62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and drove off. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep themselves and others safe. She visits new parks and adheres closely to best safety practices.
Five minutes after starting a trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I almost stepped on a prairie rattlesnake. Wait, let me rephrase that. I almost stepped on the rattlesnake, then backed away, stumbled, almost stepped on it, rolled my ankle, and ran back to my friend, who laughed at how red my face and chest had become.
I’d heard that the wildlife viewing would be quite outrageous in the midst of these 70,448 acres of rugged wasteland cut by the Little Missouri River. I just didn’t know how close I would actually get.
(Photo: Emily Harrington)
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established to commemorate the death of the President of the Conservation Agency and to preserve a little-known corner in western North Dakota that first inspired his love for the outdoors. The 230 million acres of public land that Roosevelt created in the United States forever changed the way the world would think about and protect its natural wonders. It is important to note, however, that his legacy is very controversial – he has rightly been criticized for his support for the Indian allotment system and for removing Native Americans from their ancestral home countries.
I slept off my argument with the Rassler and woke up refreshed and ready to explore. When I turned to the park’s most popular attraction in its South Unit, the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive, I immediately encountered more wildlife. A thundering coterie of chirping prairie dogs shot chaotically through the grasslands. Meanwhile, in the distance, a group of wild horses ran straight across the road when a coyote crept out of a nearby ditch. At one point I stopped to hike the short but sweet Wind Canyon Trail of half a mile and stopped to record the dozen of different birdsong that fluttered around in the morning air. Although July was a busy summer weekend and there were many visitors, it was still teeming with animals.
For lunch it was time to drive to the park’s less-crowded North Unit. But when I was hugging the curves along the winding park road, I suddenly ran into a traffic jam. To my right was a herd of huge bison with bright, rust-colored calves sprinting across the street. Not a single car dared move. The mood was tense.
After a 30 minute standstill, we were able to travel two miles an hour between the giant beasts, being careful not to disturb them. Mothers were grooming their boys on the street when my van crawled by. Given that a full-grown bison cow can weigh 1,200 pounds, she was equally adorable and annoying.
We completed it all with an easy two and a half mile round trip Hike to Sperati Point and trudge through a diverse ecosystem of grasses and wildflowers that burst in all directions. There was no soul and I began to see how Roosevelt might have felt here. A remote expanse of wasteland and prairie that instantly humiliates the ego. Jagged, dynamic, wild.
62 Parks Traveler Theodore Roosevelt Info
Size: 70,448 acres
Place: Western North Dakota
Created in: 1935 (Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area), 1978 (National Park)
Best for: Bird watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, scenic drives, and car camping
When to go: Summers (50 to 86 degrees) are hot, busy, and an excellent time to visit the park. Spring (19 to 68 degrees) and autumn (19 to 74 degrees) offer milder temperatures and cool nights. In winter (5 to 33 degrees), the park’s scenic drives stay open when weather conditions permit.
Where to sleep: Cottonwood Campground in the park’s South Unit offers views of the wasteland and easy access to popular excursions. Each place is equipped with a picnic table and a grill. Watch out for curious bison poking around the camp!
Mini adventure: Ride the South Unit’s 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive and hike the Wind Canyon Trail. The winding road takes you through some of the most exquisite painted wastelands this park has to offer, while also providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Once on your way, enjoy breathtaking views of the Little Missouri River.
Mega adventure: Hike the rolling prairie on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. This 144 mile single trail was derived from a local Mandan tribe and means “an area that will be around for a long time”. It connects the three units of the park and is an unforgettable way to explore the rustic wilderness that first inspired Roosevelt.
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Main photo: Emily Pennington