22 Apr
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Take a Trip: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

In honor of National Parks week and because I have a crazy passion for the National Park Service, here’s another flashback vacation memory.

badlands overlook at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Most vacation destination lists don’t have North Dakota on them. I’m a collector of states. I want to visit as many as possible. We hadn’t visited North Dakota and were looking for a vacation destination there. The answer was Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We could add another state and a national park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park river overlook

Honestly, I didn’t have high expectations for the park. We had been told by a few people it wasn’t worth a visit. Those people were wrong.

a bison at sunset at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We visited in June 2013. I can’t vouch for what it looks like in the park in dryer months, but in early June, it was vibrant green with wildflowers blooming. Our first stop was the Painted Canyon Visitor Center in the South Unit. We hiked a one-mile nature trail that gave us a great introduction to the park. The hills of the badlands were green mounds stretching as far as we could see. I was a little awestruck. North Dakota was turning out to be an excellent place to visit.

wild horses at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We camped in Medora, ND where the South Unit entrance is located. A 36-mile driving loop takes visitors through the scenic South Unit and offers a variety of wildlife. We spotted deer, elk, wild horses, bison and watched a hawk swoop onto the road and grab a snake in its sharp talons before flying off. We viewed wild horses at several spots on the loop and were mesmerized by prairie dogs. There are a few prairie dog towns in the unit. We parked and watched those rodents run from mound to mound, bob up and down and chatter with each other for more time than I’m prepared to admit. We’ve seen plenty of prairie dogs but never in an environment where their habitat is protected and people actually want them to live there.

sunset at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

I recommend watching the sunset from an overlook in the park. We watched the sunset from both units in the two days we were there. The sky was vibrant and the silhouette of the badlands in the darkening sky begged to be photographed.

petrified forest at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

petrified forest at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

My husband is a fan of petrified forests. They combine his love of trees and rocks. We hiked part of the Petrified Forest Loop during our visit. Part of the hike is through exposed grassland. I recommend hats and sunscreen. Chunks of ancient petrified trees dot the landscape on the trail. Some chunks are quite sizable. We enjoyed painting mental pictures of what the area looked like when those trees were green and thriving. While we were hiking the trail, we had the area to ourselves. I advocate for families traveling to national parks to experience this vast country we live in, but I appreciate parks that aren’t overcrowded. I enjoy the leisurely pace I’m allowed to take when there aren’t people walking close behind me or patiently waiting to look at the stump I’m currently inspecting. Theodore Roosevelt offered peace and tranquility with history and scenic views.

three bighorn sheep climbing a hill

a bighorn sheep climping a hill

My highlight for our visit to the park was spotting the magical, mystical Bighorn sheep in the north unit. I started referring to Bighorn sheep as magical and mystical years ago. We’ve had the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife during our adventures, but Bighorn sheep remained elusive. We’ve left a campground to learn that minutes after our departure, sheep wandered past our campsite. We driven through countless canyons where everyone we know has spotted sheep and seen none. They were our unicorn.

It’s too bad someone wasn’t videotaping the inside of our vehicle the moment we spotted several Bighorn sheep. It was pandemonium. One would have thought we spotted a leprechaun riding a unicorn. It was the last day of our mini vacation, and I couldn’t have scripted it better.

prairie dog town at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We finished that second day trapped in a traffic jam of bison who weren’t in a hurry to cross the road. They gave us an opportunity to observe several ages of bison and watch the sunset. It’s not often we’ve been in a national park and can claim the road as a peaceful place to be stuck. Most animal-caused traffic jams in parks affect several vehicles, and people will recklessly jump out of vehicles to inch closer to wildlife. Watching people act ridiculously around wild animals makes me anything but peaceful. Our traffic jam in Theodore Roosevelt National Park had only one other vehicle involved, and all occupants remained inside.

If you’re wanting to visit a national park that isn’t as busy as Yellowstone or Rocky Mountain, don’t listen to anyone who tells you not to visit North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt just might be a perfect fit.

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