In the Land of St. Teddy

One of the major stops of the five-week Geowoodstock to TBEX expedition was Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit). As I mentioned in the post on Medora, the Dakotas were a slow-travel priority for us. After not really getting out of the Land of Leopold what I’d hoped, I was bent on making sure I gained more understanding of this land that had such an impact on another of America’s conservation icons.

Gateway to the granola mecca that is Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Grand Entrance…

So I was a ball of twitchy excitement as the land played temptress to my psyche. With each passing mile that brought us closer to the park, I caught glimpses of what was to come and I was beside myself, the latent geologist in me screaming to be set free in the Badlands. But when we arrived at the park entrance in Medora, the ranger informed us that campsites were filling up and we needed to secure our spot fairly quickly.

Imagine the torment! Instead of soaking up the first air, sun, and visions of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in slow tranquility, we had to blitz to the campground for set up. Needless to say, the stunning five-mile drive to the campground was a dichotomy of amazement and torture for me. I had to embrace a temporary mantra: I’ve got four days, I’ve got four days, I’ve got four days…

Just a glimpse of the epic drive to the Cottonwood Campground.

Epic Camp…

And then we got to the Cottonwood campground…aaaah! This will likely rank among my favorites of all time…forever.

Nestled in a stand of cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River, the campground is sheltered from the heat of the Badlands by its namesake trees. Many of the sites back up to the river and we managed quite a nice one with quick access to its wide, cool, shallow waters. Having secured our temporary home, I had to take a moment to soak it all in before getting to the business of camp life. Standing on the shore of the Little Missouri, it was absolutely clear why St. Teddy chose this place to heal his wounded soul after the loss of his wife and mother. If you can’t find peace here, I can’t imagine you’ll find it anywhere.

For Fred and George this campground was a delight as well. Obviously just the scenery alone is quite a change from our home base in the lush southeast. But when wild horses and bison go strolling through your camp, that’s when it really hits you that you’re not in Georgia anymore. And we’ve certainly camped along rivers before but the Little Missouri is a completely different beast from the moss-covered boulder strewn creeks in our area. The boys ran, and ran, and ran… (and ran, and ran, and ran…) through the Little Missouri’s gentle waters, soaking up the Badlands on their terms.

Our campground home.
Fred and George enjoying some play time at camp.
Could it get much better than a full moon over camp?
Just a few steps behind camp…


For all of the miles of trails and places to explore in this park, we were obviously hampered by the Disapproving Beagle. Since the pup wasn’t allowed anywhere but the campground and along roads, we could’t really do this park justice in terms of seeing all it has to offer. We knew that going in of course, but that didn’t reduce the anguish I felt for not being able to fully experience a place that was so epic for me.

We did make the best of what we could do though and that meant mainly sticking to the main loop which is about 36 miles long. Make no mistake, it’s an eye-popping drive but it isn’t the backcountry exploration I would undertake otherwise.

Anyway, if you visit the park and all you have time for is the loop, you won’t be disappointed. Over the course of our visit and several times around the loop, we were treated to endless vistas of the Badlands, bison, prairie dogs, and wild horses. This is a land of in-your-face geology in terms of rocks, water, erosion, and landforms and it is a delight to the senses. Which brings me to a little story about my tree. It’s obviously not my tree exactly but the boys call it that now so I’m going to go with it.

Geology is ripe for the exploring here.
George finding his natural inspiration identifying flowers.
A surprise find as we rounded a bend on the big loop.

The tree…

So right about the mid-point of the big loop, there’s a lonely tree perched on an elegantly arching hill. When we came around a corner and saw it standing vigil over the vast valley below, it left my jaw dangling in awe. In fact, I came back twice to try to photograph it in a way that captured its stature. I don’t think I really succeeded but I hope you are at least intrigued enough to go pay it a visit.

At any rate, the story actually lies in my experience shooting this groovy little tree. See, I was standing there on my second day of attempts, moving the tripod about, watching the clouds, zooming in and out, recomposing again and again… when a man in a little white car zipped up next to me, dressed like he’d been at the beach. In an excited voice he queried me on what I was shooting… was it a bison, horses…what?

I stood there looking at him for a moment, very likely in a way that belied my subesquent diplomatic demeanor as I pointed to the surreal tree on the hill and briefly explained my vision. He returned my volley of incredulity with a smirk of disdain and made some comment about thinking I’d found something interesting before he sped off in his ridiculous Hawaiian shirt. *sigh…*

My muse.


Amazing scenery aside, this is also an important place in terms of American history. Not only is it part of the frontier America is famous for, it also shaped one of our most beloved presidents in a profound way.

The museum at the park entrance is small but very effective in providing insight into the life of Theodore Roosevelt. St. Teddy is actually Fred’s favorite president so he soaked this up readily. He only participates in the Junior Ranger program in places that get him really excited and this was one of those places. George almost always claims a Junior Ranger badge so this was one park where we were busy roadschoolers.

I can’t say it enough… to learn about a place, its history, and its ecology while you are actually in that place is to capture its essence in a way that can’t be done from afar. The impact of being there is immeasurable.

It was here that St. Teddy found his peace and his vision.
If you’re ever feeling short on tenacity, just remember this story.
Fred getting sworn in as a Junior Ranger.


One of my mentors, the fabulous Will Clay, recently mentioned the park on his blog as one of the under-rated jewels of America. I couldn’t agree more. Certainly with competition from icons like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, places like the Badlands are bound to be overlooked but I urge you to rank this place with them in terms of natural value. This is not an if-I-have-time place…this is a must-see place.

George agrees… everyone should visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

So much more to go back for…

It’s probably quite clear by now that I have unfinished emotional business with this park. I will most certainly be back and hopefully very soon. As much as I adore our Disapproving Beagle, I must return without him to experience the full magnificence and stark beauty of this place.

Hopefully I’ve swayed you into appreciating this amazing national treasure. If that’s the case, here’s another helpful link to help you plan a visit… User’s guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And as always, information is always best straight from the source…in this case, the National Park Service Theodore Roosevelt National Park website.

And now for your moment of green…

Icon of the west.