Before spending a month at the Standing Rock protest encampment near Cannon Ball, ND, I explored quite a bit of the Dakotas. In South Dakota, my girlfriend and I toured Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, Custer State Park, and Jewel Cave National Monument. Our last stop before we parted ways — her to Colorado and I to Standing Rock — was Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota’s only national park.

With all the hoopla at Standing Rock, I wasn’t able to find time to write about TRNP. But now that I’m in Colorado with some down time, I want to share this incredible place.

Teddy wasn’t a perfect president, but he is rightfully remembered for his legacy of conserving America’s beautiful places. Upon arriving at TRNP with Aria, all I really knew about the place was that Teddy spent some time there and it was named after him. I wasn’t expecting much from a park whose claim to fame was that a former president used to hang out there.

I was wrong. Turns out, there’s a reason why Teddy loved the place so much — it’s beautiful. And the stories of his time spent in the area, which we learned through watching the park video, add a layer of sentiment and familiarity to the landscape.

The landscape of North Dakota’s “badlands” appears rugged and desolate, but is actually a fragile environment full of life. FAITH MECKLEY

Roosevelt first came to to the North Dakota badlands in 1883, looking to hunt a bison, which at that time were already growing scarce from commercial hunting. Inspired and intrigued by the landscape, he decided he wanted to try his hand at ranching, and invested in building a ranch. After returning to New York, just two days after his first child was born, he lost his first wife and his mother on the same day in 1884. His return to the North Dakota ranch during a dark time in his life was an opportunity for escape and renewal.

It was here in the North Dakota badlands that he began to develop his conservation ethic that would secure his presidential legacy.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” —Theodore Roosevelt

Today, the land that Teddy roamed and loved is preserved in his honor for all to enjoy. The park is divided into three units: the North Unit, South Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The North and South Units are separated by 68 miles and are in different time zones. Aria and I spent two days and one night at TRNP, and we toured the South Unit.

Beyond the stunning landscape, the geological wonders of the park make it a magical place to explore. In addition to fossils and cannonballs — natural, spherical boulders made of cemented sand grains — the boundaries of TRNP are home to petrified forests. After learning about the park’s history at the visitor’s center, this is the first attraction Aria and I explored.

It was on our drive from the visitor’s center to the petrified forest hiking trails, which required us to leave and re-enter the park boundaries, that we first noticed how close gas and oil drilling was to the park. We were driving right by drilling sites and gas flares.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen industry on the doorstep of protected public lands. But this particular instance deeply saddened me, knowing that with rampant industrial growth from the Bakken oil boom, North Dakotans would need spaces like TRNP more than ever. But, even their sole national park has been surrounded. TRNP has a page on its website devoted to the oil boom and how it has impacted the park.

Among several impacts the oil boom is having on the park, one of the most noticeable is a loss of clear night skies.

“Increased development has a direct impact on the park’s night skies,” the webpage says. “Gas flares and 24-hour facilities attribute to light pollution which obscures the formerly dark skies of North Dakota. The oil boom challenges us to wonder: how can we develop energy resources while still protecting natural habitats?”

The next day, Thanksgiving, we drove the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive of the South Unit, stopping to go on short hikes, soak up the stunning vista points, and see the park’s wildlife. We spotted deer, bison, elk, and even a porcupine waddling across the road. But, one of the highlights of our day-long exploration of the park loop was our hike through a prairie dog town to the Old East Entrance Station — the former main entrance to the park. As we hiked by dozens of prairie dog holes, the chubby gopher-like animals chirped and squawked alarm calls to each other. Everyone knew exactly where we were and what we were doing. When we got too close to a hole, its residents would dart down inside to hide while we passed. The park features many of these “towns” that you can drive by or hike through.

The Scenic Loop Drive of the South Unit passes many beautiful vistas and has ample opportunities to see TRNP’s abundant wildlife. FAITH MECKLEY
The Little Missouri River is the lifeblood of TRNP. FAITH MECKLEY

I came into this park unsure of what to expect, and left with a renewed fascination and appreciation for nature’s beauty. Despite my initial skepticism, I now consider Theodore Roosevelt National Park to be among my favorite national parks.

“Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.” —Theodore Roosevelt

Further reading related to TRNP and the threat of development on our public lands:

“Parks and Industry Don’t Mix” (by me):

“A defender of North Dakota’s badlands wonders if it’s time to leave” (High Country News):

TRNP’s video series on the effects of oil development:

“Open spaces are disappearing—and there’s little we can do” (Outside Magazine):


One thought on “Throwback to Theodore

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