Montana Trip 2021 | Camping & Exploring in Theodore Roosevelt National Park | September 2021
This was our second visit to North Dakota. The last time we were here, it was a spur of the moment decision to change our intended cross-country drive because of wildfires in Wyoming and Idaho. While there, we hiked the highest point in the state, White Butte, and drove through the Little Missouri River National Grassland. We knew Theodore Roosevelt National Park existed, but we didn’t visit because we felt like we’d seen enough of the scenery. We assumed it would look just like Badlands National Park, which we had already visited a few days prior.
This time, we decided to give this park a shot since we would be driving through and needed a place to camp. After driving on I-94 for about two hours past Bismarck and just seeing vast grasslands with the occasional butte, we finally entered into the national grassland and park. The views from the interstate were actually exceptionally great — I’m not sure how anyone can drive through and not stop at the park!
We were right in thinking that the scenery here would be similar to Badlands National Park, the Little Missouri Grassland, and other badland-type scenery we’ve seen around the West, but it still felt different to us. It somehow felt bigger with wider vistas than Badlands, but the two things that instantly set this national park apart from Badlands in our minds were that the Little Missouri River flows through, and that it had trees. And when we were there, the leaves on the trees had changed to shades of yellow, orange, and red, making the views even more colorful!
We pulled in after 5, and since it was a Saturday we were a little nervous that all the campsites would be full. Thankfully that wasn’t the case, and Curtis found us a perfect walk-in spot that was right next to the Little Missouri River. He set up our tent, then we walked around the campground with Charlotte to stretch our legs after our long drive. We returned to our site, and I wandered down to the river to take pictures of the sunset while Curtis made dinner. Originally Curtis had hoped that we could kayak on the river, but the water level was just too low to make that work this time.
The weather was perfect for camping here, and the night was quiet — besides some coyotes and elk cries through the night. We always wonder if Charlotte hears the coyotes and what she thinks about them, but I think the answer is that no, she doesn’t hear them, she always seems to fall asleep instantly and then snores loudly throughout the night. The real question is, can the wild animals outside the tent somewhere hear her?
Anyway, Charlotte really seemed to like this campsite. She spent almost the entire time we were there sitting and staring out across the river. As the sun started to rise, she pawed at the tent door so we let her out attached to a rope, and she just sat there perfectly still, taking in the view. It wasn’t until right before we were about to leave that we saw a bison appear on the other side of the river. I think Char started to make a low growl, but then quickly changed her mind and decided not to make her presence known to him.
The park seemed to have a great network of trails, but of course we couldn’t hike any of them with Charlotte. Instead, we settled on going for a sunrise drive through the park. Part of the loop drive was closed, but we drove as far as we could, stopping for frequent overlooks, before coming back. Besides the views and the fall colors, the highlight of this drive was all the wildlife. We saw bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, and a coyote. And while we could hear the bull elk bugling, we never saw one. Another interesting part of the drive was seeing and smelling some active burning coal veins, along with signs in place nearby telling visitors to not report them.
We finished up our time here by stopping at the visitor center for cancellation stamps and to check out Theodore Roosevelt’s cabin. The visitor center also had several artifacts of his, including the jacket with bullet holes that he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.
After that, we unsuccessfully attempted some letterboxes in Medora, saw the courthouse building, and hopped back on I-94 to continue our drive West. We’ll definitely come back some day for more hiking…and if Curtis has any say in it, it will be to backpack the Maah Daah Hey trail.