"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Badlands of Montana and North Dakota

Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Unit

Who knew there were badlands in Montana and North Dakota? Not us! We always thought THE Badlands were in South Dakota, at Badlands National Park. But now we know that badlands is a generic name for a kind of eroded landscape of soft soils and clays found all over the world.  Interestingly, their color and shape vary depending on their geological history, mineral composition and local climate over time. Thus, the badlands here in Montana and North Dakota are rounded, in shades of grey, beige and yellow (above) while those in South Dakota are more peaked, in pink, gold and brown.

We are in Medora, ND now, having passed through eastern Montana and stopped at Makoshika State Park on our way.  Makoshika is the largest state park in Montana, and based on our visit, one of the best kept secrets in that state.  We saw only a couple of cars during our visit. There is a scenic drive that must be about 6 miles long, but we stopped about half way for a picnic lunch and then headed on our way east.  There is no big rig day use parking at the park, so we left the truck and fifth wheel in a K-Mart in Glendive just off I-94. The park is about 5 minutes from there.

Map from the Makoshia State Park website.

It has been smoky in Montana for weeks from the many fires in the western states, so our photographs are hazy and muted and the skies are always white, but you can still see some variation in the colors of the hills. 

Our destination was Medora and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). We are staying at the Red Trail Campground (which I wouldn't necessarily recommend) and we've been joined here by our good full-timing friends Lynn and Glenn.  The TRNP is another best kept secret, this time of North Dakota and the National Park system. 

Our adventures began with a journey to the North Unit of the park, about 1.5 hours north of Medora, but our first stop was the Visitor's Center at the Painted Canyon, just off I-94, where we were surprised by a herd of bison passing through the parking lot.  You don't get a photo of the national park sign like this very often.

Honey liked the bison too.

Did you ever notice how tiny a bison's feet are? Look at those delicate little hoofers!

After that excitement we passed through the southern edge of the North Dakota "oil patch" where there is evidence of the oil industry in pumps, rigs, temporary housing and commercial enterprises that serve the people here to work.

A very comprehensive truck stop in an otherwise remote landscape.

The smoke was pretty heavy, as you can see in the next photo from an overlook. 

A smoky overlook at the North Unit of TRNP

Closer photos fared better. These are the cannonball concretions that are found within the eroded hills in some areas. The top photo of this post was taken from this location as well.

Another smoky view. Despite how it may look, the landscape is large, colorful and impressive.

Later that day, Lynn and Glenn arrived and we invited them over for dinner. Then I roped them into a full moon hike in the park with a ranger. Being good sports and usually up for anything, they agreed. We got really lucky on our drive to the trailhead and spotted this badger (a first for all of us!) in a prairie dog town.  Although he was really entertaining, running between prairie dog holes and digging around, we had a hike to catch so we headed on.

Then we saw these wild horses and had to stop and watch them. The horses are one of the most frequently seen animals here. In fact there are people who know them all, have named them and can trace their lineage. There's a book published and sold locally that documents them all with photographs and biographical data. 

We passed several bison in groups and alone, but the most picturesque was this herd.

Our full moon hike was a couple of hours long and was off trail most of the way, through grasses, dirt and lots of buffalo and horse droppings. There was some scrambling involved that I might not have tried even in the daylight, but we all got through just fine by helping each other over the rough spots. There were only about 20 people and we used no artificial lights at any time. Although the moon was muted by the smoke, it still offered enough light.   

Next day we loaded up in Glenn and Lynn's truck and headed out for the South Unit Scenic Drive, a loop of about 30 miles. Our first stop was the Visitor's Center and Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin out back. Teddy Roosevelt began coming to the area for hunting, but then retreated to his ranch to recover from the loss of his mother and wife. There are many stories about his time here. After his death the park was eventually created and named for him.

The park has two units, North and South, and both have scenic drives for easy access. There are many  trails, from easy to strenuous, criss-crossing the park.  There is no major elevation change in the park, so the hikes are not like in the Rockies or Sierras.

One of the most visually interesting short hikes is at Wind Canyon, in the South Unit (above and next three pictures)... 

Rick and Lynn on Wind Canyon Trial

...with gorgeous views of the Little Missouri River Valley.

These golden asters line all the roads.

Another rewarding and easy (though hot and without shade) hike is the Boicourt Trail.

Lynn, Glenn and Rick on the Boicourt Trail

Glenn, Lynn and Rick at the summit of the Boicourt Trail

View from the Boicourt Trail

The Boicourt Trail and Overlook both offer quintessential views of the badlands and rolling hills and valleys that are typical of TRNP.

After that hot hike we were ready to head home for an easy cook out and good night's sleep. Then, after a wicked overnight thunderstorm, we finally had blue skies again!!! It seems like ages since we've seen the sky and breathed clean air. What a relief. 

Of course we had to visit the cutesy Western town of Medora several times. The RV park is walking or easy biking distance from town. There are several restaurants, but we only tried the Badlands Pizza and Saloon, twice. We liked their pizza, especially when we asked them to cook it just a tad longer.  The whole town has a Disney feel to it, as much of it (including the Medora Campground, which I would recommend) is owned and operated by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, committed to maintaining the town of Medora for happy visitors. Many employees and volunteers come from around the world to work here during the summers.

Scenes of Medora

In addition to pizza, we had a little good clean fun in Medora.
Rick & Glenn get serious

Lynn finds a new friend

No visit to Medora is complete without taking in an evening at the Medora Musical, a surprisingly high quality Disney-like musical review production in an impressive outdoor setting.  This year they celebrate their 50th anniversary! More good clean fun that leaves you feeling darn good about North Dakota and the USofA.

Lynn and Glenn left this morning but we will stay another couple of days and see what else there is to see here before heading south again. 

A final image from Medora


  1. A great National Park! We stayed at the campground in Medora. I wished we had gone to the show:( I never thought about the bison hooves being so small, but they really are little and dainty! How do they hold up all that animal! Aren't the concretions just the coolest things ever! I was thrilled to discover these.

  2. Love, love, love the bison with the TRNP sign! That is a park on my list but we were afraid it would be too hot at the time we'd want to visit this year...perhaps another year. Those are some beautiful landscapes! The badger sighting sure was an amazing bonus!

    1. Umm, hot? It's 105 here right now. Thank God for AC.

  3. Totally agree with how wonderful TRNP is: the bison, the feral horses, the pronghorns and some of the terrific people next door at our campsite.
    Hope to see you again soon.

    1. You figured out how to leave a comment! What seemed to be the problem? So glad we're in touch neighbor.


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