I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend much time here when I made my route from Minnesota to Colorado last Spring, but figured I would check it out since it was, after all, a National Park.
It’s rare that a place makes me speechless. Turns out Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of those places. From Painted Canyon (below) to the grasslands and badlands, this turned out to be a magical place for me.
Even my campsite had an amazing view (Sully Creelk State Park, Whitetail Flats campground, site 9). I could just sit outside (if the wind wasn’t going crazy) or look out the back window (if it was) and watch the changing sky and light whenever I wanted.
Early Morning Hike
The best light in the park is early morning or before sunset, the so-called golden hours. And if ever there was a reason for me to be out of bed and on the road by 5:45AM, this park was it. I drove through Medora in the pitch dark, with only the almost-full moon for company. I twisted and turned my way through the few miles of approach to the “good stuff” and got there just as the sun rose high enough to light up the hillsides.
Honestly, I could spend weeks here, capturing sunrise and golden hour at a dozen different view points and overlooks along the loop road through the park. (The loop road isn’t a loop right now due to a road failure, so it’s a 20+ one way, then you turn around and go back).
I stopped for a hike at Buck Hill, after meeting a handful of moose deer grazing by the side of the dirt road that leads to the trailhead. The grasslands here have never been domesticated, so this vista is what all the grasslands in the surrounding areas would have looked like in the 1880s when Roosevelt first visited the area and bison roamed in huge herds.
I walked up to Buck Hill, the highest accessible point in the park and it’s worth the short, steep trail to get there and see 360 degree views. From there, I took an offshoot through the grasslands to get closer to Painted Canyon.
My pictures really don’t begin to capture what this place looks like when you’re standing on the edge of a butte looking out to the horizon and seeing nothing but nature: no humans, no cell towers, no cars, no jets, nothing but silence and space. I began to see why Roosevelt loved it so.
Looking westward, at the top of another viewpoint via a short trail, I couldn’t stop staring at the view. It’s rare in this modern world to see so far and so wide. I had to stand there for a while letting my head adjust to the scale of the view before me. I turned around slowly, 360 degrees of nature surrounding me, with not another soul in sight. It was glorious.
When I was growing up, desert was never something I was interested in, but now, for whatever reasons, I find it fascinating. Maybe it’s the expanse, the isolation, the openness. I find the subtle colors beautiful and the textures endlessly wonderful. My camera and I couldn’t stop taking photos of every vista that presented itself.
I saw a ton of prairie dogs (which are the cutest things out there) and a few coyotes and exactly two bison. But the most fun was spotting three of the hundred or so wild horses within the park. My friend Sue loves the ponies, so I thought of her when I took this shot. And loved how it could have been a scene from a hundred years ago, when herds of wild ponies roamed the prairies and badlands.
My last full day in the park, I went back to the Painted Canyon visitor center and did the short but steep and challenging nature trail (1 mile or so, but with a lot of elevation and steps cut into the rocks, so it’s definitely not easy).
The trail is worth it for the gorgeous views. It is, hands down, the best way to see all the colors of Painted Canyon and vistas of the badlands.
Just look at this. I literally don’t have any words to say.
I had a long way to drive on transit day, but I couldn’t resist one last sunrise. Yep, this was the view out my bedroom window first thing in the morning. I already miss that campsite.
I’ve already got this place on my “gotta get back here” list, along with ideas for photography locations and times. I’d like to visit when the weather isn’t stinking hot so I could stay at Cottonwood campground (no hookups). That place is is inside the park, closer to the views, and that’s always a good thing to me. And I want to explore the North Unit, since this visit I only saw the South Unit of the park.
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There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.