After a full-court press from Minnesota and across the entirety of North Dakota, we finally landed in the town of Medora, gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit). This is one of the areas where we wanted to spend more time and so hacked into our Canada time to get it.
Over the course of our four days in the park and in town, we got a pretty good feel for the western kitsch. We arrived on the cusp of the tourist season and the town was gearing up for the onslaught.
It seems much of business around town is run by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation which results in western-themed costumes on many of the staff in restaurants and stores. They all have little nametags, and along with the matching outfits, it gives the town a Disneyesque quality which caught me off-guard. While I do love me some Disney from time-to-time, it initially made it feel like I’d walked into Frontierland. Kind of diminishes authenticity, no? The contrived, hoe-down outfits seemed like a disconnect to me coming from a Foundation that was founded to preserve the western heritage of the badlands, one that prides itself on independence. It was just odd.
Anyway, mini-rant aside, upon our arrival in the land of St. Teddy, the minions and I agreed we should sample the local fare instead of doing a camp dinner…because, quite sadly, I’m even worse at camp cooking than I am at home cooking. Fred and George were stoked at the prospect of pizza the Badlands Pizza Parlor and Saloon right in the middle of town. We obviously couldn’t take the pup in but there were plenty of tables available on the town square so it was pizza-to-go. Only it was just heinous. No two ways about it…this was not good pie. We had to file that one in the at-least-we-didn’t-have-to-cook department.
Left unimpressed with our first meal in Medora, camping food was looking pretty good for the rest of our stay. We did feel adventurous enough to try again one day for lunch while we were in town but alas, it was also disappointing. We’d stopped for a bite at the town square, the bison burgers being so tempting at Maltese Burger.
But yet again, I felt trapped in Disney World with subpar food at exorbitant prices. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice…damm! There simply have to be good restaurants in Medora but we never found them. I’m sure our canine limitations played into that with our choices but still…really?
The only bright spots in our food foibles were the fudge and coffee shops. We picked up some truly magnificent fudge at the Medora Fudge and Ice Cream Depot on our last evening in the area. It won’t be a surprise to you that we had coconut and peanut butter treats in our little box of goodies right?
Well it was so good that we wanted to go back for more before we left. We were foiled however because the shop didn’t open until the afternoon and we had to be on our way in the morning to make it to our next stop. Not that I wasn’t doing some pretty crafty driving calculations on how we could manage it but practicality won the day and we had to set off fudgeless on that final morning.
We did stop by a groovy little coffee shop (who’s name I can’t recall but I think it was on 4th Street) on our way out of town. This let us do a quick camp break and be on the road without having to get through breakfast and cleanup at camp. They had super yummy muffins and we even picked up some treats for later on in the day. (Yes, there was peanut butter involved.) After our lackluster food choices for much of our time in Medora, we were happy to have at least we left on a high note in that regard.
It was at that last stop on the way out of town that we met a delightfully friendly family from Missouri with the cutest travel planning process. It seems they have all the states in a bucket and each person takes a turn drawing a state for their next trip…and off they go, channeling Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” all along the way. They were so cute and much fun to talk to they left me with a big smile. It was one of those “little” travel moments that leaves you feeling light and happy.
Caching our way through Medora…
As you know, we love to explore new places through geocaching. It’s really just a great way to dive into a place for the first time. We logged several caches around Medora but thanks to some fabulous cachers who placed a well-constructed history-themed Medora puzzle cache, we were able to do a geocaching version of a walking, self-guided tour. It was a history lesson as well as and exploration and it took us to the notable landmarks of Medora…
In search of the space cowboy…
So Medora is home to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. While we were drawn to the area by the history of St. Teddy, far be it from us not to explore the deeper cowboy roots of the Badlands and the cowboy museum seemed the place to get started. Plus, they have Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber…an original from the filming if the movie. Yeah, there was no way my turbo-dorks were passing that up!
Well, you know we frequently have to juggle things like this with Dobby in tow and how there’s about zero museums who let pups in. Well, the good folks at the museum took a liking to little Dobby, and given that there was no one else in there at the time, they actually let us bring him in. Epic I tell you! I’m so thoroughly grateful. Maybe there is some independent cowboy thought left in Medora after all… 🙂
As far as the museum goes, Fred and George took in the western history more than I expected them too. The museum exhibits deftly blended historic cowboy stories and modern rodeo. Even though the boys have never really been into the whole cowboy thing (they’re more of the medieval and fantasy types…), they were completely absorbed in the short historical film offered at the museum. This is always a good thing since it’s got an educational spin but it doesn’t come off as a lesson from me. This is just one of the many ways roadschooling totally rocks.
Granted, when it came time to explore the special movie props exhibit, I had to explain the Magnum P.I. gun which made me feel really old. The boys were sufficiently awed by the light saber so as not to really calculate the age of the “relics” in terms of mommy years though.
Playground, western style…
We also discovered an epically cool playground. In keeping with the theme of the area, the town of Medora built the western-styled Medora Children’s Park that the boys loved. The town gets a big granola thumbs up for the story behind the playground too. Volunteers built this intricate playground over one weekend in May 2001, again showing the great things that can happen when people pull together for a common cause.
You probably realize by now that we’re not big shoppers here at Camp Granola. In a place like Medora, shopping is something many visitors do a good bit of however. So as we were moving about town, exploring and geocaching, we did stop in a few shops just to see what we could see.
Fred and George were fond of the Joe Ferris General Store and the Made in the USA Mercantile. It was here that George discovered the card game Top Trumps which he’s become quite taken with. Needless to say after this point in the trip, we played a lot of Top Trumps of both the dog and president varieties.
It was in the Corner Corral that we queried the shop owners about where to do laundry. Locals are a fabulous resource when you’re trying to get the lay of the land in a new place. These particular locals were delightful… the kind of people I could I could hang out and chat with for hours. They shared what it’s like to operate a business in a seasonal area like Medora and it was quite enlightening. It was the kind of authenticity travelers like us hope to find in the places we visit.
Medora caters to the casual tourist in search of western kitsch. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will have a great time. We didn’t partake of the big show in town or do many of the activities offered partly because of the pup and partly because that’s not the reason we came to Medora. Our focus was the park but we did want to at least explore Medora a little and I think we got a good feel for it.
It is certainly a nice place, it’s just not our style. There were obviously things that we didn’t care for but there were things we did like very much. The people were very friendly, we got some rocking fudge, the history is very intriguing and easily explored, the town is lovely to walk around, the Little Missouri River that meanders through is drop-dead gorgeous, etc. So overall, I have a favorable opinion of Medora, you just have to be prepared for what you’re getting into when you go.
Having said that, if you’re looking for a western-themed entertainment vacation, Medora has it going on for you. There really is a lot to do there. The Medora Musical is hugely popular, there are scads of outdoor activities, and there are quite a lot of ways to explore the history of the Badlands and America’s western frontier in general. There are hotels, cabins, and campgrounds to choose from so there’s something for everyone in that respect…
…and if you’re looking to visit the fabulous (and I do mean FAB-U-LOUS) Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit), Medora is the only town around.