A preserve in North Dakota was once a favorite retreat for the United States’ first conservationist president.
By Josepth Albino
In September 1883 Theodore Roosevelt, a graduate of Harvard University who would go on to become the 26th president of the United States, boarded a train in New York City and traveled to a small town called Little Misery in what is now North Dakota. He had come to “bag a buffalo,” as he explained it, during a trip that historians believe lasted from September 7 to 28.
This part of the country is known as the Badlands. Sioux Indians call the area “mako sica” (land bad), and French explorers named it “les mauvais terres a’traverser”(bad land to travel across). This was tough terrain for human travel because of its many gullies and hills. Nonetheless, the landscape that Roosevelt saw was rapidly changing with the development of roads, trains, and towns.
Roosevelt learned a very important lesson during his trip to the Badlands, one that changed his outlook on the way government treated the country’s natural resources. American bison, more commonly called buffalo, were rapidly disappearing. He had read that at one time the buffalo numbered 60 million on the Northern Plains; by his youth, the population had decreased to 5 to 10 million. During his 1883 visit, at age 24, the numbers of buffalo had diminished even further. He also observed that some of the other wildlife once so abundant in the Northern Plains were disappearing as well.
During the hunt for buffalo, Roosevelt befriended his guide Joe Ferris, who brought him to the Maltese Cross Ranch, where Joe’s brother, Sylvane, was part owner. Roosevelt began talking to the local ranchers and saw that he might make money raising cattle in that part of the country. Before leaving Medora, Roosevelt formed a partnership with Sylvane Ferris and William Merrifield to raise cattle at the Maltese Cross Ranch.
The three men believed that in place of the buffalo, cattle could be brought to the area and raised on the grass of the Northern Plains. Roosevelt put up the money in order to become the principal owner of the Maltese Cross Ranch, and then returned to New York. The other men got to work building a cabin that would accommodate Roosevelt in a grand style for the day, with three separate rooms, wooden floors, and an upstairs sleeping loft.
The ensuing winter in New York was Roosevelt’s worst. On February 14, his mother died of typhoid, and his wife died of a kidney disease that was aggravated by the birth of their daughter, Alice.
Roosevelt returned to his Maltese Cross Ranch in the summer of 1884. He wanted a quiet place to work out his grief and to read and to write, but visitors were always stopping by at the ranch, which was situated on a stagecoach route. The search for solitude took him 35 miles north of Medora to Elkhorn Ranch. He bought the property, although a hunting shack was the only structure there, and once again had a ranch house built. The Elkhorn became the principal home for Roosevelt in the Badlands.
Roosevelt’s observations of disappearing resources and his appreciation for the Badlands fueled his resolve to preserve the environment. When he became president following the assassination of President William McKinley, he established the nation’s first five national parks and signed into law the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowered presidents to set aside land. Roosevelt himself designated 18 national monuments, created 51 wildlife refuges, established 150 national forests, and formed the National Park Service. In 1907 he told Congress: “The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life.”
Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established in 1947 to honor his conservation efforts. In 1978 the word “memorial” was dropped from the name.
The park encompasses more than 70,000 acres and is divided into two main sections. The South Unit is located adjacent to the community of Medora; the North Unit is 54 miles north of Belfield. It’s a 70-mile drive between the North and South units.
This national park is the place to see wildlife “” something Roosevelt would have loved. American bison; white-tailed deer; pronghorn antelope; coyotes; elk; mule deer; and prairie dogs live in the North and South units. The North Unit harbors longhorn cattle, too, and the South Unit is one of the few areas in the western United States where wild horses can be seen. Understandably, both units are encompassed by a 7-foot-high woven-wire fence.
Approximately 395 head of bison live in the South Unit and 345 or so in the North Unit. They are the descendants of 29 bison that were obtained in 1956 from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska and released in the South Unit. In 1962 some were moved to the North Unit.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is also a great birding place. In fact, Roosevelt, who admired ornithologist John James Audubon, found the variety of birds in the Badlands to be exhilarating. Some 186 species of birds have been observed in the park, including golden eagles, bluebirds, magpies, and orioles.
And what of Roosevelt’s ranches? He sold Elkhorn in 1898, and over the years all of its buildings were destroyed. The Elkhorn Ranch site is located in between the park’s North and South units, but is undeveloped and best accessed by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Visitors are advised to stop at the South Unit Visitor Center and inquire about road conditions before attempting the trip. Approaching the ranch site from the east requires crossing the Little Missouri River, which, from time to time, is too deep to traverse. Occasionally during the summer months, a park ranger will lead a trip to the ranch site.
The Maltese Cross Ranch cabin still stands and is adjacent to the South Unit visitors center. Guided tours through the cabin are offered daily during the summer; self-guided tours may be taken in winter. The cabin contains items Roosevelt once owned and used, along with typical furnishings of the day.
The South Unit visitors center, known better as the Medora Visitor Center, features cultural and natural history displays and a large bookstore with publications focusing on Roosevelt and this area. Park orientation programs are offered as well. You can buy a booklet that describes the park’s driving tours as well.
A 36-mile-loop scenic road begins at the South Unit visitors center. A 28-mile (round trip) drive starts at the North Unit. Along these routes, pullouts contain wayside exhibit signs that explain some of the natural and cultural features encountered.
You can take a hike, too, on your choice of the park’s more than 100 miles of trails. The South Unit’s Ridgeline Nature Trail is only 0.6-mile and provides information about the area’s ecology. The Little Mo Nature Trail is 1.1 miles and begins at the Juniper Campground in the North Unit. In all, trails range up to 16 miles in length. The Painted Canyon visitors center is located on Interstate 94 a few miles east of the Medora visitors center. From Painted Canyon, you can enjoy a panoramic vista of the Badlands via a loop trail that is 0.9-mile.
At all three visitors centers (North, South, and Painted Canyon), a 13-minute film called T.R. Country is shown, which uses Theodore Roosevelt’s writings to explain the Badlands. During the summer months, evening campfire interpretive programs and interpretive walks are offered by rangers in the park, including all-day hikes, half-day hikes, and relatively short hikes.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is also noted for its horseback riding. This activity is so popular that visitors come from all over the country to ride horses in the park, taking excursions of various lengths. Of course, that is what Roosevelt did during the 1880s when he traveled over the countryside as part of his ranching activities. For more information, contact the trail ride operator directly at (701) 623-4568, or visit the park Web site listed below.
The primary purpose of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is to give individuals the opportunity to experience the Badlands environment and to understand and enjoy the country as Roosevelt did. The park truly accomplishes this and more.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora, ND 58645-0007
The park is open year-round. The entrance fee is good for seven days at both units and costs $10 per vehicle or $5 per person. Golden Age, Golden Access, Golden Eagle, and National Parks passes are honored.
Summer temperatures can be warm, with highs in the 80s, 90s, and even a few days in the 100s. Evenings are generally cool.
No-hookup camping is available at both the North and South units. Cottonwood Campground, at the South Unit, has water and rest rooms (no showers). Juniper Campground, in the North Unit, has water, rest rooms (no showers), and a dump station. No reservations are taken; first come, first served.
Several commercial campgrounds are located near both units of the park. For more information, check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.