North Dakota: America's Forgotten Wonderland
Updated: Jun 9
Unit #26 / 412 - Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Poor North Dakota.
Nope, not North Carolina--that's the one by the ocean. North Dakota.
The state at the top of the great plains, just under Manitoba and Winnipeg.
Oh, still not getting it? Hmmm...
The one with the huge oil boom. With the champion 1-AA college football team. Who tried to change their name to just "Dakota" because they were worried people weren't visiting.
Still doesn't ring a bell?
The one where FARGO was filmed.
Ah, yes, now you know. THAT one.
So often the last in tourists' visit-them-all state campaigns, North Dakota actually gives away free "Save the Best for Last" t-shirts, certificates and pins to anyone who makes it the final stop on their 50 United States sojourn.
But why does North Dakota catch such a bad rap? It's something I wanted to figure out when I finally got to "NoDak" (my 48th of the lower 48 states...).
I approached the state from its eastern neighbor, Minnesota, on Monday August 1. I was outside-of-myself excited to finally check this one off my list, so much so that I actually planned to stop and take a picture with the "Welcome to" sign (something I normally scoff is a tourist cliché).
Approaching the river that separates East Grand Forks from its more famous counterpart, I looked ahead at the road, took in a big breath and...!
...the only state sign was hanging above a one-lane bridge.
I couldn't even stop if I wanted to.
I would be similarly let down when I crossed back over the river the next day, just to try the other main bridge separating the two states.
OK, North Dakota. Batting 0/1, but you haven't struck out yet.
"It's not so much the cold that's hard," said my native Minnesotan friends now living in Grand Forks. "It's more the wind. There's no trees or anything to stop it so it's just relentless."
But it wasn't just the winter's wind. Driving west from Grand Forks to Minot, one of North Dakota's 4 major cities with populations above 46,000, I cursed the wind anytime it hit my van head-on or from the side, then praised it when it boosted my gas mileage by blowing from behind.
While all at once confused how I'd suddenly left the tree-saturated Minnesota for flat fields of sunflowers, the Great Plains that transition from thick woods--as this below map shows--began to peacock their beauty.
"Anyone can love the mountains," my sister's email signature begins, "but it takes a soul to love the prairie."
Driving the over 600 miles it took to reach the next closest national park site, I had plenty of time to learn to love the prairie; along with study the boom towns that created condominiums, trailer parks, and a higher concentration of pickup trucks than I've ever seen, all because of the shale oil discovered among the tall grass.
Those flat grasslands, however, are not all North Dakota has to offer. Though my first stop at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site revealed much of the plains I expected, my next park unearthed, quite literally, the beauty that lay beneath.
Standing on a grassy knoll atop the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the stacked layers of earth proved these mundane plains are anything but. As if judging a cake's taste solely by its frosting, this southwestern corner of North Dakota shows that it is full of flavors worthy a wedding reception.
While the vista game of this park was strong, Theodore Roosevelt endears itself in other breathtaking ways: such as the moment at my first scenic-drive pull out when I yelled, "Andy! Get back in the van! Get back in the van right now! There's a bison coming around the corner."
Taking my own advice, especially given that this was mating season and the bison were prone to be a little more touchy, I jumped in my driver's seat, rolled down the window and let this "Bi-zon" (as a North Dakotan would say it) pass by as it pleased.
Because this is one of the lands protected by glamper (glamorous camper) turned Rough Rider turned conservationist, President Teddy Roosevelt, it provides ample space for wild animals to live freely.
Lands protected by Roosevelt--combined they equal the size of Texas
...or as free as can be with trucks and cameras nearby.
While Teddy Roosevelt's South Unit offered more animal views than the North Unit's vistas, both sections of this National Park showcased a geologic diversity that made every designated overlook, and many a hike, completely worth exiting the van to risk another bison encounter.
Above all, what Theodore Roosevelt National Park shows is that it can be life changing. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote, "I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota."
Where at once he came to this land to hunt bison for sport, after returning to it for comfort following his wife and mother's shared death on Valentine's Day 1884, it changed his perspective on the need to preserve America's natural, healing lands; giving us this and many other parks.
For myself, and likely many future visitors, Theodore Roosevelt National Park can change the perspective of a state. Showing us the beauty we can find when we're willing to embrace that red headed stepchild, the surprises and confirmations that can be discovered apart from news reports, and that, above all, we don't need a free t-shirt to enjoy it.
5 Teddy Roosevelt Highlights (You Can Do)!
1. Caprock Coulee Trail (North Unit)
This 4.1 mile, 3 hour hike was hands down my favorite experience at Teddy Roosevelt Nat. Park. Constantly changing views/topography and geology not only kept me interested and unaware of my forming blisters, but had me shooting almost 500 pictures.
2. Cannonball Concretions Pullout (North Unit)
Nowhere on my trip thus far has looked more like a Star Trek or Jurassic Park movie than this area. Make sure to hike up/in a little ways.
Beam me up, Scotty!
3. Buck Hill (South Unit)
The 2nd highest point in the park, it offers panoramic views of the many places you'll want to see up close. And you can drive almost all the way, so you only have to walk .05 miles to the top (less than 10 minutes round trip!)
4. Shoot Stars
At dark the park tends to clear out, but it's open 24/7, 365 days a year. Take advantage of the lack of light pollution and stay behind with your tripod for some great night photography.
If you're sitting out in the wilderness at night though, it helps to have a buddy :)
See the result of Andy's night photoshoot above!
5. Get Out of Your Car!
So many of the most interesting parts of this park cannot be seen from the road. Do yourself a favor and get onto as many trails as you can. Many are even flat or under a mile.
Can you spot my Vanny McVanface? (read the Transformation of Vanny McVanface if you haven't)
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Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
North Dakota to Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Illinois
-Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
-Pipestone National Monument
-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway
-Effigy Mounds National Monument
-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
-Pullman National Monument
Here's the journey thus far: