Exploratory Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Matt and I decided to diversify.  For the last several years we've had an almost single-minded focus on outdoor adventures in Yellowstone.  But we know that there are innumerable glorious places to explore.  Yellowstone is friggin' awesome.  No question.  But it isn't the only place that's awesome by a long shot.  So, we're planning some hiking and camping trips this year that take place in a wider range of locations.
It was with this in mind that we recently took an exploratory weekender in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Matt had read good things about backpacking options, relatively low visitation rates, and beautiful badlands landscapes in TRNP, a lovely jewel hidden in plain sight in western North Dakota.  Going backpacking is one of our 2017 outdoor resolutions and we thought this might be a keen early season location--with relatively lower elevation and a more exposed arid climate both of which contribute to clearing the snow earlier in the season.
Feral horses, remnants of free ranging ranch stock, roam about in TRNP.  
We ended up driving the entire 36 mile scenic loop in the South Unit while taking several exploratory short hikes along the way (and a couple overlooks, too).
The only one I'd advise skipping was the first one--Skyline Vista.  The sign said it was a nice overlook of the Little Missouri River, but it was mostly an overlook of the interstate.  (Sidebar:  I-94 runs along the southern edge of the park and even through it for a minute.  That was strange to me, however once we drove just a few miles in we couldn't hear the traffic noise.  This is part of what makes me say the park is "hidden in plain sight."  So many people just drive right by...)

After Skyline the park just kept getting better and better.

Scoria Point is actually not scoria.  That's one thing we learned during our stay.  It is, in geologic terms, clinker--though locally it is called scoria because they look an awful lot a like.  Scoria is an igneous rock, formed by volcanoes.  Clinker is a metamorphic rock formed when a vein of subterranean coal starts on fire.  It burns underground and, essentially, bakes the layer of bentonite clay and other sediments above it into pottery.  Beautiful red stone pottery.  How cool is that?!
Ridgeline Trail
This loop is just a shade over half a mile and was a rather nice introduction to the park ecosystem and landscape.  Using the full-color informational booklet provided at the trailhead we followed the trail imaging ourselves traversing the badlands by wagon train or learning about how native plants have evolved to survive in such an arid place.  It was notable how the plants changed depending on whether we were looking at a north or south facing hill.  We'd not seen any flowers along the first section of the trail, but as soon as we looped around to the opposite side we hit a carpet dotted with pasqueflowers.  We learned there is a kind of juniper we'd never heard of--Creeping Juniper-and it does just that, creeping and sprawling out along the ground, remaining just inches high.  It was cool. Matt and I are both pretty big fans of this sort of self-guided nature education.
It rained off and on all weekend.
Pasqueflowers are some of my favorites--and some of the earliest to arrive each year.
Matt pointed out how deep the root of the various prairie grasses were, especially in contrast to the sod we've been ripping up recently in our garden expansion.  It was quite interesting.
Old East Entrance Station
This was a really neat and easy little hike through a rather enormous prairie dog town to a cool old, stone building that once served as the entrance to TRNP.  With the construction of I-94 the entrance was moved and a portion of the old highway abandoned.  It was beautiful out, albeit a bit nippy when the wind was blowing, as it did intermittently all day.  We had a pit stop at the old entrance station, basking in the beauty and conducting a thorough examination of the building's exterior.  Those early park buildings are so charming and fit so well with the natural landscape.  Then we hiked back out the way we came.  The whole thing is less than a mile round-trip.  While the views were better at Buck Hill and Boicourt this Old Entrance Station hike was my favorite stroll of the weekend.
They really do bark like little dogs.  Run like them, too.
Sometimes I am so full of good cheer I have to do a headstand.
Matt pretended to be a park visitor of yore driving a Model-T through the old park entrance gate.  He's silly and fun. 
I thought the bits of rock pressed into the mud looked like a mosaic work of art.
Coal Vein Trail
This loop--also under a mile round-trip--was scenic enough, but the real draw is the bizarre geologic and topographic changes that have taken place there.  In 1951 a lightning strike ignited a 12 foot thick underground layer of lignite coal.  It then burned and smoldered away down there for the next 26 years.  Isn't that crazy?!  Apparently some park visitors during that time roasted marshmallows over the steaming ground.  This is, of course, the process that results in the previously described clinker rock.  In the aftermath of the fire the ground in the area collapsed in on itself because the 12 feet of coal was no longer down there to support the surface layers.  Another highly informative and interesting full-color booklet at the trailhead walked us through the area, pointing out cool details and features including the naturally occurring "chimney rocks" which are born where a crack in the earth permits fresh oxygen down to feed the underground fire.  The flames then bake the surrounding rocks with incredibly high heat.  The chimneys are some of the strongest clinker around as a result--so strong they doesn't erode as readily.  It wasn't necessarily the prettiest hike of the day, but it sure was fascinating.  And there at least three different purple flowers, so that was pretty.
The dark layer about half way up in the lignite coal layer, albeit not a 12 foot thick layer.  This one was probably only a couple feet thick.  Lignite is considered a low grade coal with minimal heat value.
A chimney monument to the coal vein fire.
Buck Hill
Buck Hill is the second highest point in the park and the highest point that is readily accessible.  It was also probably our favorite scenic point--though the view at Boicourt Trail is a close contender.  At 2,855 feet above sea level Buck Hill is a whole five (or ten, depending on who you ask) feet shorter than the nearby Peck Hill--the highest point.  To call this a "hike" is a bit of a stretch in my opinion.  A very short (like, .1 mile short) and reasonably steep "trail" (more like stairs) leads up from the parking area to a collection of flat rocks at the top of Buck Hill.  This makes a very natural place to sit and stare, soaking it all in.  The badlands go on and on and on all around--360 degrees of breathtaking.  We hiked on past this stone overlook and found a nice, almost sandy place to sit and take in a slightly different view.  Both were very lovely indeed and we had the place to ourselves.
So. Many. Layers.
Boicourt Trail/Overlook
The Boicourt Trail is wide and flat with an almost perfectly level grade--since it is handicap accessible--leading to some gorgeous views across the badlands.  Technically speaking the hike is only .3 miles round-trip, but Matt and I continued on at the more primitive footpath that emerged once the maintained, accessible portion ended.  We sat out on a point with a most stunning panoramic views of green southern-facing hills and an almost white, sun-baked gully below.  We laid there until the winds picked up, racing over us since we were rather exposed.  The return hike follows the same route back to the parking area, but as we approached we saw that several horses had moseyed over to graze.  We had to leave the trail to give them a proper distance, not wanting to startle them away, and sure enjoyed their company.  With a backdrop of endless badlands I sure felt like I was part of the wild, open West.  It seemed timeless.
Yellow Violets
Wind Canyon Trail
Wind Canyon is aptly named.  It was indeed windy and the canyon walls are beautifully molded by that energy.  The park newspaper says it has the, "best view of the Little Missouri River the South Unit has to offer."  From what I saw of the South Unit I am inclined to heartily agree.  It kicked the crap out of that Skyline Vista, that is for sure.  The short trail--under half a mile round-trip--follows the edge of the cliff overlooking the river making for some gorgeous sights as we strolled along.  The sunlight bouncing off the smooth, winding river was truly lovely.  The sculptures wind-carved into the rocks were just bafflingly beautiful.  After hiking out to the last overlook we stopped and let the wind blow as we listened and observed the huge landscape before us, knowing it was the end of our day--and what a good day it had been.  
Peaceful Valley Ranch
We stopped, briefly, at Peaceful Valley Ranch basically to observe some more of the feral horses--including an adorable little auburn foal that had caught my eye.  The ranch was used as base of operations for horse trailrides through the park from the early 1900s through 2014.  The ranch house is the only original ranch house still standing in the South Unit and was charming, in that classically worn-looking farmhouse style.
We almost stopped and had dinner at the ranch as there were picnic tables and the horses were so fun to watch, but in the end we weren't quite ready for dinner so kept on--heading into Medora to buy a six-pack before returning to camp for the evening.  We did get distracted by this neat historical city park on our beer run.  It is the remnants of a failed meatpacking plant endeavor which was operating by the fall of 1883, but closed for good by 1886 (Though the building was used for storage until 1907 when it burned down.)  We found a flock of turkey vultures at roost in the trees there, too.
While in TRNP we camped at Cottonwood Campground which was perfectly adequate for our needs.  It was in the off-season still so there were only vault toilets and limited water options, but we knew that coming in and were prepared.  We did foolishly choose a site rather far from the only open outhouse...but, oh well.  We liked the seclusion the site offered, tucked back in the trees and away from our neighbors.  I will say that I do not enjoy raised BBQ grill style fire pits.  They're not as warm or pleasant to sit around since the heat is already elevated a few feet off the ground.  It is also more precarious since the grill was open on the front.  A couple times we had large embers or even a burning chunk of wood fall out of the grate onto the ground below.  Seems safer (not to mention warmer) if they're not elevated or if they're completely surrounded by the fireproof barrier.  They are the perfect height for warming cold buttocks if you're standing though.  All that said I'm sure they're easier for park staff to clean and they certainly prevent people from having raging bonfires in the campground.  So, there is that.
On the drive home we laid some plans for a future trip.  Or maybe a couple future trips.  It seems like an excellent place to bicycle and there were a few different shuttle-style day hikes/backpacking trips we could enjoy if we left our car at one trailhead and cycled to the other.  Things like the Jones Creek Trail or the Lower Tarkington Trail.  We also really want to check out that petrified forest.  Our weekender also proved that TRNP would, indeed, be a keen place to go backpacking.  We'll be back!
Along the way we ID'd 15 bird species and four mammals, as listed below:
Pronghorn Antelope
American Bison
Feral Horses
Black-tailed Prairie Dog
American Crow
Downy Woodpecker
Bald Eagle
Wild Turkey
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Kestrel
Northern Harrier
Canada Goose
Mountain Bluebird
Spotted Towhee
Northern Flicker
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk
American Robin
Western Meadowlark
We also spotted the recycling bins, of course!!  Hooray for recycling glass in North Dakota when you can't easily recycle it in even the largest of Montana's cities!


  1. Replies
    1. Ha! Right?! I was worried it might be TOO epic. One of my longest for sure! Also, epic on content--oh, nature!!--never ceasing to dazzle me.


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