October 14, 2014

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Tim and I had two full days to explore the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  The park is divided into three separate units, but the south unit is the most-visited of the three. Unfortunately, day one was a complete washout, and day two wasn’t much better.  But, we knew that if we didn’t at least try to get out into the park on our last day, we might not get another chance to see the park for the foreseeable future.  So off we went in the cold, foggy, rainy weather.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the southwest corner of North Dakota in the heart of that area’s badlands.  This national park was created in honor of a president, Theodore Roosevelt, who stated that, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”  Roosevelt’s first visit to the badlands took place in 1883, and he soon became interested in the cattle business.  He established an open-range ranch when he returned the following year, and he embraced the rugged landscape and the strenuous life that the cattle business demanded.  Roosevelt’s experiences in North Dakota inspired him to become one of the leading conservationists of the twentieth century.

Tim and I began our exploration of the national park at the visitor center in Medora, a small western town at the entrance to the park.  Because we were in no hurry to get out into the wet weather, we viewed the movie and spent time talking with the seasonal rangers.  We were able to join a ranger tour of the Maltese Cross cabin, the house where Roosevelt lived when he first came to North Dakota.

Maltese Cross Cabin

Theodore Roosevelt's First Home in the Badlands

It had cleared a bit when we began our tour of the 36-mile scenic loop drive, and we were able to see and learn a bit about the geology of the badlands.  It’s a fascinating landscape with its colorful, layered bluffs, buttes and canyons, although the fog obscured much of our view.  

Are the Badlands Out There?

Scoria Point Overlook

A Close-Up View of the Landscape

Colorful Layers of Rock and Clay and Sand

We attempted only one very short hike, the Wind Canyon Trail, which led us to a ridge with a beautiful view of the Little Missouri River and the wind-sculpted sands of the trail’s namesake canyon.  We didn’t get to explore the other trails that I had planned to hike, but we still enjoyed our short visit to the park.

Little Missouri River

Little Missouri River

Along the Wind Canyon Trail

We left the following morning, Thursday September 11, on a beautiful day for our drive to Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, where Tim would be working for two weeks.  It was an eye-opening drive indeed.

Our drive to Fort Union would take us through the heart of the Bakken Oil Field, the formation in North Dakota that is rich with oil reserves.  We had read about the Bakken and the activity that has exploded there in the last five years.  Oil companies are now using the controversial technique called fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which has quadrupled daily oil production.  We were about to get our first real taste of the oil boom in western North Dakota.

I expected to see oil wells, dill rigs and their trappings, but I hadn’t anticipated the sheer volume of traffic, particularly heavy truck traffic. When we tried to exit the parking lot from the grocery store in Watford City, we faced a line of traffic that seemed to have no end.  We had to wait for a kind soul to wave us in.  Every road seemed to be under reconstruction.  The State of North Dakota seems to be overwhelmed in trying to build new roads, or widen existing ones, to keep up with the new volume of traffic. 

Non-Stop Truck Traffic and Road Construction

The former landscape of agricultural fields is now dotted with oil wells and temporary housing.  It’s not a pretty sight.  The three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are now tiny islands of natural landscape surrounded by development.

Temporary Housing

The effects are not only visual, but also economic.  Although the oil boom has led to tens of thousands of new jobs, prices of everything have gone through the roof.  We found that local residents have been priced out of their apartments, and new workers have few places to live.  Grocery and gas prices are the highest we have encountered anywhere.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site is another tiny oasis in the Bakken.  It is only 25 miles from Williston, North Dakota, the epicenter of the oil boom.  We were hoping that we could avoid much of the craziness of the oil boom during our stay at Fort Union.


  1. Enjoying your pictures and explanations Sarah! Also, wanted to wish you both a belated Happy Anniversary. Hope you did something special. Hugs, LV

    1. Thanks, LV. We had a wonderful anniversary (can you believe it's been five years!) at a campground with a fabulous view of the Missouri River. My kind of campground - so relaxing.


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