A Trifecta of National Parks + A National Monument
In late May, we found ourselves on the way home from our Spring 2017 road trip driving on I-94 across the great plains of North Dakota on our way to three national parks. The least well known of these was Theodore Roosevelt National Park in southwest North Dakota. Roosevelt purchased two ranches here and visited several times in the early 1880’s reveling in what was still part of the American frontier. His cabin from the Maltese Cross Ranch now sits on the visitor’s center property for his namesake park. Considered a bit luxurious for its time, it contains many of his own furnishings.
This is definitely one of the smaller of the western national parks at 70,446 acres or 110.072 square miles and it is broken up into three units (North, South and Elkhorn Ranch) and has two visitor’s centers. The south unit visitor’s center and the gateway to the park is in the small town of Medora south of I-84 not far from the Montana border. Getting to the park requires driving back over I-84. Early on, you come to several overlooks and a large Prairie Dog town. Next, on your left is the very nice Cottonwood Campground. It’s dry camping, but with nice pit toilets and a dump station. Lots of level pull-through sites some accommodating big rigs. Leaving the campground after our first night there as we reached East River Road we heard the pounding of hooves from behind us. Stopping to grab my camera, I rolled down my window and pointed my camera at a beautiful blue roan stallion as he went thundering by. With shutter speed and my reactions too slow, I got nothing but a blur and a thrill at seeing this beautiful animal. As you turn left out of the campground onto East River Road, the next turnoff is the road to Peaceful Valley Ranch with the original ranch buildings and a flock of wild turkeys. Soon thereafter, you reach a decision point when Scenic Loop Drive forks off to the right and East River Road continues straight ahead. If you’re there for wildlife, then I’d recommend staying on East River Road. Very quickly, you’ll get to a view of the Little Missouri River. Just before that on our first morning we encountered a small flock of Sharp-tailed Grouse. They were immediately on the run, so no photos. On the second morning, a short distance farther down the road we encountered a herd of elk on the Little Missouri River. From that point on, we saw bison, deer and wild horses at intervals on both sides of the road.
Being early risers, we were about the only vehicle on the road. The rangers don’t want you getting out of your vehicle to view or photograph the wildlife and they want you to use the pull-outs, but there aren’t many of these. So, we cheated a little at times and parked on the road at other times. Traffic was so light that it didn’t present any problem. You can do the whole loop road in a couple of hours. It is most scenic on the east end and most of the wildlife hangs out on the west side. If you’re there only for wildlife then I would suggest turning around at Buckhill Road. But you owe it to yourself to drive the whole loop road at least once to see a piece of the Badlands. We drove the roads morning and evening, but early morning was the most productive for most wildlife. However, the Prairie Dogs don’t seem to get up much before 9:00 a.m. We spent one day driving the National Grasslands south of Medora which was interesting, but totally non-productive as far as wildlife was concerned. On the third day, we drove up to the North Unit after a grocery stop in Dickinson, the only sizeable city in the area with a couple of grocery stores and a WalMart among other amenities. The drive north from Dickinson brought us into the Bakken Shale Oil Field with lots of construction, oil rigs and large oil field vehicles. We had to drive back west to get to the North Unit of the park and encountered major construction on State Highway 200. Highway 85 north from I-94 is your best bet.
The North Unit is a linear park along the Little Missouri River with one out-and-back road. There are a couple of scenic overlooks worth stopping for and some amazing rock formations worth photographing. But, the big excitement for me was coming across some Greater Prairie Chickens displaying on a lek near the end of the road. They didn’t stay long, but I managed to get a few decent shots.
The next day, we headed for Montana and a stop at The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument before hitting Yellowstone. We found an excellent campground at 7th Ranch RV Camp just south of Garryowen with friendly owners, nice pull-through sites and a hillside view across to the still snow-covered at the end of May Bighorn Mountains.
The last time I was at the monument there was a visitor’s center and not much else. Today, there is an 8-mile auto-route with signs explaining what you’re seeing that gives you much more of a feel for the series of battles that took place on either side of a ridge 8-miles long. The event was much more complex than the pictures of Custer’s Last Stand would lead you to believe. You’ll need at least 3-4 hours to see the whole thing. In addition, stop at the quirky, but interesting Little Bighorn Battle museum in Garryowen. By the way, Garryowen was the regimental marching song of Custer’s regiment. Have a listen:
The museum in back houses many period photographs taken by Dakota Territory photographer David F. Barry including photos of Custer, Sitting Bull and other participants in the battle. I have to confess that I’d never heard of Barry, but he is well known in the West at least. And his photographs made on glass plates are some of the iconic ones you’ve undoubtedly seen if you’re at all familiar with western history. According to a 2014 article by Randel Metz, Barry traveled to many of the forts in the Dakota Territory between 1878 and 1883 photographing the famous and not so famous including Custer himself, Sitting Bull and other Sioux chiefs, army officers and Buffalo Bill Cody using a wagon as a studio and glass plates for his photo medium. His photos are in the Smithsonian and have been displayed in the Museum of the Rockies. The photos in the museum are well worth the price of admission in addition to miscellaneous other artifacts.
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