Monday, September 12, 2016

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is spectacular.

Every time I go to a National Park, I attempt to seek out one adjective to describe each property. Canyonlands is wild, Badlands is unreal, Rocky Mountain is breath-taking. This quiet park in North Dakota is truly spectacular. After a few solid days of being at this park, I easily understood what drew former president Theodore Roosevelt here and why he strived to help create the National Park Service after exploring the lands here. I fell in love with this park. Teddy came to the Dakota Badlands in 1883 after a rash of tragic circumstances occurring in his life, to seek solitude and an escape into the wilderness. He tried his hand at ranching and though somewhat unsuccessful at it, his repeated trips and experiences over the years to these breathtaking lands changed him for the better. “It was here that the romance of my life began” he said. Ditto on that Teddy.

*This national park is broken up into three units, separated by the Little Missouri National Grassland. This blog post depicts my travels at the North Unit* I arrived at TRNP originally at the South Unit, in hopes to grab a campsite yet the sites were booked. I inquired with a ranger to see if the North Unit, about 68 miles away had openings in their Juniper Campground. I was assured there were, as it hasn’t filled up yet at all this summer. Back in the car and back on the freeway with my GPS set to the North Unit’s visitor center, ten miles south of Watford, SD. Keep in mind, you’re looking at about a little over an hour drive to get to this part of the park, so gas up wisely. If you run into range anxiety, thankfully there’s a credit card gas station twenty miles outside the park. Crossing a long bridge over the Little Missouri River, I saw the sign for TRNP and immediately smiled. Yesssssss! I was so exited. This particular national park had been on my bucket list for years. At the small, quiet campground with about 40 or so sites (tent and RV but no hookups) two super-friendly, retired campground hosts from Florida greeted me at the front as I was filling out my self-registration for two nights ($14 per night, cash or check only). They encouraged me to go check out the 8pm range program at the amphitheater, so after picking out a campsite I did!Both nights I was at the campground, I attended the free ranger programs put on by National Park Service’s rangers. About 40 people showed up each night. Thursday night’s show talked about the extravagant geology (like fossils and petrified wood which get passed around) and development of layers on the rock (like the not easily-eroded klinker which forms hoodoos like you’d see in Bryce Canyon NP) you see here at the park, while the Friday night program (which was more like an educational comedy show, thanks to an awesome ranger named Jeff from Wisconsin hey-o!) taught about all the animals you’d see in Theodore Roosevelt NP and a bit of history about the man himself. Did you know he climbed Matterhorn twice? Did you know a bison can jump 6ft and eats five-times a day? Did you know Golden Eagles dive bomb attack bighorn sheep? Fun fact- there are two moose in the park, among the 600 buffalo, countless bighorn sheep, occasional bear, mountain lion, prairie rattle snakes and mule deer. If you can, go to a Ranger program. They’re free, super fun and you’ll learn a lot about the very park you’re recreating in.

My neighbors at the Juniper Campground (all first-come/first-serve, no electric hookups for you RVers), camped out of station wagons, camper vans, pop-ups and tow-behind trailers. A strong-accented couple from Maine, who owned a restaurant, showed me damage to the driver’s side door of their Ford Ranger. Up in Alaska, two woods bison were fighting and one smashed into the right side of the pickup truck. Window smashed and everything. Good luck explaining that one to insurance. “We serve buffalo burgers so maybe we had it coming,” the wife jokingly told me. A good first night indeed, I crawled up into my tent, listened to the chorus frogs chirp and bundled up for the night.

The next morning, I awoke early, cooked up a quick breakfast out the back of my station wagon and drove to the visitor center to buy a topographic map. The plan was to hike the Buckhorn Trail, a strenuous-rated 11.8 mile trail that takes an estimated 6-8 hours to do. This trail takes you away from the main park road and way deep into the designated Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness. Pack packed, name scribbled down at the backcountry trail register, I set out. The trail starts off as you walk through a wide-open, sage brush terrace towards tall rocky bluff formations on either sides of the horizon. Wild buffalo roam free (25 I counted over my right shoulder) and the views are 10/10 impressive. Bring binoculars! This park is just so beautiful. An hour or so into the hike, I walk through a prairie dog town with hundreds of little prairie dogs popping up out of their holes in the ground on their hind legs to see what’s happening. Their calls are hilarious as they shake when doing so. Of course I yelled back “Alan! Alan! Alan!” BBC animal voice over videos anyone?. The trail meandered away from the last parried dog town and headed north along the boundary of the wilderness area. You’ll see fencing off in the distance to prevent buffalo from peacing out’.
Speaking of which...You guys- buffalo can and will charge a human. It happened to me and it was one of the scariest things I’ve encountered in the outdoors. Hiking along the Buckhorn Trail which takes you deep into the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness area of the park, I saw an adult-size buffalo eating about probably 200ft away. Far enough away for me to safely view it through my binoculars. As I continued hiking, away from it, it started walking towards me. With no intention of harming the animal, as I was in their land that they call home, I kept on hiking but looking over my shoulder every minute or so to check on its progress. It had started to walk faster. Much faster. At one gulch crossing, when coming up it I saw it already at the top I had just come down from, probably about 20 feet behind me. We made eye contact and suddenly it started running at me, full hustle, so I sprinted as fast as I could and put myself between a Juniper tree in desperate hopes of deflecting it and hiding. Being hidden, I watched it run past and stop. Needless to say I hid among the Juniper branches for a while before stepping back on the trail. It was so cool though, to see such a massive, heavy animal take-off at full speed. Buffalo are majestic, peaceful, strong beautiful animals. They’re America’s national mammal. And yes, you will see signs and hear warnings about buffalo charging humans. You bet they do. So respect these big guys and keep your eyes open when in the backcountry.  Obviously after this happened my love for these animals intensified. 

I continued on down the Buckhorn Trail, climbing up a few steep rock formations to reach the grassy buttes above. The views continued to wow me, I sat down on the top of a bluff that overlooked the park and just shook my head in awestruck disbelief. Theodore Roosevelt National Park easily climbs to my list of my probably top three national parks. Everywhere you look, everywhere…the scenery is just dreamy good. The trail becomes very hard to follow, even with a topo map and compass once you reach the open prairies atop the bluffs. So difficult that at one point the trail just ended into the grass. My guess is it was probably overgrown or a bison had knocked over one of the markers. The latter happens more frequently than you’d think. Thunder, dark blue threatening skies and a stretched out bolt of lightning forced me to head down quickly to the trailhead. The last thing I want to do is be caught up in the backcountry during a thunderstorm, on top of a butte.

Back at the main trailhead, the rain started to lighten up and I decided to check out the Caprock Coulee trail, about 4.3 miles in length. The coolest part of this trail, is that the first .75 of it is a interpretative nature trail complete with guides and matching posts that coordinate with them. You’ll learn about the different plant species above your head, what animals live here, how a coulee or a caprock is formed and general Badlands 101. Do this hike…the whole thing! That is, after the nature trail ends, don’t just turn back around to retrace your footsteps. If you’ve got the water and sturdy hiking boots, onward. The Caprock Coulee trail takes you across multiple 
ridge lines, high in the park with extraordinary views steep down and far around. It’s quiet and the panoramic overlooks while walking are the best reward you may have at the park. I can’t stress enough how good of a hiking trail this is. Upon finishing back at the trailhead, I started walking to the main campground on a trail but boom- a massive buffalo was blocking the trail. Yep, turn around, find a detour. Love this stuff. After a long day of hiking, I decided to cap off my time here at Teddy Roosevelt by driving up the scenic road at dusk, to watch one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Do it. It’s slow, vibrant colors and will make your jaw drop. Match that with seeing the bold, dark silhouettes of buffalo grazing in the foreground, and you’ve got heaven.If you haven’t been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you have to go. Seriously. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in the United States, there’s epic hiking, abundant wildlife all over the park and a relaxed campground. Make this trip happen folks, you won’t regret it. I miss it already. It’s just such an important place. And if you like our National Park system, you owe it to make the trip out here. In fact- make it a pilgrimage.

“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota”- Theodore Roosevelt, 1918