Hi, my name is Matt Schoss and I’m excited to share more of the Best of the West with you. Today, we’re visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in adorable Medora, North Dakota.
We’ll see mustangs, musicals, and more in the middle of nowhere!
Here where the mid-west meets the West we will see our national mammal, we’ll meet the unsung heroes of the prairie, we’ll learn why this is park is named after Theodore Roosevelt, we’ll watch Wild Horses play in the prairie, we’ll visit an Old West mansion, we’ll stroll the streets of a modern company town, and top it off with an outdoor musical.
Location & Getting there
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in western North Dakota. Getting there is a breezy 8 hour drive from Winnipeg, Canada. You’re not coming from Winnipeg, Canada, you say? In that case, it’s only 8 hours from Minneapolis, 9 hours from Denver, and 6 hours from Yellowstone.
That’s why we used the closest jumping off point, Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a mere 4 hours away. You know you’re far away from civilization when South Dakota is the closest thing to you.
You can see why it ranks 100th in visitorship of the national parks, with a little more than half a million per year.
But of course, that’s also the appeal. You’ll soon understand why Theodore Roosevelt found solace and rejuvenation in this remote part of the country.
The park is broken into three sections: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Geographically, they are connected by the Little Missouri River.
Because it’s located on I-94, the South Unit receives the most visitors. It has two visitor centers: Painted Canyon and South Unit.
The North Unit is about an hour away from the South Unit and has its own visitor center. It receives about ¼ the visitors of the South Unit, and you’ll see a noticeable lack of human beings there.
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is where Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch was located back in the 1880s. It is also about an hour away from the South Unit, but it requires a map to get there and it’s so sparsely visited that the park doesn’t even provide the number of visitors. It has no visitor centers, facilities, or scenic roads.
The entry to the South Unit is in the town of Medora, North Dakota, which works closely with the park to provide a nice visitor experience.
About 30 minutes to the east is Dickinson, North Dakota, which has none of the Medora charm but is a nice clean city with affordable lodging.
Painted Canyon Visitor Center and Viewpoint
Our first stop is the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and Viewpoint.
This provides a quick display of the defining feature of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: the badlands. The term Badlands means a “type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded.” Well, that’s what Wikipedia says anyway.
As opposed to mountains, which are caused by uplift and then erosion, badlands are usually buttes among flat prairie lands. The term badlands either comes from the Lakota or French fur trappers who obviously found this terrain difficult to navigate as they were hunting animals.
South Dakota has more dramatic badlands, but these North Dakota badlands are nice as well. You might not think they’re as scenic as mountains or canyons, but as one sign said, “It’s easy to love a mountain, but the prairie’s charms take more looking.”
Here at Painted Canyon, there is a small visitor center with a store where I bought this Teddy Roosevelt Shirt and this Buffalo Hat. In fact, we all bought Teddy Roosevelt shirts. I’ve long admired TR and on this trip, my parents became enamoured.
It’s easy to fall in love with the guy here because the whole area seems to love him. We stayed in Dickinson, and one night I took my son to a baseball game. Minor league baseball games are one of the best ways to discover the local flavor of small-town America.
Here, the baseball team is called the Badlands Big Sticks, with muscular Teddy as their mascot. So I purchased more Teddy merch.
South Unit Visitor Center in Medora, ND
Although there are some trails at Painted Canyon, it’s mostly an overlook. To enter the park and drive the Scenic Loop, you’ll need to enter the South Unit Visitor Center in Medora.
The Visitor Center features displays all about Teddy Roosevelt’s life. TR grew up wealthy in New York. He was a sickly child but he found that exercising and getting outdoors helped him overcome his asthma. He would forever be a lover of the outdoors and a believer in “the strenuous life.”
Teddy first ventured West because he wanted to shoot a bison. Industrialized America nearly hunted the bison to extinction in the 1870s and 80s, and Teddy wanted one before it was too late. It took him weeks of walking around with a guide in the rain and had near death experiences, but he finally got his bison.
Maltese Cross Cabin
But in the process, he found he quite liked it out here, and purchased a stake in the Maltese Cross Ranch for $14,000, which is about $400,000 in today’s dollars. He hired some men to build this little cabin, which was actually quite spacious and nice for a frontier cabin — an indication of his wealth.
This cabin was located 7 miles away from here, but when TR became president about 20 years later, it was restored. It moved around North Dakota a few times but it was moved back here after the national park was established around the middle of the century.
The next year, his wife and mother died on the same day. He was heartbroken. In his journal, he put a large X on the page that day. He said the light went out of his life.
He decided to get away from it all and returned to his Maltese Cross Ranch. He worked hard to keep his mind off his tragic loss, but also to fit in with the local cowboys and ranchers.
They thought he was just a pretender — a 4-eyed city slicker. But when he knocked out a challenger in a bar fight, they knew he was the real deal.
The best story was when some thieves stole his little boat. He and a few friends chased them down on the Little Missouri River. When he caught them, it wasn’t enough just to get the boat back. He wanted justice. So Teddy decided to march the thieves himself 3 days to the nearest city where he turned them into the sheriff. He also made them pose for this embarrassing picture.
In all, he only spent about a year in total in North Dakota. But he revived his broken heart and went on to become the youngest president in history. He said he would never have become president were it not for his time here.
Scenic Loop Drive
The Scenic Loop Drive, the only road in the South Unit, is 36 miles of badlands and wildlife. However, a few years ago a section of the road caved in due to erosion and now we can call it the Scenic Dead-End Drive. It’s 48 miles out and back.
The latin name for these creatures is Bison Bison, but they’ve been referred to as Buffalo ever since those early French trappers, and Buffalo is also an acceptable term. At any rate, a Buffalo Burger tastes the same as a Bison Burger: delicious.
Bison and Prairie Dogs
I’ve seen buffalo herds all over the West, including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Custer State Park, the National Bison Range, and surprisingly, the Grand Canyon. But I never had a more terrifying experience than when I stopped to see a herd near my house this year and stared straight down the barrel of an angry buffalo. Maybe he was mad that I called him a buffalo instead of a bison.
Anyway, the buffalo was saved from extinction in part due to Teddy’s efforts. He formed the Boone and Crockett Club, and they set out to preserve wildlife in the West. Hunters were among the first conservationists.
That really only seems a conflict in our day and age. But that’s the thing about Teddy: he’s hard to understand today. There were so many elements of his personality and his policies that people from both parties today can love, and hate.
The big guys get the attention, but the little Prairie dogs do much of the labor to make this ecosystem work. As with the bison, they’ve been devastated by modern life, perhaps moreso. But this keystone species keeps plugging along, barking while they work.
Peaceful Valley Ranch
The Peaceful Valley Ranch is located along the drive. This was built around the same time as the Maltese Cross Cabin. It was used as a dude ranch for years until it was sold to the government during the great depression. The park service thought about tearing it down, but decided not to, perhaps because it fits in with the purpose of the park — to preserve a time period.
That’s also why the park has wild horses, or mustangs, which illustrates the unique nature of this park.
Wild horses have roamed all over the west since the 1600s. Once this became a national park, the park service tried eradicating all horses because it has a mission to preserve nature in its original state as much as possible. Since horses weren’t native, the park service tried removing them, just as it removed donkeys in the Grand Canyon.
But Theodore Roosevelt Park is not just for preserving nature. It’s also preserving history — a time period when TR lived here. With that context, mustangs were recognized as being part of the historical setting, and are now the only wild herd managed by the national park service.
But left unchecked, the population expands beyond the capacity of the land. So the park gives them contraceptives and puts some horses up for adoption.
When I was there I met two ladies from the non profit group called North Dakota Badlands Horse. They partner with the park to help manage the adoption process. They advocate for the horses to be rounded up in a low stress way, and they promote the horses on their website. They diligently track every horse, name them, and provide the horse’s story on their website.
If you’re interested in adopting a horse, or know someone who would be, see the link in the description. Remember that they are wild. But the horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park are more accustomed to fences and people than most wild herds.
Wind Canyon is a must-do. It’s just a short walk to a crazy-looking canyon and an overlook of the Little Missouri River. From here, we can get a good look at the bison below.
About half way through the Scenic Dead-End Drive is Buck Hill. This is a short but steep walk to one of the highest points in the park. From here, we can also spot wild horses below.
You can just imagine Teddy wandering through the grasslands below, trying to figure out how to be a rancher.
The North Unit is about an hour away from the South Unit. We were debating whether to make the drive, but we decided to do it and I’m so glad we did.
There is one road going through the North Unit as well, and it’s obvious it doesn’t get much traffic. The road is rough in some parts, and that’s just the paved section.
Wild horses are not at the north unit. Instead, we’re greeted by Longhorns. Here, as with the horses, we see the park’s mission to preserve history. The whole point of the herd is to create a scene reminiscent of the 1880s when Teddy was here.
These guys were declining in numbers so they brought in some longhorns from Grant-Khors Ranch, which is an actual working ranch in Montana run by the National Park service. I love Grant-Khors and highly recommend a visit if you’re in Montana.
Cannonball concretions are strange formations found in the North Unit. I really thought these cannonballs protruding from the badlands were absolutely bizarre.
We thought the North Unit was a little more scenic than the South Unit. Most of the South Unit drive is at the bottom of the badlands, while the North Unit drive rides up top. The North Unit is also a little greener.
We only saw a few other cars during our visit. As you can see, we enjoyed a picnic with the park seemingly all to ourselves. Well, almost all to ourselves.
If you’re going to drive all the way to North Dakota to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park, make sure to drive the extra hour to see the North Unit.
Regrettably, I did not drive the windy road to Elkhorn Ranch. Although there isn’t a building here, I still wish I would have done it (#travelregrets), but we were on the tail end of a 10-day road trip and I just wanted to let the kiddos swim in the hotel swimming pool.
Medora, however, is a must-do.
The Maltese Cross Cabin was a rather large frontier cabin for the time period, and Teddy was a rather large personality.
But when he arrived, there was a bigger personality with a bigger home in Medora.
The Marquis de Mores was a wealthy aristocrat from France. This dude’s life was as crazy as my ridiculous french accent…and his mustache.
He liked to duel, and was apparently very good at it, something I have to assume based on the fact that he was still alive.
He married an American from New York named Medora von Hoffman, who dreamed of moving to France and living the fancy life. Instead he took her to the frontier so he could establish a cattle empire and become Emperor of the Badlands.
She wasn’t too thrilled about that, but her consolation prize was getting an entire city named after her: Medora.
Château de mores
De Mores built a summer bunk house out on the frontier that was a pittance compared to what he had in France. But out here on the Frontier, it was a Chateau. Today, it lords over the city as a state park.
De Mores ran into the law a few times due to his habit of shooting men in duels, but was acquitted each time. He got into a conflict with Teddy and sent him a letter that TR interpreted as an invitation to duel. Teddy was never one to back down, though somehow he sidestepped the threat and nothing came of it.
The powerful Marquis was no match for the American corporations and monopolists of his day, however, and his cattle empire never took off. He went back to Europe where he was eventually assassinated. In Africa. I told you he had a crazy life.
Teddy wasn’t much at ranching either, and a horrible winter did him in. Both men spent only a few years here in Medora and the badlands.
The city nearly turned into a ghost town, but it was revived by a wealthy businessman and the foundation he created called the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.
Today, the town is a nice blend of authentic frontier buildings and period sets built around them. The whole city is only a few blocks and is easily walkable in an afternoon.
Almost all the businesses are run by the Foundation. Everywhere we went we saw employees wearing the same green vests. I was confused by it at first and started referring to them as a cult. It seemed the whole town was a cult.
So I finally asked one of the cult members and found out that many of them are volunteers. The employees and the volunteers wear different vests, but they’re all part of the Foundation. Volunteers come from all over the country to spend a week doing whatever the Foundation needs, from serving ice cream to working the mini-golf course, each hole of which features a local activity.
Now my mom and I want to volunteer for the cult…I mean, Foundation. I believe applications typically open in November and it’s quite competitive. Maybe I shouldn’t be calling them a cult if I want to get in.
Don’t miss the Theodore Roosevelt Show, which I believe happens every day at 2pm. The show is Teddy talking about his life. Well, it’s an actor, but don’t tell him that. He really believes he’s Teddy.
The highlight of Medora is the Medora Musical. The outdoor theater is a delight, and all the Foundation workers were so incredibly welcoming. They had to be or they might not make it back home.
It was once called Old Four Eyes and was all about Teddy’s life. The focus has changed over the years, but Teddy still makes some appearances.
The show features singing, the history of Roosevelt and De Mores, and comedy skits.
The outdoor atmosphere alone is worth the price of admission.
Our favorite segment was the comedy act, Marcus Monroe. We will never forget his performance.
Medora’s slogan is Medora: Adore it. Explore it.It’s out there a ways, but I think it’s worth it if you like scenery, wildlife, history, and good old-fashioned patriotism. Thanks for joining me. Go West young traveler!