - but we carried enough water this time!), we took our time.

By the time we reached the top, the only visible trail sign pointed back down the way we'd come. (We later mentioned to a ranger about the dearth of trail mileposts. He responded, "That's because the bison use them for scratching posts, and keep knocking them down.") Well-worn footpaths headed in both directions - which one to take?? To the left, the path hugged the ridge's edge before dropping into a switchback; the right-side path crossed a meadow before disappearing into the trees. A solo hiker was looking out over the scene, so we asked him which trail would get us back to our car.

"Beats me. I thought maybe you'd know."

Bill and I discussed it for a minute, while the other hiker took the left branch. I finally used infallible logic to make a choice: "We had turned left to get started on the nature trail, so we should keep turning left. That should make a circle." So left we went, following the solo hiker.

THAT didn't take long. By the time we hit the switchback, the trail had narrowed, looking less like a good choice. We watched the solo hiker below us, slowly continuing downhill. Bill's fitness tracker couldn't give us a good answer. Finally we decided to cut (or extend?) our losses, and headed for the path running through the meadow. it stayed flat, crossing more meadows and copses of trees.

Eventually we saw a couple ahead of us, giving us more confidence. Soon enough we hit the park's paved road - we could now pinpoint ourselves on the park map!

As we crossed the road, we caught up with the other couple, Steve and Tiffany from Florida. They had flown out west to see Yellowstone, but with that park closed due to the flooding, they had switched their focus to other parks. "We hoped to see a lot of wildlife here. We saw pronghorns on the drive up, but haven't seen any buffalo or mountain goats yet." They also struggled with finding the trail. "We saw you two at the top of the ridge, and thought you had seen us."

We hiked with them a short distance, to the Little Missouri River overlook.

The signs told about the genesis of the park: In the 1930's, support grew for establishing a park in these badlands to honor TR. Since people considered this overlook the premier vista in the area, the CCC began construction of the vista house here before anyone had even talked about park boundaries.

In 1935, the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area was established. It became the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge in 1946, and in April 1947, Truman signed the bill making the South Unit the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Only 14 months later, the North Unit (and this vista) joined it. 1978 saw its promotion to National Park.

One curious thing we noticed at this time - and Tiffany remarked on it also. It seems that every time I took out my phone for another picture, the time would change by an hour - now it's 4:00, now it's 5:10, now 4:15. Turns out the park road served as the boundary between the Central and Mountain time zones. Does anybody really know what time it is?

After spending time to savor the views, we said goodbye to Steve and Tiffany - after all, we still had more than a mile to get back to the car. The trail led us onto a narrow ridge, over slickrock, and through hoodoos.

Iron Man took the lead - he seemd to find the (sparse) trail signs more easily. At times it felt like we were getting nowhere slowly, but eventually the trail began its descent to the road.

When I caught up to Bill at the bottom of the slope, he stood with his arm out and thumb extended. "Nope, can't hide him," he said. I looked beyond him to see Mr. American Bison in the parking lot, blocking our path to the car,

with his partner just ahead of him. "Too bad Steve and Tiffany aren't here to check 'bison' off their wildlife list!"

We waited a few minutes for the behemoth to amble off down the Caprock Nature Trail (probably going to knock down a few more trail signs, I'm sure). Back in the car, we drove to the end of the scenic road, enjoying the views. We passed one herd of bison close by the road as they grazed on the grasses.

At road's end, we looked out over the Oxbow and contemplated geology.

Up to this point, the river had trended north for hundreds of miles; now it took a hard turn to the east. Long ago, the river had continued north to flow into Hudson Bay. During the last Ice Age, though, glaciers blocked its course, and the river cut a new course east then south to the Missouri and eventually the Mississippi.

On our drive back out, we made a final stop (a ranger recommendation) to see the Cannonball Concretions.

Ancient river sediments had coalesced into (usually spherical) shapes, cemented together by dissolved minerals. They now peppered the buttes, some buried, some poking out, others lying free. We gawked at them along with other visitors, amazed at the marvels nature could provide.

Time to hit the road, get positioned for a detour to Knife River Indian Villages NHS tomorrow. VANA directed us down US-85, then turning us onto ND-200. We stopped at the convenience store at the junction to fill the gas tank. As we looked for a snack inside to tide us over, we noticed another couple. Steve and Tiffany! We chatted with them for a few minutes, asking if they'd caught sight of the buffalo, and compared notes. As we left, our paths finally diverged, with them continuing on US-85 to the South Unit.

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