On the Road Summer 2021 Days 6 & 7 Theodore Roosevelt National Park
On the Road Days 6 & 7 Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Photo of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park by Gary Anderson, National Park Service.
Theodore Roosevelt did not create this Park. It was established in 1947 as a national memorial park to recognize his role in conserving federal lands. Nor did he create the National Park system. The first national park was Yellowstone, established by Congress in 1872 and placed under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior as “a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
However, during his tenure as President from 1901-1909, he did what he could do preserve public lands for future generations to enjoy. He established the US Forest Service and established four game preserves, 51 bird reserves and 150 national forests on federal lands. He signed into law the creation of five National Parks. And he signed the 1906 Antiquities Act. This Act gives the President executive authority to designate national monuments on federal lands, giving them some measure of protection. He then designated 18 new monuments. The 1906 Antiquities Act has been diminished in scope twice, by the states of Wyoming and Alaska, each state requiring Congressional ratification for certain designations.
The number of new designations has varied with the Presidents in power. It is important to understand what is happening today as we need to expand public lands more now than ever as out national parks suffer deterioration from overcrowding. Recently, Donald Trump, bowing to the private drilling and mining interests actually diminished a predecessors’ monument, a first. The legality of his actions in reducing the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments in Utah are still pending in federal court.
It bears noting here if only to contrast the two Presidents, Roosevelt and Trump and consider where the United States stands today as a custodian of our environment: Trump’s unilateral decision to reduce Bears Ears by 85% followed intensive lobbying by Andrew Wheeler for a uranium firm. Trump subsequently appointed Wheeler as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency! Trump also unilaterally gutted protection for marine life in a stretch of the Atlantic Ocean protected under the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, significant for its fragile deep marine ecosystems and rich biodiversity, including many already endangered marine mammals and fish. (The Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior share management responsibility for this monument.) This is a critical time for preserving biodiversity hotspots, not intentionally eradicating them if we have any chance at slowing climate change.
The location of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was selected because Roosevelt himself credited this region for inspiring him to become President and to sequester at least some lands from the commerce he saw inexorably desecrating America’s natural beauty. He was a complex man, a game hunter and rancher himself and did not always coming down on the side of land preservation with the purity of John Muir. For example, given the opportunity to expand Yellowstone National Park in 1908, he instead gave control of the two million surrounding acres, which included the Tetons and Jackson Hole, to the Forest Service. The mission of the Forest Service is not to protect and preserve the unspoiled beauty of lands, but to manage and in many cases commercially exploit the nation’s forests and grasslands “to meet the needs” of present and future generations. But politics sometimes requires compromise, and overall Roosevelt’s record was quite commendable and the example he set, invaluable.
What is it about this area that inspired Roosevelt? As a New York politician during the glory days of the Industrial Revolution, Roosevelt saw firsthand the wholesale exploitation of America’s natural resources. On one bad day, Valentine’s Day at that, February 14, 1884, Roosevelt lost both his young wife to a kidney ailment and his beloved mother to typhoid fever. He had previously spent time in the Dakotas hunting bison and after wrapping up some obligations in the East, chose to set up a ranching operation in North Dakota where he could find both the solitude and opportunity for hard work that would help him heal from his grief. Here he had a front seat to the mass extermination of the bison and to the loss of the prairie by overgrazing cattle. A rancher himself and a big game hunter, he came to know the businessmen of the area. And he could see that unbridled capitalism would destroy the land until there was no beauty preserved for future generations and take from it until no more natural resources existed. He determined to take on the issue of conservation.
Interstate 94 runs along the southern boundary of the South Unit of TRNP. Take exit 32 for the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and a gorgeous overlook of the Badlands. You can take a short loop nature trail there, just under one mile or take the longer in and out Painted Canyon Trail, just over four miles. If you are interested in exploring the rock formations and wildlife on a longer hike, you can start at the Painted Canyon trailhead and then choose the Upper Paddock Creek Trail, heading either west or east, with the option of joining different trails within the interior of the Scenic Loop Drive. I was intent on setting up camp, so didn’t hike on my way in. My game plan was to explore the area around my campsite. I had a hankering to hike into the petrified forests, though that would have to wait until morning. I’m sure it would be cool at night, especially in moonglow, but the terrain is ripe for rattlesnakes and I hadn’t yet learned who else lived there. What I can tell you is that those trails are probably amazing. Once you get away from the sound of traffic on I-94, you feel utterly alone in an immense surreal landscape. The rocks showcase the eons that have passed in different bands of color and you realize how brief your part is. Invariably, you begin questioning the underpinnings of everything you’re doing. At first, it’s terrifying.
Then it’s liberating.
A couple bison were wandering unconcernedly through my campsite when I arrived. I was struck with just how large they are up close.
The Cottonwood campground hosts, if they were the ones responsible for cleaning sites did not have the meticulous eye I would have preferred. Bits of plastic littered my site, a couple bags caught in the low thistle and flapping in the scrub and miscellaneous debris was embedded in the dirt near the picnic table from previous campers. Potable water was available at the campground entrance but not at my campsite so I rather begrudged digging in the dirt to pick up bits of debris. Glad I was traveling solo with no one to call me out on my crankiness, I cleaned the site. What’s wrong with taking a little extra effort in the interest of beauty? Besides, it’s part of my Junior Ranger pledge to pick up litter.
Maybe I needed to eat an amazing meal and head out to see some enchanting scenery along the Scenic Loop Drive. Sunset would deepen the colors of the rocks and I could return in a more expansive mood to better enjoy the evening Ranger Program at the campground amphitheater.
My first stop on the Scenic Loop Drive was a prairie dog town. I’ve got a thing for prairie dogs. They’re on their game. They’ve got cool burrows with different well-thought out rooms. I feel like they are fit; that is that they keep in good shape and are good-natured and generally fun to be around. It’s just a vibe I get. They’ve got an effective system for alerting the community to ever-lurking dangers. They need to. They’re not much more than a foot tall, and generally pretty slight. There is absolutely nothing intimidating about them. You’d send your kid to bed with a fluffy stuffed animal version. Unfortunately for them, they appear as tasty morsels to a whole host of formidable predators, both on the land and in the air. Not the least of these hunters being rednecks who actually have parties just to shoot them. These guys’ll swear up and down that prairie burrows cause their livestock to break their legs. But the truth is not one instance has been documented. Ever. But go ahead and look up the parties. You’ll come across advertisements for dude ranches that offer prairie dog shooting as an entertaining diversion.
Ostensibly safe here in the park, there were a number of prairie dogs standing out on their mounds, pretty much ignoring tourists with binoculars and well, just looking cute.
Prairie dogs have a complex language. Doubtless more complex than the human murderers. They can actually tell each other that a tall, thin woman wearing a garish yellow shirt is prancing in their direction with a camera. Well, maybe they don’t explicitly say “garish.” The expert on prairie dog languages, biologist, author of Chasing Dr. Dolittle, a book on learning the language of animals and North Arizona University professor Emeritus Con Slobodchikoff hasn’t mentioned whether he has deciphered a social commentary aspect of their language. I suppose his theories are controversial enough. No sense in providing a critic the opportunity to feel personal disrespect because they adore polyester and prairie dogs find it hideous.
As I’d hoped I returned to my campsite mentally refueled from taking in the beauty and so much different wildlife. Temperatures were dropping. I pulled on a hoodie, grabbed my red headlamp and made my way over to the amphitheater for the Ranger Program.
The Ranger told us about the trophic cascade, the exponential explosion of life and rebuilding of the ecosystem in Yellowstone after the wolves were reintroduced to their natural habitat. It involved the return of countless mammals, amphibians and birds. He didn’t delve into what must have been a crazy growth of the vast microbial world, except to note that the entire soil structure changed with beavers and otters damming the rivers and new tree growth solidifying banks and even changing the course of the river. This explanation of a trophic cascade was all delivered within the course of the ranger suggesting ever so tentatively a reintroduction of mountain lions to the park. Wow. Now there was an idea. It seemed the alliance with the neighboring ranchers weighed on his shoulders, however. Square One. Just where TR found himself. Already there were elk, bison and bighorn sheep. Why shouldn’t the government just buy out the ranchers and let the populations grow? Presuming the mountain lions didn’t do the entire job, we could keep the numbers of bison down to sustainable levels by selling buffalo meat. The country deserves more land devoted to parks. To the biosphere.
In love with the area, my head exploding with ideas to preserve it, I fell asleep under a starry sky.
The next morning, I took a buffalo trail that ran through a number of prairie dog towns. I got pretty deep into the outback. Prairie dogs were skittering and chirping all around me. Cottonwoods and tiny green plants, some with exquisite fairy-size flowers grew down in the gullies where water sometimes flows.
The sun rose fast and furious.
Still, I did not want to stop exploring. I hiked through high grasslands with views of rock formations of dreamy shapes: spaceships, behemoth monster snouts, delicate swans, princesses with curly hair and plenty of teeth, laughing megafauna. I hiked through the petrified forests with their mushroom villages and weird and beautiful fossilized tree remains.
There was something about the feel of the land there. I simply did not want to leave. When I perused the US road map at the outset of my trip, I figured I’d head over to Glacier from the South Unit. Seeing Glacier was a dream I’d held close for 26 years, having twice during that time been forced by blizzards to turn back. I had no intention of exploring the north unit. It was inconveniently far, and I’d never heard of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park before this trip. But the Ranger Program helped augment the tone I was feeling. There was indeed something special about this place. I was all in.
So, after hiking twelve miles of varied terrain, I still wanted more and ended up driving to the North Unit, a long hour and change passing pump jacks and corn, barley and sunflowers and maybe soybeans, I’m not sure.
I scored a campsite at the Juniper Campground from a man who looked suspiciously like Santa Claus. He recommended I take the scenic loop at sunset when a lot of wildlife would be out grazing and foraging. But I couldn’t move and was okay sitting in my camp chair and reading after filling my belly with another divine meal.
Thankfully you can find remote hiking trails hiking in the North Unit. It’s pretty creepy that it’s situated directly below the Baaken fracking fields, an environmental nightmare scarring the land, blaring light pollution from gas flares, trucks rumbling 24/7, and all the facilities and commerce that go along with the operation and the commensurate population growth. Pictures of the light pollution from satellites have made news coverage in recent years. You can get patches of relatively dark sky where stars glitter, but frankly, the fracking fields pretty much destroy any chance of the Park obtaining International Dark Sky status any time soon.
To give you an idea of the sympathies of North Dakota politicians, read between the lines of this 2020 article excerpt about the Bakken fields:
“Like most oil-producing states, North Dakota had the opportunity to require oil and gas
producers to put up money in the form of bonding which would be designated to properly clean up and cap oil and gas wells once they were finished producing. Unfortunately, the state didn’t put that precaution in place, and now bankrupt companies are starting to walk away from their wells.
The state recently decided to use $66 million in federal funds designated for coronavirus relief to begin cleaning up wells the oil industry has abandoned — costs that the industry should be covering, according to the law, but that are now shifted to the public.
The Bakken boom made a lot of money for a select few oil and gas executives and Wall Street financiers. But as the boom fades, taxpayers and nearby residents have to deal with the financial and environmental damage the industry will leave behind. 
Ah, TR. He did see this coming.
Upon leaving the campground the next morning, just at the entrance is a pull off and a short dirt trail taking you right into the cannonball concretions, rocks in the shape of cannonballs randomly placed in, against and on the golden cliffs. It’s interesting contemplating a geologic process that caused accumulations of sediment to harden in a perfectly spherical shape.
From there, I drove the short distance to the Caprock Coulee trailhead at Riverbend Overlook.
It was on this hike that I understood what happened to Teddy Roosevelt here. I was deep into grasslands with scenic views, deep in the scent of soft sage and pungent juniper, under blue skies with puffy clouds, the wide-open skies where the buffalo roam and all I could do was write op-eds for the New York Times in my head. I tackled issue after complex issue, offering eloquent solutions. There must be some fairy goddess or lonely wizard, steeped in the politics of the day residing in the zephyrs there. And they’ll get you. Yes, they will.
Weird, but exhilarating.
Mine was a long, long hike which finally ended up at a parking lot filled with rubble, a bunch of orange flags, and a sign indicating that it was closed. That was okay by me, except that I had thought I’d be back at Riverbend Overlook. Instead it appeared that I needed to cross the road and doggedly tackle another very, very steep hill to get there.
And so, one foot following the other, I marched forward.
I honestly have no idea how I got turned around. I was certain that Riverbend Overlook would be around the next bend. Again and then again. It was thus with alarm that I recognized a distinctive and familiar overhanging branch just before I found myself back at that damn depressing torn up parking lot with the dusty orange flags.
I did not trust myself to simply turn back around. What if I made the same mistake? Who’s to say there is not a trick element in the fabric of the universe along that trail waiting to snag me unawares once again?
So instead, I climbed the long, steep, hot, grueling asphalt road up and around a bend, and up and around another bend, and even farther up and around yet another bend, again and again, until my legs were like to fall off and finally, after I was quite certain my car had either been stolen or rolled down crevasse, there it was.
Nonetheless, I was itching to assume a position of power with all of the grand ideas swirling around in my head of things that absolutely must come to pass if we are to have a better world.
Yep, weird but exhilarating.
TR’s spirit lingers on.
The Scenic Drive through the North Unit is 28 miles, over and back. Consistent with the magic I’d experienced thus far, it was filled with different wonders over and back.
The turn-around point is fittingly Oxbow Loop where, as I would, the Little Missouri takes an abrupt change in direction. The river flows north until this point where glaciers obstructed it some time ago (640,000 years) and it was forced to turn east, where it sped downhill cutting through the plains and creating the badlands.