Taking the Bad with the Good

Sunday, November 04, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Dickinson, ND to Miles City, MT
Ten years ago when we took our first cross-country trip after retirement, we were following the trail of Lewis and Clark.  Along the way, we drove most of the same stretch of highway we traveled today.  At that time, we didn't find anything especially notable about the scenery, but then again, we drove through this uninhabited area at night, in total darkness with only our headlights to illuminate a small patch of road in front of the car. At the time, we didn't even realize we had driven right through the middle of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), let alone what we missed seeing.  Today we found out.
Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Badlands of the Dakota Territory in 1883, eager for the prospect of big game hunting.  By the time he arrived out West, however, the extensive bison herds had been all but decimated by disease, hide hunting, and the misguided but popular activity of shooting buffalo for sport from the windows of passing trains.  After purchasing a ranch in the area that is currently part of TRNP, Roosevelt often sojourned there from his home in New York.  The time that the future president spent in Dakota opened his eyes to the damage being wreaked on the land and wildlife by poor management and lack of planning and foresight.
Teddy Roosevelt National Park Badlands
His growing interest in conservation inspired protective policymaking once Roosevelt was elected President in 1901.  Under his leadership, the U.S. Forest Service was born, and he issued executive orders proclaiming 18 sites as national monuments.  From his 'bully pulpit,' a term he himself coined, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish five additional national parks (more than doubling the total) and 51 wildlife refuges, while setting aside other acreage as national forests.  How fitting then that his former ranch became part of a national park to preserve his beloved Badlands and honor his important contributions to the conservation movement in American history.

The term badlands comes from the Lakota Sioux, who called the terrain Makhóšiča (literally, bad land) and French trappers, who called it les mauvaises terres à traverser (the bad lands to cross).  The term has come into geographic usage to describe a type of dry terrain characterized by soft sedimentary rock and clay-rich soil that has been extensively eroded by wind and water, leaving many canyons, gullies, ravines and hoodoos.  Because of these types of features, badlands are typically difficult to traverse.  With their variety of soils, clay and rocks, badlands often exhibit spectacular varieties of color and hide all manner of fossils and other geological secrets in their prominent strata.

In addition to the striking terrain, there is no shortage of wildlife in TRNP.  The park is divided into north and south units, and we visited the south today.  As we were about to embark on the 36-mile scenic loop drive, we asked one of the rangers for any advice she might offer for our visit.  She recommended a couple of stops and short hikes, but went on to say that TR is not a park with a few "must-see" sights, like Yellowstone's Old Faithful or El Capitan in Yosemite.  "It's really about the scenery and the wildlife," she enthused, "and what your chance encounters with the wildlife happen to be on the day you visit."

Eager to catch a glimpse of some members of the park's buffalo herd or a feral horse or two, we went on our way.  Our first stop was at the Ridgeline Trail.  With prairie rattlesnakes inhabiting the area and the trail lined with poison ivy in summer, we were very happy to be there on a cold November day.  The views from the top were spectacular.
Ken approaching the summit of the Ridgeline Trail
While there, we experimented with our mobile hotspot to see if we could contact our iPhone-using friends and family with Facetime while in scenic locations to show them the incredible panoramic views we were seeing.  It worked like a charm from our end, but on a Sunday morning, we were unable to hook up with anyone.  We'll definitely try that tool again though, as we hope to see more wondrous vistas on this trip.

As we wound around the loop drive, we finally saw one lone bison, about 100 yards off the road.  We pulled over and sat there watching him with the binoculars for about ten minutes, thinking he might be the only buffalo we saw in the park.  As soon as we rounded the next curve, we learned differently as we encountered the first of three groups of bison we would see before leaving the park.
Close encounters of the bison kind
Another animal we saw in large numbers was the black-tail prairie dog.  Seven prairie dog towns have been identified in the South Unit of the park.  Four of these villages occur immediately beside the loop drive.  We had heard from a ranger that coyotes and badgers in the park team up to prey on the pudgy ground squirrels.  For about ten minutes, we watched a badger frantically tossing up piles of dirt as he tried without success to get to some prairie dogs in their burrows.  Perhaps he just needed his hunting partner with him. 
Black tail prairie dogs
The only other wildlife we encountered in any numbers were feral horses.  These wild mustangs have been living in the badlands for several hundred years.  The National Park Service maintains the herd within TRNP at around 100 horses.  Like the wild ponies we saw on Assateague Island, the horses exhibit a diverse array of coat colors and markings.
TRNP mustang who tried to open our car door
One bold young fellow, who tried to bite our car door handle when we lingered near his group a bit too long, had a furry mane and tail, more like the tail of a squirrel or raccoon than a typical long, flowing horse tail.

Before we began making plans for this trip, neither of us ever remember hearing much, if anything, about Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  We're so glad we stumbled upon it and included it on our agenda.  We found the scenery breathtaking and the wildlife encounters engaging and entertaining.

Leaving TR and North Dakota behind, we drove into Montana, spending tonight in Miles City.  Tomorrow we'll drive down to Wyoming for an overnighter in Sheridan to give us time to do a little letterboxing there before returning to Montana for a few days. 

  • Miles driven:  217
  • Letterboxes:  F 1, P 1
  • Weather:  Light rain to cloudy to sunny, 28° to 50°
  • States:  2 (ND, MT)
  • Bison:  153
  • Mustangs:  27
  • Prairie dogs:  406
  • Badgers:  1
  • Coyote:  1
  • Miles:  3,565
  • Gallons of gas:  152
  • Letterboxes:  F 33, P 7
  • States:  12 (GA, SC, NC, TN, KY, IL, MO, KS, NE, SD, ND, MT)
  • Coldest temp:  25°, Topeka KS (Oct. 27) & Bismarck, ND (Nov. 2)
  • Hottest temp:  80°, Gaffney, SC (Oct. 22)
  • Gas price extremes:  $3.30 in Topeka to $3.95 in Lincolnton, NC
  • National parks:  1
  • National battlefields:  3
  • National historic sites:  3
  • State capitols:  3
  • State parks & historic sites:  6
Incredible scenery on the park driving route

Plenty of bison in the park

TRNP Badlands

Where the buffalo roam