Amazing wildlife, gorgeous landscapes, starry night skies, fine food, and great friends in our one of our country’s best national parks!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been on my bucket list for years. If it’s not on yours, put it there now! Really, truly, our experiences at this park went beyond my imagination.
First, I’ll say that we stayed at the Medora Campground. This is outside of the south unit of the park, which is fenced – meaning you likely won’t see any bison or horses if you stay outside of the park. Our understanding is that a bison or horse will rarely leave the boundary of the park. If you stay inside the park, you run the risk (enjoyment) of having bison and horses in your campsite. Having a tent there would make me a bit nervous. In an RV? I’d just make sure I have good comprehensive coverage in case of animal damage.
The nice thing about Medora Campground is that it is just outside the entrance to the park. It literally took us about one minute to get from our space to the gate. It’s also on the Little Missouri River and has a short trail to it; so, while it’s not a huge nature setting, it does have some. It has full hook-ups, will fit almost any size rig, and has good cell service for AT&T and Verizon. I haven’t looked at the National Park campgrounds, but the one closest to the entrance has no Internet and no hookups. Some of the sites will fit larger RVs, but there are not many. Reserve well in advance!
Also, Medora is a seasonal town and many of the shops and restaurants started shutting down or reducing hours in the days following Labor Day. In fact, the Medora Campground’s last available date was the Saturday after Labor Day. We were there in August and the crowds were nothing like Yellowstone or some of the other National Parks.
One note: If you opt to stay outside of the park and will be entering the park more than once or twice, it’s definitely worth it to buy a National Parks pass.
Oh the wildlife! I’m practically jumping up and down in my chair just thinking about it all. And, yes, there was plenty of jumping and exclaiming while we were there! I want to make sure everyone knows that all the wildlife photos I took were with max zoom in effect and either from inside the truck or standing very close to it if the animals were farther away…with the one exception of the two horses you’ll meet later.
I know some people will say “They’re just rodents.” They’re so cute and fun though! The park had quite a few prairie dog towns, so we saw them often. In fact, they show the larger ones on the park map, which makes it easy to find them. They seem to be out at all times of day, and we saw the majority of them at dusk when they were getting ready to head into their burrows for the night. We’ve got a great video of the two in the lower right photo chasing each other around. You can watch it in our August 2019 video linked at the bottom of the page.
Science Snippet: The prairie dogs in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs. Their communities are colonies, or towns, that contain multiple families, or coteries. Families have anywhere from 1 to 26 prairie dogs, each of which can have 70+ burrows! That’s a lot of burrows in one town! They eat grasses and forbs (think flowering herbs like chicory), and rotate what they eat as a sort of crop rotation. They tend to eat down any taller grasses pretty quickly, allowing them to see better around their town and avoid predators. This encourages more forb growth, which is the preferred munchie of bison and antelope.
The wild horses were very visible when we were at the park! Some people told us they never saw any or they were really far away, but we saw lots very near or even in the road. Our first day in town, our friends John and Brenda of GeoAstroRV took us on a driving tour of the park. They’ve spent quite a lot of time at the park and definitely know their way around, so it was great to get this private tour. Our first stop was the prairie dog town above; our second stop was at Jones Trail, which has a small prairie dog town. There, off in the distance, was a beautiful dusty cinnamon wild horse! I got out and walked down the trail a little just to get a slightly closer zoom shot. I was still a good 200+ feet from it and only about 40 feet from the truck.
As I got closer to a bend in the trail, there was suddenly another horse! She’s so beautiful and definitely my favorite of all that I saw. Apparently her name is Holly and just look at her! Leaves in her wild, tangled hair, the breeze blowing through her mane and tail – staring at me with curiosity and no fear. She takes my breath away!
Later in the day, we came upon an entire herd spread out on both sides of the road just before Boicourt Overlook. I was next to the truck taking photos when Brian started tapping on the window. As I turned to find out what he wanted, I saw the herd on the left racing down the hill to cross the road! So awesome! (See the clip in our August 2019 video at the bottom of the page.)
Another day, as we were driving toward Wind Canyon to watch the sunset, a small group of horses appeared on the road with two foals! We saw others at various times in the park, but these were the best experiences.
Science Snippet: The foals are typically born in the spring and live with the herd for two to three years before being kicked out to find their own herd. The wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt NP are descendants of those the Spanish brought over in the 1500s. Technically, they’re ‘feral’ since they come from horses that were originally domesticated; but I like the word ‘wild’ much better. It suits them. Besides, I think 500 years takes them far enough away from their domestic ancestors. Don’t you agree?
We saw one bison on that first driving tour. He was laying near the side of the road, was very emaciated, and breathing hard. We worried about him, but our friends said the rangers would find them or they’d text them to let them know. On the way back, he was standing up; so we’re hoping he was okay. He was so skinny, though, that I suspect he was in his last days. It’s difficult to see for anything or anyone…and it’s life. We all die – even big, huge strong bison. My hope is that his suffering didn’t last long. I took a few photos of him, but I decided not to post any out of respect for his circumstances.
Over the next three weeks, we saw lots of bison around the park – all at a long or very long distance. Even that far away, they were awesome to see in person.
Our last night in Medora, we took a drive through the park hoping to see more bison – and maybe a little closer than way off in the distance. We were nearly back home when we rounded a curve and…whoa! They were right in front of us on the road! Well, there was another car in front of us originally, but they drove around the bison. We backed up a little to give them space until they moved off the road. Around the curve, we saw that there was a whole huge herd spread along the sides of the road and up the hills. There must have been at least 50 of them!
Unfortunately, it was dusk and too dark for my camera to get many good shots while driving in the truck; but just know that it was awesome! There were a couple dozen right on the side of the road like three to four feet from the truck. We couldn’t move over because there were cars coming from the other direction. It was definitely a little nerve-wracking, but the bison didn’t seem disturbed. Two of them stared me straight in the eyes as we drove by. That was so intimidating and very cool at the same time!
Science Snippet: By the early 1900s, they estimate there were only about 300 bison left in America. Luckily, legislation was passed in 1894 to protect them. Through conservation efforts, the estimates are now around 125,000 wild bison (with more on farms.) A far cry from the 30-60 million original bison, but at least a step in the right direction.
The land at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is at the northern part of the Badlands – more green than sparse canyon – and simply beautiful. Two places in particular are worth making a destination. I’m sure there are more and we visited several. These are the two that stood out to me. Both are excellent for sunset or sunrise photography.
Boicourt Overlook looks out onto a huge valley. The landscape and geology alone are gorgeous, and this is also a great place (in our experience) to see the wild horses. We not only saw the herd up on the road just before the overlook, but also far down in the valley. There’s a trail from the overlook that is an out-and-back about 1.6 miles long (round trip.)
Our friends told us that Wind Canyon was their favorite spot for sunset so, of course, we had to check it out. There’s a easy to moderate trail from the parking lot to the ridge, then up to the top of a hill. You can stop anywhere along the trail to peer into the canyon and watch the sunset. I imagine sunrise here would also be amazing! For those who follow us on Facebook or Instagram, this is where we saw the deer crossing the Little Missouri River at dusk.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is abundant in healing Bentonite clay, gorgeous canyons, tall buttes, expansive valleys, and rolling green hills all connected by the lovely and meandering Little Missouri River. It truly is a land to heal the soul.
We were privileged to take part in the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival while at Theodore Roosevelt National park. We (mostly Brian) assisted GeoAstroRV with their telescopes during the daytime and nighttime sessions and got to know some really amazing people – amateur and professional astronomers. It was fairly cloudy much of the time, but we still got in some good solar- and stargazing. We helped everyone from toddlers to elders view the sun, stars, planets, and galaxies. On the clearest night, we even got a little bit of a green glow from the aurora borealis. It was a truly wonderful experience and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all the volunteers.
Note: If you want to go, know that it’s not the same weekend every year. They tend to schedule it as close to the new moon as possible. Be sure to check the website for the dates before you make your plans. They have lots of activities for the kids, including rocket building and launching, a “planet walk”, and other craft activities. For both kids and adults, there’s the viewing as well as many talks, presentations, and movies throughout the weekend covering everything from identifying constellations to the physics of the universe.
One of the astronomers in our group is a teacher and was able to bring some lunar rock samples from NASA! Because we were busy with the solar gazing during the day, she set aside time for us volunteers to have a private viewing at the visitors center. Of course, they were encased in silicone; but it was still cool to see and hold the samples.
While we were there, the ranger that is primarily in charge of the Astronomy Festival decided to bring out some of the artifacts they have in their back room – not on display. We got to hold (with gloves) one of Theodore Roosevelt’s rifles and look at (but not touch) his famous “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman” journal. I don’t agree with the trophy hunting he did, but I do appreciate some of the more positive decisions he made (like creating National Parks) and I definitely appreciate history. In this journal, he often mused about the beauty of the North Dakota Badlands and his love for the land. He also noted where certain items were being stored or displayed, which made it easier for people to track and collect them for museums and other displays after his death.
The Friends and Food
Oh my gosh! We really can’t thank our friends, John and Brenda, enough! We’d intended to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park anyway – had the reservations and everything; but being a part of the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival, meeting so many great people, and likely seeing more of the park than we would have just put several layers of icing on the cake. Speaking of which…
The town of Medora has several restaurants ranging from diners to pizza and bar food. Theodore’s Dining Room at the Rough Rider Hotel, though, was lovely fine food in a casual atmosphere. The prices are a little higher than average, but appropriate for the food they served. We celebrated my birthday there and had such a great time, enjoyed such wonderful food, that we went back again the next week! We also heard very good things about “Medora: The Musical” and their pitchfork fondue dinner, though we never made it there.
We also had a quick bite with friends and fellow veterans, Lisa and Dan of Always on Liberty, our last night in town. It was great to see them and get to know each other better! We met at Boots Bar and Grill, which was our preferred choice of the bar-style restaurants.
As I mentioned above, we also made several new astronomer friends because of the festival. Some of the best times there were just talking with people who love astronomy and are as much, or in many cases way more, knowledgeable than we are about the topic. We even ran into Our National Adventure at one of the night viewings and got to chat a little with them.
To say we had fun at Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be a gross understatement. We had the experience of a lifetime and plan to be back again next year for more of the same! Be sure to put it on your list for camping, RVing, backpacking through, or even staying at a hotel in town – and get there soon!
Our August 2019 video has a lot of our explorations in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We have more clips that will go into a September video, which has been delayed due to Brian’s broken laptop. We’ll have that out as soon as we can!
Thanks for joining us and we live our journey…