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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

Dakota: Legend Country (Part 1)

The Badlands, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


Golden sunset to the west, icy orange fingers of a snow storm to the north, extending southward in a spectacle of color. Racing against the setting sun, I was eastbound on I-94 questioning whether this was Montana or North Dakota. For miles the badlands had flirted in between farms and prairies, and I was eager to get to a campsite - there was no way of knowing what the storm had to offer.

Topping a rise I saw it, glimmering in all its glory: “Welcome to North Dakota. Be Legendary.” A slogan properly said with a raspy cowboy accent.

Montana / North Dakota Border - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Chills of excitement ran all over my body. I’d crossed all of Montana eager for this moment: I’d just entered my 49th state. Wide open, beautiful sky littered with dreamlike clouds, the ghosts of storms hundreds of miles away.

Rolling past resting buffalo, huge in my headlights. Prairie dogs dashing in the fading twilight. Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the heart of North Dakota’s badlands. After a long day on the road, pulling into camp along the Little Missouri River was incredibly calming. Like the reaching hand of a ghost falling short, the mid-October storm faded to a relatively warm riverside grove of cottonwood trees.

"The Badlands 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.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Named after the legend himself, the National Park covers 70,446 acres of Elysian badlands lined with creeks and governed by prairie dogs. It is home to wild horses, bison, and an entire orchestra of birds. I pulled into my campsite on a flood plain in the badlands underneath the famed Dakota wind. “All that barb-ed wire sure don’t stop the wind!” I was told by a rosy cheeked woman bagging my groceries in a Glendive, Montana store. The wind is very real in those high plains, and I could feel it haunting the tops of the hills all around.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

I awoke in my tent to birds singing through the trees, and the grunting of a bison off by the riverside. Morning coffee in hand, I watched the herd roam its way north away from the campground as I thought of the American Bison’s near extinction toward the end of the 1800s.

Due to overhunting, the Bison went from a population somewhere between 30-60 million before the American expansion west, to only 325 wild bison remaining by 1884. The rapidly approaching extinction was of growing concern to conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt. In 1905, The American Bison Society was founded to restore and protect this symbol of the American West - Teddy Roosevelt was named its Honorary President.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

It was Roosevelt’s love for bison and the Badlands of North Dakota that led to Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park being created by President Truman in 1947. In 1978, President Carter designated the memorial as a National Park. Today the park’s population of bison is roughly 600, a number kept purposefully low to ensure protections to the habitat and other animal residents. From 1956 to 2016, a total of 3,752 bison have been distributed from TRNP to places all over the country - 15 different states, 67 tribes/reservations, three zoos, two national parks, and a museum. The bison from North Dakota are helping to conserve the species nationwide.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has three units: North Unit, South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The North Unit is distinctly more desolate as it is 68 miles north of the South Unit (which is just off I-94). The badlands in the north are more dramatic, the Little Missouri cuts deeper, creating taller formations and aiding geologic diversity. As a tribute to the historic cattle industry in the area, the park maintains a herd of Longhorn Steer in the north unit. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is the former site of Roosevelt’s cabin, abandoned in 1887 after drought and blizzards destroyed his herds... sending him back to New York to continue his career in politics.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The South Unit would be my home for two more nights, winter ominously all around as I peered up at more frosty fingers, wondering when the icy hammer would drop. But no matter what, I was going to explore the badlands with excitement to match a young Roosevelt. I mounted my four wheeled horse and galloped off toward the 36 mile scenic loop. A wonderland of geology and wildlife lay in this beautiful land, around each turn in the road a new point of interest. It wasn’t so much of a Scenic Drive tour as it was more of an adventure through time, in an environment so unique I questioned its reality.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The park is home to 185 different bird species, each season starring a different cast as migratory birds make their tour up and down the Americas. I was lucky to spot two prairie falcons looming over a prairie dog town, sending the townfolk into a pandemonium as they scrambled to safety. Buffalo in rush hour traffic clogged the road, paying no mind to the cars ooh-ing and aww-ing at their daily commute.

Suddenly I saw a band of wild horses galloping at my speed, playing in an open spot beside multicolor hills, freedom incarnate majestically dancing alongside me. TRNP is one of the few parks where you can see free roaming horses - the descendants of branded horses that eluded capture in a 1954 roundup. The Park Service tried to remove all horses but failed, deciding in 1970 to allow them to range freely in the park as a reminder of what it was like in Teddy’s time. Observing the beautiful offspring of outlaw horses dancing along the road was an eternal moment, something I shall not forget, the hallmark of my North Dakota experience.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

I watched two windswept sunsets from atop Buck Hill, elevation 2855 feet - the highest point in the park, with a beautiful view looking west at a backlit sentinel butte over the Little Missouri National Grassland. All around me, the badlands were painted in golden light. I found myself surprised by North Dakota’s beauty, expecting to be let down after exploring the Rockies, but there is a special sense of freedom that comes from the harsh beauty of the region.

Sunset over Buck Hill, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Breathing in gratitude for such a beautiful experience in the cold wind, my gut dropped as I saw a massive bison in a solitary nomadic graze. Sunlight shimmering on horns, fur, and hide. Pure luck brought this moment to fruition, I thought, as I observed the beautiful beast and dreamed of what it was like to be a frontiersman in the golden era of the bison.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

On my last night in Cottonwood Campground I zipped into my sleeping bag, listening to a Great-Horned Owl call to the dark as a rainstorm began. North Dakota branded my heart, leaving me with a new near-magical lust for life. I fell asleep with the voice of Teddy playing in my mind:

“I have always said I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”

— Theodore Roosevelt, 1918.

Soon I’d encounter the face of Teddy Roosevelt, 60 feet high - But South Dakota is an adventure better told next week...


Next week, Scott journeys into South Dakota - Check back in every Monday for more by Scott Carnahan on the Pathloom blog!


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