Without A Path
North America / north dakota / travel / United States

All You Need To Know About Traveling The North Dakota Badlands

Read part one on Bismarck and the surrounding area.

I’ll admit that my initial interest in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was merely the park’s namesake and the general promise of being outside that’s inherent with any national park. I’ve admired the 26th president of the United States since I read River Of Doubt on his post-presidency adventures through the Amazon River. This led to additional reading of arguably our country’s most badass head of state. Sure, in retrospect he had some pretty wacky beliefs, but on the whole the guy was pure American steel and had no problem calling out the corporations of the day that were taking advantage of the common man. Plus he once took a bullet in the chest and finished he speech before getting it looked at. How can you not admire that?

So what does Teddy Roosevelt have to do with North Dakota? Quite a bit, apparently.

Shortly after the deaths of his first wife and mother — on the same day — young Teddy made for the unexplored hills of western North Dakota to figure out his life. He took the train as far as he could to Medora, North Dakota before heading up another 35 miles to build a ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri River. His hope was to get a taste of frontier life before development swept across the country. Though ultimately his time in North Dakota amounted to a blip on the radar, chronologically speaking, his experiences as a western cowboy formed the man who would go on to become one of the United States’ most progressive and popular presidents.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” Roosevelt once said, something North Dakotans happily reminded me on several occasions. “It was here that the romance of my life began.”

The Badlands

The North Dakotan Badlands

Mike and I coasted into Medora, stopping only in a small town for coffee near where Roosevelt gave his first political speech followed by an overlook for the Badlands where the famous land formations begin in southwestern North Dakota. Most associate the Badlands with South Dakota, but that’s just plain wrong. North Dakota has its own take, offering a more vibrant-looking version of the Badlands compared to the alien landscape in South Dakota. Here you have a variety of buttes and other landmasses shaped into cones, colored in shades of brown and red like the kind of clay your first art teacher gave you to keep you busy. All of which is surrounded by rolling, grassy hills typical of the North Dakota landscape. It really was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen.

Our first stop in Medora was the Dakota Cyclery to pick up a bike and head for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The best part was that I could ride into the park right from town. If only the train were still around, you really could do North Dakota car-free just like Teddy did*

I ended up doing about 30 miles, looping around the hilly park with the occasional pack of bison at my side. Perhaps North Dakotans are immune to bison, but it was an alien experience for me. I racked my brain, wondering if I had ever even seen one in person before. Don’t think so. And my God are they bizarre looking, yet strangely enthralling at the same time. But seeing as I didn’t want to set off their trampling radar, I kept pedaling along.

A street in Medora, North Dakota

Back in town I showered up and went for a brisk walk about town. Medora was a boomtown during Teddy’s time, but naturally the good times couldn’t last forever. In 1958, the outdoor Burning Hills Amphitheatre was constructed just outside of town and gave Medora a bit of a jolt. Over the decades, Medora has been rebuilt as a replica of what the Old West looked like, including the popular Rough Riders Hotel which had been renamed after Teddy’s legendary cavalry unit from the Spanish-American War during a presidential visit in 1903.

Getting ready for the Medora Musical

Now the town serves as the backdrop for the locally-cherished Medora Musical, a summer show that mixes stories from Roosevelt’s adventures with the story of Medora itself. Mike and I took in the opening night show for the musical’s 50th anniversary. Yeah, it got a bit hokey with its thinly veiled nationalistic undertones, but it’s not meant to be taken all that seriously. The performers were clearly having fun and the crowd was haivng a blast. That’s just about all that matters, right? Plus they somehow snuck in a rendition of the mustache song from A Million Ways To Die In The West, so they deserve all the praise they get.

Maah Daah Hey

The Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota

To end my North Dakotan festivities, Mike and I got up early the following morning for a drive to one of the lesser-visited relics of Roosevelt past — to where his ranch on the Little Missouri River once stood. Now there’s a reason why it’s one of the lesser-visited attractions — it’s not all that easy to find. Even Mike, who works in tourism and had been to the site before, got lost along newly minted dirt roads carved up by the fracking industry. The previous night’s rain made the dirt just soft enough to get his car stuck, which meant for a fun, impromptu workout for me. Now I know I can push a car if need be.**

Eventually we did find our way to the right spot, hiking for about a half mile through tall, occasionally swampy grasses to the historical markers noting where Teddy’s ranch once stood. It was easy to see the appeal with the modern conveniences of today in mind, but how in God’s name did he manage out in the middle of nowhere, 35 miles away from the nearest town with nothing but a horse and his own thoughts? I would’ve driven myself crazy. But I guess that’s why he has his face on a mountain and I don’t.

Our last stop was along the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a freshly minted stretch of trail that crosses 96 miles worth of the northern and southern sections of Teddy Roosevelt National Park. The name comes from the Mandan tribe, roughly translating to, “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” The trail has become wildly popular with the mountain bike crowd, but hikers are just as welcome. Short on time, we simply hiked 10 minutes in and back. Suffice it to say that I saw enough to know I’d be back.

Legendary

An overlook of the Badlands in North Dakota

You might have an image that comes to mind when you hear, “North Dakota.” That image might be blank, either because you don’t know anything about it or you’ve bought into the fly over state mantra and assume it’s a land of nothing. You’d be wrong, foolishly wrong to think such nonsense.

Yes, this is a huge expanse of land that in many ways still feels like the land of adventure Roosevelt sought in his youth, but it’s also a land of Scandinavian, Russian and German immigrants. It’s the land of several tribes of Native Americans who can trace their history back for centuries. There’s a reason why they call it the land of legends. Because in North Dakota, where the Badlands are calling and the horizon seems endless, anything seems possible. That’s how Roosevelt felt and that feeling in of itself is pretty damn legendary.

*As of now the rails into Medora are crowded with freighters carrying oil. But I say they should make room for the “Teddy Express.” Who could possibly say no to a train named after Teddy Roosevelt? Certainly nobody in North Dakota.

**Yep, all me. Definitely no horsepower involved.

Disclosure: This visit was sponsored by North Dakota Tourism. As always, all opinions are my own.

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  • Lorraine Lietzman

    Love the badlands-still my favorite place-grew up near Sheep Butte and would climb the hills looking for seashells and other fossils

    • Joe

      I can see why it’s your favorite. Thanks for reading!

  • I live about an hour from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is my favorite place on the planet! Western ND is also the land of Sitting Bull and early fur traders. Fort Union and fort Buford outside of Williston ND, on the Montana border is well worth a visit if you ever come back but make sure you come on a re-creation weekend when history comes alive. Fort Abraham Lincoln outside of Bismarck is the fort Custer left from for the last time and village on a slant and Custer house at the park are amazing places to visit and, again, see history come alive. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit! I am a Californian by birth and raising but a North Dakotan by choice. the badlands and the prairies grab your heart and make it hard to let go.

  • Gary

    My friends lived on a ranch North of Bowman. Watching sunrise and moonrise over White Butte is spectacular.

    • Joe

      Certainly is a beautiful corner of the globe!