Theodore Roosevelt National Park History


In 1883, Theodore Roosevelt headed out to North Dakota to hunt bison, who were at that point close to extinction. He fell in love with the bison, hunting, and the rugged extremes of the area.  While there, he decided to purchase the Maltese Cross Ranch – a cattle ranch already being managed by two men, and he left it in their hands. He returned for the rugged solitude after his wife and mother both died on Valentine’s Day, 1884, and purchased and developed another ranch a bit further north. He credits his time in North Dakota as helping to get over the loss and his gut wrenching grief.

Both ranches operated for a couple of years, until a particularly harsh winter in 1886-1887 wiped out most of his cattle, who were unable to get down to the grasses beneath the snow. Although his ranches ultimately failed, his time in North Dakota and his experiences on his ranches guided his later conservation attitudes and policies during and after his Presidency.

After Roosevelt died in 1919, the government began exploring the Little Missouri Badlands to see if there were options for park sites. The CCC had camps in the park between 1934 and 1941, and they made roads and built some of the buildings still in use today. It was designated the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area in 1935, although I have no idea what they were demonstrating.

In 1946 the designation was changed to the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge and the land was transferred to the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. But then President Truman stepped in and established the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park on April 25, 1947. It was the only National Memorial Park ever established – somehow I guess the concept didn’t really take off. In 1978, more land was added to the park and the boundaries were changed, and it finally became Theodore Roosevelt National Park on November 10, 1978. Talk about a roundabout way to get to National Park status!

The West Entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. And me!

The West Entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. And me!

The park today consists of three units that are geographically separate from each other. The South Unit, near Medora, North Dakota is the most visited unit, and contains a wide variety of wildlife, including bison, prairie dogs, feral horses, coyotes, badgers, elk, bighorn sheep, cougars, white-tailed deer and mule deer, and more than 100 species of birds including golden eagles, sharp-tailed grouse, and wild turkeys. The North Unit is about 80 miles north of the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which contains the site of Roosevelt’s second ranch, is in between the two.

The climate is one of extremes; the prairie grasslands get very hot in the summer, and winter temperatures are very cold with lots of snow. The Little Missouri River flows through all three units of the park. Wildlife spotting is a popular activity, due to the abundance of large animals in the park.  There are over 100 miles of hiking trails, and visitors can also do back country horseback trips. They just need to be prepared for hot summer weather and little protection from the sun. There are three developed campgrounds in the park; two in the South Unit and one in the North Unit. The sky is known for its dark night skies, and the northern lights are even sometimes visible.

In total, there are 70,446 acres under the protection of the park, and in 2011, it received 563,407 visitors. It is certainly one of the lesser visited parks, due to its more remote location.  I was excited to visit again, because I had visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1978, shortly before it gained National Park status.  I have the pictures to prove it!  More in my upcoming posts!

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