Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota’s hidden gem

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK, N.D. – An hour or so before sunset the landscape reflects a refracted prism hue. The colors are a pale rainbow in scattershot, with pinks, blues, reds, purples, yellows and endless variations reflecting from the rocks, which are something of a time capsule in vertical.

The Badlands sweep across the horizon in a freeze frame, the result of an eon of erosion. They are dazzling anytime, but shimmer when the sun touches the horizon. It’s prettier than I’m describing.

If you don’t count the wind, all is silence, reflective and lonesome but without a trace of loneliness.

That’s not why Theodore Roosevelt came in September 1883, a 24-year-old New Yorker brimming with confidence. He came to hunt buffalo, which he did with success. He also bought a ranch and decided to become a cattleman and a cowboy. The newly installed Western businessman then returned to New York, where heartbreak awaited.

A few months later, on Valentine’s Day 1884, both Roosevelt’s mother and wife died. Later that year he returned to the Dakota Territory, not to hunt, but to heal in the land’s silence and solitude.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is spread across three North Dakota tracts that swallow 70,477 acres of natural wildness. The park is named for the president who established five national parks and birthed the country’s conservation movement. It’s a fitting monument.

The North Unit covers a little more than 24,000 acres, adjoins Highway 85 and is split by the Little Missouri River, which, depending on rainfall and runoff ranges from rivulet to torrent. The South Unit is located about 70 miles due south, is nearly twice as large at 46,159 acres, and attracts more visitors thanks to I-94, which hugs the park on the south side.

The 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch Unit, a spot on the Little Missouri River Roosevelt purchased for $400 in 1884 and about halfway between the North and South units, became his Dakota home, which Roosevelt recalled fondly.

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