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Theodore Roosevelt National Park

National Parks Image Gallery The parkland today looks much like it did when Teddy Roosevelt lived there in the 1880s. See more pictures of national parks.
©2006 National Park Services

Theodore Roosevelt

National Park

PO Box 7

Medora, ND 58645-0007

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701-623-4466 (South Unit Information)

701-842-2333 (North Unit Information)

www.nps.gov/thro

Located in the North Dakota badlands, 135 miles west of Bismarck, Theodore Roosevelt National Park pays tribute to this great U.S. president and conservationist. The park stands on the land that Roosevelt owned during the 1880s, when he headed west and purchased a cattle ranch to help him grieve the losses of his wife and his mother.

Home to a variety of plants and animals -- including bison, prairie dogs, and elk -- this park has a lot to offer visitors. They can view the scenery from the comfort of an automobile or by hiking or biking through the park's more than 100 miles of trails.

Entrance fees: $5/individual ($10 maximum/private vehicle)

Visitor centers: Medora Visitor Center and North Unit Visitor Center are open daily, except January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25.

Other services: Three campgrounds

Accommodations:

  • Cottonwood Campground is open year-round and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Juniper Campground is open year-round and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a surprisingly rugged landscape that stretches along North Dakota's Little Missouri River. Here, even a casual visitor can't help but feel a haunting sense of the Old West.

This austere landscape of rolling prairie cut by rivers and streams provides a habitat for an astonishing array of wildlife. Along with buffalo, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, and pronghorn antelope, there are wild horses and mountain lions, as well as millions of prairie dogs and other small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The theme song of the park seems to be the call of the western meadowlark; it is a bright, flutelike sound that is unmistakable.

Today, the park includes significant portions of the Little Missouri Badlands, along with an important grassland area brimming with animal life and sections of the ranch property that once belonged to T.R. In the spring, when it is rainy, a spectacular bouquet made up of multitudes of wildflowers colors the river's bottomland and the grassy flats.

In the next section, we'll tell you more about this land, which is some of the most pristine you'll find in the United States.

©2006 National Park Services The rustic cabin that served as the headquarters of Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Ranch is now used as a visitor center.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is uncrowded land, far removed from large urban centers. It is a place where visitors can experience the West and get used to lovely solitude in much the same way that young Teddy Roosevelt must have more than a century ago.

The prairie dog towns still bustle, eagles soar proudly through the sky, and stunning, seemingly endless sunsets brighten the evening sky. Little has changed.

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The park is divided into two units about 50 miles apart. The park headquarters is in the town of Medora in the South Unit. Rich in the history and lore of the frontier, Medora was founded by a French nobleman and former cavalry officer, the Marquis de Mores, who named the town after his American wife, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker. The couple's 26-room prairie chateau broods over Medora from a bluff across the river -- silent testimony to a place and age rapidly receding into the depths of time.

In sharp contrast to this grand house, the visitor center is located in the rustic cabin that was once the headquarters for T.R.'s cattle operation, the Maltese Cross Ranch. The cabin has been moved from its original site seven miles south. Roosevelt lived in the cabin in 1884 and 1885. From the Medora Overlook above town, visitors view the town as it might have appeared in Roosevelt's day.

If the South Unit is more historic, the North Unit may be more scenic and wild. Smaller and less closely associated with Roosevelt, the North Unit contains most of the park's wilderness. This part of the park gives visitors the feeling that they have entered an earlier era.

Here, the Little Missouri winds its spectacular course through rugged badlands where the cliffs seem higher, the canyons deeper, and the colored striations on the eroded rock more pronounced than elsewhere in this vast prairie wilderness. Oxbow Overlook provides a fine view of the Little Missouri River; it is a stunning vista with the blue river cutting through extensive badlands on either side.

Longhorn steers were brought to the park to commemorate the countless thousands of longhorns that were driven from Texas to the nearby Long-X ranch more than a century ago. They graze on the sagebrush flats in this place where the Old West still seems very much alive.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Photo Opportunities

From North Dakota's badlands to the historic sites that were owned and occupied by Teddy Roosevelt, the park has plenty of photo opportunities for professionals and amateurs alike. Here are just a few:

  • Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin: Constructed of durable ponderosa pine logs, which had been cut and floated down the Little Missouri River, the cabin was considered somewhat of a mansion in its day. A number of items in the cabin today actually belonged to Roosevelt.
  • Painted Canyon Overlook: Located in the South Unit of the park, this view has a quiet, haunting beauty. Wind and water shaped the canyons below. After it rains, the landscape appears as a kaleidoscope of pinks, red, blacks, and greens.
  • Elkhorn Ranch: This was the location of Roosevelt's principal home in the badlands. The ranch buildings no longer exist, but interpretive signs tell where the house and outbuildings stood.
  • Oxbow Overlook: In the North Unit, take the time to drive the 14-mile scenic route that goes from the entrance station to the Oxbow Overlook. You'll discover any number of great views of the landscape.
©2006 National Park ServicesThe Little Missouri River and its tributaries have been carving North Dakota's badlands -- which Theodore Roosevelt once described as "a chaos of peaks, plateaus, and ridges" -- for millions of years.

On the next page, learn why and how Roosevelt settled on this land and when it became a national park.

©2006 National Park Services Layers of rock and sediment form bands of color, known as striations, on the dome-shaped hills of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

When Theodore Roosevelt's wife died on the same day as his mother, he believed he needed to embrace nature if he was ever to move beyond his grief. The young member of the New York assembly headed west to the Dakota Territories and bought a cattle ranch.

The time was the 1880s, the same period when a cowhand named Charlie Russell was beginning to paint the landscapes and people of the cattle country in nearby Montana. The war between the Dakota tribe, or the Sioux, as they are better known, and the U.S. government had just ended. At that time, the American West was at a crossroads. Cattle ranchers were rapidly claiming the open grasslands, the old buffalo prairie that extended from Canada to Mexico.

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Today, Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch on the Little Missouri River of North Dakota is protected as a national park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Visitors can still see herds of white-tailed deer, elk, antelope, and buffalo, which Roosevelt (an avid big-game hunter) witnessed more than a century ago. Best of all, the park protects some of the best multicolored badland formations in the region, as well as extensive surface beds of petrified wood.

Theodore Roosevelt in North Dakota

Toward the end of his life, Roosevelt observed that he would never have become president had he not spent a few years out west on his beloved Elkhorn Ranch. He had become a dedicated conservationist who went on to do more for our national park system than just about any politician before or since.

In the fall of 1883, when he first came to the area, Roosevelt purchased a small herd of cattle to run on the Maltese Cross Ranch. The next year he bought the rights to another ranch 30 miles away. He called it "Elkhorn" and always thought of it as his true home in North Dakota, while the Maltese Cross remained the center of his cattle business.

During 1885 and 1886, his ranching operations were quite successful, but during the bad winter the next year he lost 60 percent of his herd. At about the same time, the town of Medora began to decline. Roosevelt, newly married and involved in politics, gradually withdrew from the cattle business. The buildings at the Elkhorn Ranch have long since disappeared, but markers indicate where the ranch house stood. Few places yield a greater sense of Roosevelt during his western years.

The impact of Roosevelt's North Dakota experiences was powerful. As president, he established three national parks, helped found the U.S. Forest Service, and set aside millions of acres as national monuments.

How the North Dakota Badlands Were Formed

The history of North Dakota's badlands and prairie goes back at least 60 million years. As the Rocky Mountains rose up over the Great Plains, streams began to erode the peaks, carrying their sediment eastward and spreading mountain debris over the plains.

Later, although still a few million years ago, the entire great plains were lifted up, and the Little Missouri River began to carve its badlands. The river's many small tributaries reshaped nearby areas.

The result of this continuous process of erosion by water is spectacular. There are wildly corrugated cliffs, twisted gullies, and rugged pinnacles. Dome-shaped hills, with layers of rock and sediment forming colored horizontal striations, run for miles and miles.

This wild region is the same today as when Theodore Roosevelt described the place as "a chaos of peaks, plateaus, and ridges."

Theodore Roosevelt played a large role in making the national park system it is today. It's fitting, then, that his name is attached to an area in North Dakota that meant so much to him.

©Publications International, Ltd.

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