close
close

What travelers will find at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Many people are surprised by Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

“First of all, they’re surprised there’s a national park,” said Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the park’s deputy superintendent.

“They’re on their way to Glacier National Park or Yellowstone, they’re driving down the highway and they see the Park Service arrowhead. ‘There’s a national park!’” she said. “When they get to the park, they are surprised that this has to do with Theodore Roosevelt – ‘Theodore Roosevelt? That would have to be New York. What’s he doing in North Dakota?’ Then they are also surprised at how beautiful and varied the park is. I think everything surprises them. It’s a gem that they just didn’t expect.”

Here’s what travelers can expect at Theodore Roosevelt, the newest national park in the yearlong USA TODAY series.

Sunset basks the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in brilliant colors near the Wind Canyon Trail.Sunset basks the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in brilliant colors near the Wind Canyon Trail.

Sunset basks the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in brilliant colors near the Wind Canyon Trail.

What is the story behind Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

“This is where Theodore Roosevelt first came out for a bison hunt. It appealed to him,” McGee-Ballinger said. “After losing his wife and mother, he came looking for healing and in that healing process, as he built his ranch, he formed a kind of conservation ethic that would continue throughout his presidency.”

What’s special about Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

“It’s the birthplace of conservation,” says McGee-Ballinger. “That alone is a great reason to come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But there are also bison and the Little Missouri River and geology and fossils and vegetation, so it has everything.”

One warning about those bison: “Although they look big, bulky and cumbersome, they are also very fast… Give them plenty of space. They can be very unpredictable,” she says.

Maureen McGee-Ballinger, deputy superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, says visitors can almost always spot bison in the park.Maureen McGee-Ballinger, deputy superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, says visitors can almost always spot bison in the park.

Maureen McGee-Ballinger, deputy superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, says visitors can almost always spot bison in the park.

Are there bears in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

No. Although many people associate Teddy Roosevelt with bears, McGee-Ballinger said, “We don’t really have good habitat for them.”

Which city is closest to Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

The South Unit is located right next to Medora, North Dakota. The North Unit is approximately 15 minutes from Watford City, North Dakota. Bismarck Airport is the closest airport served by multiple airlines.

“But most people drive in, they don’t fly in,” McGee-Ballinger said.

How long does it take to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Deputy Superintendent Maureen McGee-Ballinger said: "I know they call Montana Big Sky country, but it really feels like Big Sky country here."Theodore Roosevelt National Park Deputy Superintendent Maureen McGee-Ballinger said: "I know they call Montana Big Sky country, but it really feels like Big Sky country here."

Maureen McGee-Ballinger, deputy superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, said, “I know they call Montana the big sky country, but it sure feels like it’s a big sky country here.”

“Ten to fifteen years to get a really good feeling,” McGee-Ballinger said with a laugh.

She recommends a minimum of two to three hours in the South unit of the park, one and a half to two hours in the North unit, and an hour of travel between the two since they are not connected. But ideally she suggested spending a few days in the park.

Can you just drive through Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Yes. Each unit has a beautiful ride. “The majority of people will drive through,” McGee-Ballinger said. “They can see wildlife from their vehicle. They might stop for a short walk or stop at a lookout point.”

But she adds, “It’s so much more than that, and you want to give yourself time to enjoy it.”

When should you visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

McGee-Ballinger said any season can be incredible, but if she had to choose one, it would be fall.

“The reason for that is the weather is usually quite mild, and I’m talking September and October,” she said. “The predominant tree along the river, the cottonwoods, turns golden yellow, and to see that stretch of the Little Missouri River bordered on both sides by these golden yellow trees is quite spectacular.”

The Little Missouri River is affectionately called "Little Mo" or "Little muddy."The Little Missouri River is affectionately called "Little Mo" or "Little muddy."

The Little Missouri River is affectionately called “Little Mo” or “Little Muddy”.

What you shouldn’t miss in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

McGee-Ballinger highly recommends visiting Elkhorn Ranch.

“That’s where Theodore Roosevelt actually built his ranch and lived,” she said. But keep in mind that the ranch itself is long gone and the property is not easily accessible. “You have to drive on back roads that are rocky roads. When it really rains the roads can get quite muddy, but it is right on the Little Missouri River. There are beautiful cottonwoods and the rolling hills that are found throughout the Badlands and hopefully it gives people a sense of that peace and healing that Theodore Roosevelt found when he came to the Dakota Territory.

Who are the indigenous people of the country?

“Lands within the park are part of the traditional hunting grounds for bison and eagles of the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes,” according to the National Parks Conservation Association. “The Arikara, Crow, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree, Sioux and Rocky Boy tribes are all associated with lands in the park.”

The buttes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, made of bentonite clay, are constantly changing.The buttes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, made of bentonite clay, are constantly changing.

The buttes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, made of bentonite clay, are constantly changing.

What else should people know about Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

“It’s a place of change,” McGee-Ballinger said. “You look at it and you see hills and buttes, and people think of those as rocks, but a lot of it is actually clay soil and so this is a very dynamic place. We’re getting heavy rain, things are shifting. Slopes will slide. It will be different. So don’t assume, ‘I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it all.’”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a surprising gem: What to expect

Back To Top