“A desolate, grim beauty of its own…”

As summer starts to wind down and kids head back to school, I’m reflective of the fun summer events, particularly a family vacation out West. It is a familiar route to those in this area that many travel at least once in their lifetime. This route is driving through South Dakota to see the Badlands, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and everything else that that little corner has to offer. What we did differently than most was to head north for the return trip and drive through North Dakota.

It has been my experience that North Dakota doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. While it isn’t as tourist-centered as South Dakota, it still has quite a bit to offer with roadside attractions and its only national park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. What we experienced in that park was incredible beauty and one man’s passion for conserving that beauty in North Dakota and throughout the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt courtesy of the Library of Congress

Theodore “Teddy, TR” Roosevelt was born October 27, 1858. From a young age Teddy was interested in the natural world, collecting plants and animals in order to study them. The onset of this fascination started when he came across a dead seal at a local market and began to ask questions about it. He was able to obtain the skull and thus began the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” – in Teddy’s bedroom. Around this time his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., helped to establish the American Museum of Natural History and Teddy’s love for zoology would continue to grow, particularly ornithology, the study of birds. Teddy would go on to study taxidermy under one of John James Audubon’s students and ultimately donate 622 carefully preserved bird skins to the Smithsonian.

At the age of 25 Roosevelt would make his first trip to what was then the Dakota Territory (now North Dakota) to hunt bison before the species disappeared. This trip would be the catalyst to alter Roosevelt’s life and spur his conservation efforts even more. While his hunting habits may have been somewhat excessive (after a year-long African safari he sent back 11,400 “specimens” to the Smithsonian), Roosevelt viewed hunting more as an opportunity to gain knowledge about the animals and their habitats, and grieved over the loss of them.

As an adult, conservation became one of Roosevelt’s main priorities. In 1901 Roosevelt became our 26th president and used that jurisdiction to protect wildlife and public lands, becoming known as the “conservation president.” Through his efforts he created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments after signing the 1906 American Antiquities Act. During Roosevelt’s presidency he protected approximately 230 million acres of public land.1 

In honor of Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation President Truman established the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. On November 10, 1978, President Carter changed its status to national park. Out of 63 national parks, TRNP falls at 32 with most visits. In 2022, it received 668,679 visitors. That’s a reasonable amount but when compared to its southern cousin, which received 1,006,809, that’s quite a difference. Of note, neither of these parks are anywhere near the Grand Canyon which came in at 4,732,101 (ranked number 2 most visited park) or the surprising (to me) number 1 park, Great Smoky Mountains, which had 12,937,633 visitors last year!2

Author looking out onto Theodore Roosevelt National Park

So, what is so special about TRNP? First, a brief description of the South Dakota Badlands, which are a mecca of stone and light. While I haven’t seen the great parks out West (i.e. Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce) my feeling is that the Badlands somehow got misplaced and would be better suited for that desert environment. Now, when comparing the North Dakota Badlands (located in TRNP), these badlands are richer, lusher. It’s almost as if the Badlands and the Black Hills merged together. There are still the unique stone formations but there’s also prairie grass and trees and the Missouri River.

Buffalo that was about 50 feet away from the author.

Now for the park itself, it is actually broken up into three units: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit (one of Roosevelt’s former ranches). These three units contain 70,446 acres with about an hour’s drive between the North and the South.

The South Unit is near Medora, and is the more visited of the two with a nice visitor center, gift shop and museum. The drive through the South Unit was pretty, and we saw some wild horses, but I would strongly urge you to drive up to the North Unit. It’s there that you might be surprised to find a single buffalo standing about 50 feet away from you. You can take a trail where it’s truly just you and the prairie dogs and you see the physical evidence of buffalo having recently walked through. You are surrounded by grass and “mountains” and open sky and you feel so inconsequential. My words and pictures will never be able to do it justice. It’s something you need to experience for yourself, and I strongly encourage you to do just that.

Perhaps Teddy said it best, “The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth….I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me.”3

From Our Catalog


  1. Information given by the National Park Service on the TRNP brochure given at the park, and also found on the park’s website.
  2. Statistics provided by the National Park Service.
  3. Quotation from Theodore Roosevelt found at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park website.

The banner image is from the National Parks Service website. Click the image to see the stunning full panoramic view!