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The Coolest Little National Park You've Never Heard Of

By , November 11th, 2015

Who goes to North Dakota on a vacation? Isn’t it just flat, cold, and boring? This northern Midwest state was somewhat of a blank slate for me. Like most people when I thought of North Dakota the first thing that would pop in my head was the movie Fargo, and the funny accents the characters had, ‘Dontcha-know?’. That all changed when I planned my first trip to our 39th state, North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The pastel setting sun on the park. Photo by the author.

Ultimately, what sold me on taking the trip were a few pictures I stumbled upon when searching ‘what to do in North Dakota’. At first glance, I thought I must have typed something in the search bar wrong. Maybe there was so little to do there that Google found pictures from somewhere else to fill the void. One picture in particular stuck with me: a soft pink sunset over a large canyon with dome-shaped rocks scattered around. When I first saw the pictures, I thought this couldn’t be from North Dakota, but somewhere in the American Southwest. After a bit more digging I determined that the pictures did in fact come from North Dakota, specifically a little park called Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Shaped 65 million years ago. Photo by the author.

The canyon I saw in the pictures was only a small part of a massive canyon system that cuts through the southwestern stretch of the state. Sixty-five million years ago, water rushed toward North Dakota as the Rocky Mountains were formed. Rock and sediment were left behind and later rivers carved out the park as we know it today. The park’s most remarkable features are the rock formations which feature sandwiched layers of multicolored horizontal stripes. Tall cliffs, winding gullies, and dome-shaped rock formations extend throughout the park. In the gullies, rivers snake through, flanked on both sides with bright green stretches in an otherwise arid and rocky landscape. It’s no wonder that Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the beauty of this place.

Why Roosevelt Loved The Park

North Dakota Roosevelt

An inspiration for the conservation program of today. Photo by the author.

The park takes it’s name from the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, because of the connection he had with the North Dakota Badlands. As a young man, Roosevelt came to the Dakotas and it’s here where he formed his ideas on conservationism. An early advocate on preserving resources, Roosevelt played an important part in protecting what would become the National Parks. Roosevelt has even credited his assumption to presidency to the time he spent in North Dakota.

Buffalo Still Roam

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A buffalo strikes a pose. Photo by the author.

As beautiful as they are, the park is more than a bunch of strangely shaped rocks– it’s alive. Big wooly buffalos roam wild throughout the park. It was a common sight to find them on the roadside in the early mornings, trimming the grass along the park roads. The big 2,000 pound buffaloes are still very wild, but quite tolerant of gawking park goers. It’s fairly easy to get quite close to the furry beasts, from the safety of a car of course.

The buffalo aren’t the only animals that call Theodore Roosevelt N.P. home: a team of wild horses run free in the south unit and giant longhorn cattle graze in the north. Probably the cutest residents are the prairie dogs who live in little villages around the park. These tan-coated cuties are a bit on the shy side, but they’ll poke their heads out of their holes when they have a visitor. With all of the amazing wildlife that lives in the park, only one species is quite rare: the human. Regardless of the time of year you visit, the park never has overwhelming crowds.

Stop Off In Medora

North DakotaMedora

The charming town gateway to the park. Photo by the author.

For a slightly larger village than those of the prairie dogs, a trip to Medora, ND. is worth putting into a Theodore Roosevelt N.P. itinerary. Medora is the town most use as their base when exploring the park— there are loads of lovely hotels and restaurants in Medora.  The town is full of pioneer charm. The buildings in town are all wooden and look like something from the set of an old western. A trip to Medora wouldn’t be complete without trying the pitchfork fondue and seeing the Medora Musical.

Try The Fried Steak

Medora pitchfork steak

Melt-in-your-mouth rib eye steak on a pitchfork. Photo by the author.

It’s traditional in these parts so get ready to dig into a fondue rib-eye steak, fried on a farmer’s pitchfork and served alongside all the picnic fixings. In the early afternoon, locals and visitors make their way to Burning Hills Amphitheater overlooking the town and the park. From high above Medora you can see into the sprawling canyons of the Park and the aromas of cooking meats fill the air. The meal is followed by a western inspired musical variety show called the Medora Musical.

The Park’s Signature Sunset

A day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park almost always ends with the soft pink sunset that I saw in the pictures during my initial research. On the last day in the park, I was after my own picture of the setting sun in this amazing little park. Almost on cue, the sun sank and the sky lit up in soft pastel colors. Finally, the sun fell below the horizon and the sky melted into a soft pink over the canyons of the park. Standing alone watching the sunset in Theodore Roosevelt National Park gave me an appreciation of what these lands must have looked like to Theodore himself.

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