Tourist Spot

In the less visited northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, solitude and sites to see



On a perfect June afternoon, visitors to the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park will see herds of bison roaming free, fearful flocks of mule deer, countless prairie dogs and dozens of wild turkeys cross the river. route at will. They will encounter geological anomalies that span millions of years and meandering views of the Little Missouri River that are simply breathtaking.

What they won’t see, except on very rare days and special events, are many other visitors.

The post-pandemic travel boom has resulted in crowded planes, long waits at tourist attractions, and unprecedented visitor numbers to state and national parks. Perhaps that will signify a possible discovery of this gem tucked away in the far reaches of one of the least populated states in the country.

But for now, the Northern Unit remains a place of great beauty and great solitude.

“People who speak to our own hearts go there for isolation, estrangement and tranquility. You get out of those places and it’s mostly peopleless, ”said Mike Kopp, who, along with his wife Mary, runs the Beautiful Badlands ND Facebook page and website, and who sort of serves as a evangelist, leading a flock to the wonders of North Dakota’s rugged western edge.


Bison roaming free at sunset are among the unique and breathtaking views available in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a few miles south of Watford City, North Dakota Tourism Photo

Bison roaming free at sunset are among the unique and breathtaking views available in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a few miles south of Watford City, North Dakota Tourism Photo

Centuries of loneliness

Over a century later, visitors can still find the peace and seclusion that Roosevelt sought and found in the 1880s – decades before he was elected president – when he came to what was then Dakota Territory and invested in two ranches in the Badlands. It can be invigorating, as one gazes at a magnificent canopy of stars, without being bothered by the light pollution nearby. It also comes with the normal challenges of isolation, which can mean inconvenience and even danger if things go wrong, even in the age of cell phone communication.

“I canoeed down the Little Missouri River from South Unit to North Unit a few years ago and you’ve been seeing nothing for five days. No street lights, no farms, nothing for five days, ”Kopp said. “And if you’re caught in a hailstorm like we did, sorry Charlie, you’re screwed.”


Mule deer foraging for food in the winter in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near the town of Watford, ND, photo by North Dakota Tourism.

Mule deer foraging for food in the winter in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near the town of Watford, North Dakota, tourist photo.

For many Americans, North Dakota is considered a flyover state, or at best a place to cross on Interstate 94, on the way between the Twin Cities and Seattle. The fact that the southern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is adjacent to this busy corridor, as well as the additional attractions and restaurants in Medora, North Dakota, means that a large majority of those paying the resort fee $ 30 entry, valid for seven consecutive days in the park, saw part or all of the 36 mile driving loop in the South Unit and maybe stayed overnight at Cottonwood Campground after seeing saw the Broadway-grade musical Medora in town. All of these activities are fun and informative, of course.

But just like a trip to New York City that doesn’t venture more than a few blocks beyond the bright lights of Times Square, there is much, much more to see in the Badlands.

“We find this to be so true among our website readers who say, ‘I went to Medora. What else is there? ‘ Kopp said. “Medora is a nice little tourist town, but if you really want to get to the Badlands, stay away from Medora.”

Robust and rearranging

The geology of the area, as Kopp explained, is one of the biggest differences between north and south in this part of North Dakota. The underlying rock is harder and more rugged as you head north. The valley carved by the Little Missouri reaches up to 150 feet in depth in the southern unit. In and near the Northern Unit, it can be twice as deep, with a landscape that is continually rearranged and remade by the forces of nature.

“If you go north of Killdeer, all the way to Little Missouri State Park, you enter the harshest part of North Dakota and all of the northern plains. This area is continually evolving, ”said Kopp. “I used to take the kids on horseback rides there and we could never take the same route twice, because it always changes.”

The last notable overhaul of the landscape is only a few months old. Less than a kilometer and a half from the northern unit’s reception center – housed, for the moment, in a mobile unit – one can see burnt junipers and other brush, surrounded by new grass from the prairies of ‘a bright green. Visitor center staff noted that the fires that scorched the area occurred in April 2021, and the emerald hues surrounding the blackened undergrowth indicate how quickly nature regenerates itself when left on its own. capabilities.


Bison, wild turkeys, mule deer and other animals tend to outnumber other cars for visitors to the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.  Solitude is one of the main draws of this remote part of the federal parks system.  North Dakota Tourism Photo.

Bison, wild turkeys, mule deer and other animals tend to outnumber other cars for visitors to the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Solitude is one of the main draws of this remote part of the federal parks system. North Dakota Tourism Photo.

The people at the drop-in center are helpful, knowledgeable, and endowed with a sense of humor that can be frankly rare for federal government employees. When asked if there was a park pass that was shorter than the seven-day version for $ 30, the staff member offered options.

“Yes, we have a day pass available,” he said unmoved. “It’s $ 30. We also have a 45 minute pass. It’s also $ 30.

After hearing about 43 podcasts while spending windshield time through the vast expanses of eastern North Dakota, the smart-aleck interaction was greeted with a smile.

When exploring the North Unit by car, a 45 km round trip provides an exceptional first glimpse of the area, with two remarkable lookouts and a myriad of hiking trails starting from the main road. A perfect introduction to the scenery and a leg stretch after what is probably a lot of time in the car can be achieved via the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This round trip of less than 2.5 km is accompanied by a topo and numbered panels that show the many plants in the park (prairie grasses, Virginia cherry, mugwort, prickly pear, etc.) and illustrate how Centuries of wind, rain and the annual freeze / thaw have shaped the landscape.

If you look north, where the slopes are exposed to the blazing sun each day, you will see shades of brown and gray over the largely arid land. To the south, the slopes are more shaded, which means more humidity, less sun, and lush patches of green pines, junipers and other flowering plants.

A colorful canvas

At the Oxbow Overlook, at the end of the 14 mile road, you can see the forces of nature at work. Here on a tight bend in Little Missouri, surrounded on all sides by vivid green, water-loving poplars, one can see how the river slowly carves a backwater that, in time, will be cut off from the channel. main of the shallow river, make the waterway a little straighter and leave in its place a marsh of the old riverbed.


The Oxbow Overlook, in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is a popular spot with photographers, who can observe, from above, the Little Missouri River slowly making its way through lush cottonwood trees.  North Dakota Tourism Photo.

The Oxbow Overlook, in the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is a popular spot with photographers, who can observe, from above, the Little Missouri River slowly making its way through lush cottonwood trees. North Dakota Tourism Photo.

Perhaps the most famous and visited spot in the northern unit is halfway down the entrance road and at one of the highest points in the state. Even in rain or snow, a stone shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in 1937 offers a covered way to view a magnificent expanse of Little Missouri from above. Unlike the bone-colored lunar landscape of the South Dakota Badlands – which are beautiful and mysterious in their own way – the North Dakota version is a place of beautiful and varied colors.

In a conversation with Kopp during the 600-mile drive from the Twin Cities to the park’s northern unit, he perhaps offered the best advice a visitor to the area could ever receive.

“Find a highlight, like the River Bend Overlook, and go an hour before sunset,” Kopp wrote in an email. “Sit back, watch the colors change as the sun goes down, shadows grow taller, contrasts appear, the landscape will turn from green to gold to brown and finally to blue. It’s icy goosebumps.

He was right. In this place of solitude and unspoiled beauty, where temperatures regularly drop to double digits below zero during long winters, one can be frozen to the bone by the wonders of nature, even on a hot summer evening. .