When Theodore Roosevelt stood atop Buck Hill near Medora and looked over the Badlands stretching out before him, he could not have imagined it would one day be part of a national park named in his honor. But he did know a good thing when he saw it.
Roosevelt made conservation a priority and played a key role in the creation of the National Park Service. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration creating the service, and this summer, the nation is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service with events at all 411 sites managed by the National Parks System in the United States.
Record crowds are expected in the most-visited parks likeYosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokey Mountains. Others, like Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), are expecting larger-than-average visitation, but they’re also hoping to host visitors traveling to nearby parks like Yellowstone and Glacier.
“We’re already seeing a 35 percent increase in visits over last year’s visitation numbers,” North Dakota Group Superintendent Wendy Ross says. “President Roosevelt and the park have received international attention this year because he played a critical role in the creation of the National Park Service.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Of course, TRNP is the crown jewel of sites in North Dakota. It’s location in the Badlands on Interstate 94 and Highway 85, the abundance of wildlife and scenic sites, and its ease of access make it a welcome relief from the thousands of daily visitors to larger parks.
In 1883, the man who would become the 26th president of the United States and play a vital role in conserving great places for future generations, surveyed the rugged land where he planned to hunt bison. By the end of that hunting trip, Roosevelt had entered into a partnership for a cattle ranch.
When his wife and mother died on the same day in 1884, nothing was left to keep Roosevelt in the East, so he headed to North Dakota and the Elkhorn Ranch. Adventurous visitors can still walk around the ranch site, located between the North and South units of TRNP. It remains rustic as a tribute to the hard life of Roosevelt and the cowboys in the Badlands.
TRNP’s North Unit is accessible off Highway 85 south of Watford City. The TRNP North Unit Scenic Byway through the unit roughly parallels the Little Missouri River. Several overlooks give visitors panoramic views of the deep valley. The North Unit is known for its spectacular tracts of wilderness and miles of rugged terrain to hike.
The South Unit at Medora is the more-visited unit in the park, due to its location along Interstate 94 and more amenities. A 36-mile loop through the park leads to several points of interest, through herds of bison, a prairie dog town and rugged land that is home to deer, coyotes, elk, eagles and more.
“The word is out that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a world-class site in both beauty and recreational opportunities,” Ross says. “But we invite people who visit to stay in the area and venture out to the less-visited parks in the region.”
Roosevelt and the park are being celebrated nationwide during the National Park Service’s centennial, and the park is even being featured on one of 16 U.S. Postal Service stamps commemorating the National Park Service. The stamp set was released in a “first day of issue” ceremony on June 2 in New York City at this year’s World Stamp Show. A smaller ceremony for the park-specific stamp simultaneously took place in Medora.
This summer, Roosevelt is set to take another permanent place in the Badlands when the United States Mint unveils the Theodore Roosevelt National Park quarter on National Park Service’s Founder’s Day, August 25. The America the Beautiful quarter will feature Roosevelt overlooking the Badlands and the Little Missouri River. The park was the only United States national park on the New York Times’ list of “52 Places to go in 2016.” Additionally, the designation of the bison as the national mammal has created interest with wildlife enthusiasts, bison preservationists and tribes.
Ross says TRNP is focusing on promotion of its wildlife, scenic beauty and ease of access compared to other prominent parks in the region. “We are showcasing what we already do for the year-long Centennial celebration,” Ross says. “Relevancy is really important to us as we look toward the future of park stewardship and support. We’re creating unique centennial experiences that connect the public with these special places.”
That applies to the National Park Service’s other North Dakota parks, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site and Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Both of these sites are located on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, which stretches from Missouri to Oregon. The North Country Scenic Trail, running from New York to North Dakota, is a spectacular recreational trail and also a National Park Service site.
Visitors to North Dakota are encouraged to stop at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site east of Williston and Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site at Stanton. “These historic sites are some of my favorite places to visit,” Ross says. “The smaller parks are able to give visitors an individualized experience based on their interests and abilities. There are countless adventures to have with your desired level of interpretation at your own pace. The diversity of activities provided throughout the year is worth investigating.”
Fort Union Trading Post
Fort Union, which is celebrating its 50th year as a recognized national park site, was the primary fur trading post on the Upper Missouri River between 1828 and 1867. Hugh Glass (of the movie The Revenant) was a hunter for the post, which stands guard on the banks of the Missouri River along the North Dakota-Montana state line.
“History buffs enjoy being at a place where things took place,” says Fort Union Superintendent Andy Banta. “Families see it as an educational opportunity with park staff in living history costumes – people can still visualize what the area looked like in the mid 1800s.”
Banta says The Revenant has hand an impact on visitors. “A surprising number of visitors mention the movie and appreciate putting the story in some context,” he says. “It did not hurt that one of our staff (Loren Yellow Bird) helped with the Arikara dialogue. He has gotten pretty famous. We have had people here this winter and spring just because of the movie.”
Banta says being somewhat off the most-traveled routes in and through North Dakota is the highest hurdle. “We’re not on the main path, that is our biggest problem,” he says. “Our hook is the kids who bring mom and dad to Fort Union.”
Several large events during the summer take visitors back to the heyday of the fur trade. “The idea of peaceful co-existence benefitted both sides. For 40 years there was peaceful co-existence and an opportunity for different cultures to get along,” he says.
Fort Union is south of Highway 2 in the northwestern part of the state.
Ross says recent history provides parks with another opportunity to diversify their audiences, as people from many areas flocked to western North Dakota for the oil boom. “Growing populations in North Dakota provide a perfect opportunity for us to reach out to people from culturally diverse groups and newly populated population centers. Twenty countries are represented in one local school. People are looking for recreation and educational outlets in their new communities,” Ross stated.
Knife River Indian Villages
Knife River Indian Villages, meanwhile, came into prominence in 1804 when Lewis and Clark made winter quarters at nearby Fort Mandan and met a young Native American woman named Sakakawea. The explorers convinced Sakakawea and her husband, Charbonneau, to accompany them to the Pacific. And a legend was born.
Knife River makes it a point to promote attractions like the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn. “A large percentage of visitors have been there or are going there,” says Knife River Superintendent Craig Hansen. “We hope we can get them set up to go to the next place.”
Knife River, with its earth lodge depressions, visitor center and hiking trails is important for its Native American, Corps of Discovery and natural history. Located near Highway 83, Highway 200 and the Missouri River, Knife River is centralized and easy to reach.
“We get a lot of one-time visitors,” Hansen says. Instead of relying on repeat visitation to Knife River, Hansen is taking Knife River to potential visitors through outreach and distance learning activities. The park recently held a research event in which 30 researchers worked with area seventh and eighth graders to do research at the site. Later, some 2,000 fourth graders will descend on the park over the course of the two-week “Lifeways of the Northern Plains” educational program.
Through word of mouth and the centennial, Hansen is hoping to see more traffic. “We expect an increase in visitation. We get a lot of people just traveling through the state,” Hansen says. “We do get people to come to special events, so we’re thinking we can use the centennial to engage local people from the area to visit repeatedly. Some people think we went there once and we’ve done all there is to do. Or, they’ve lived here a long time and never made it here.”
International Peace Garden
The International Peace Garden has the same visitation issue as Fort Union, in that it’s well off most of the heavily traveled routes in the state. Both, however, are worth the time to see. Located on the border of the United States and Canada, the Peace Garden is a heavily wooded floral paradise where visitors can stand in two countries at one time and travel free back and forth.
The garden includes Peace Poles, a cactus garden at the interpretive center, water gardens, a floral clock and more. The garden was dedicated in 1932, about half a century after Teddy Roosevelt first gazed out over the Badlands.
The National Park Service does not manage the garden, but it is an affiliated site and has historically had funding and support ties to the agency.