The small Badlands town of Medora in Western North Dakota is the gateway to the state's #1 tourist attraction — the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This area is a picturesque flat desert landscape broken out by petrified wood and rock formations.
As we were traveling on Interstate 94 through Western North Dakota, the gently rolling hills opened up dramatically into the varied and colorful layers of the badlands in an area, known as the Painted Canyon. It went far into the ND landscape.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park comprises 3 geographically separated areas of the ND badlands covering 70,446 acres of land in three sections: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
Over thousands of years, the Little Missouri River and its tributaries cut through the soft sedimentary layers of the northern Great Plains. Flowing water along with wind, ice, and plants continue this erosive action. The land is in constant transition. To learn about what caused these formations, visit this NPS website, which provides a detailed explanation.
Why is the area called the badlands?
The North American tribe, the Lakota, were the first to call the area mako sica or "land bad" because of the extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain. In the early 1900's, French-Canadian fur trappers called it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or "bad lands to travel through.” The name has remained to this day.
Roosevelt first came to the North Dakota badlands to hunt bison in September 1883. During that first short trip, he fell in love with the rugged lifestyle and the "perfect freedom" of the West. He invested $14,000 in the Maltese Cross Ranch.
After the sudden deaths of both his wife and his mother on the same day in February 1884, Roosevelt returned to his ranch seeking solitude and healing. That summer, he started a second cattle ranch, the Elkhorn Ranch, but a blizzard decimated the herd in 1886. Roosevelt wrote about his Western experiences in pieces published in eastern newspapers and magazines.
Roosevelt's later credited his ND experiences as the basis for his pursuit of conservation and preservation efforts. As the 26th U.S. President (1901-1909), he established the U.S. National Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which prevented looting of archaeological and Native American structures and objects, under which he proclaimed 18 national monuments. He worked with Congress to create 5 national parks, 150 national forests, and dozens of federal reserves, over 230 million acres of protected lands.
In 1947 by U.S. President Harry Truman established a National Memorial Park to provide a place for visitors to experience Roosevelt's beloved badlands. It was the only such National Memorial Park ever established.
In 1978, the park's designation was changed to Theodore Roosevelt National Park due to boundary adjustments and the establishment of 29,920 acres of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness.
It's the only American national park named directly after a single person. It received 708,003 visitors in 2017 and is open year-round but some roads may close in the winter months. Services are limited from October to May; summer is the best time to visit.