Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Exploring the South Unit
The dogs in the neighboring campsite barked intermittently throughout the night. Evidently shouting ‘Shut the f### up!’ doesn’t work to quiet them. Hmmm … go figure. On to brighter subjects … we’ve been very fortunate so far with weather. Local folks talked about the high temperatures, humidity and violent storms during the previous week. Downed limbs and branches were still evident in many places. We, on the other hand, have seen pretty moderate temperatures (50s at night/mid-70s during the day) and sunny weather for the most part … until today that is.
We headed the 68 miles south down US-85 to the South Unit through the Little Missouri National Grasslands. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit, the site of Roosevelt’s second ranch, is reached via 30 miles of rough, unpaved road and we gave it a pass. It began raining as soon as we hit the highway towards the South Unit. By the time we reached the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, it was showering off and on which discouraged a hike
The South Unit Visitor Center was seven miles away through the tiny, totally touristy town of Medora and quite a surprise. The rain had stopped and we thought we’d have this out of the way park to ourselves. On the contrary, there was a line to get in. We were literally in the middle of nowhere and we were queued up at the park entrance. Actually, it’s pretty heartening to see so many people clambering to get to national parks and enjoying these precious lands. The ranger at the entrance told us the Cottonwood Campground was filling up quickly and we hightailed it over there. We claimed a very pleasant site and then, since the rain had abated, checked our options for a hike. This hike will turn out to be the highlight of our trip thus far. But before describing it, some big kudos to Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the USA.
Teddy Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt buffalo. He returned and became a cattle rancher for awhile enjoying the vast wildness of the place. His ranch ultimately failed, but his love of the area endured. Roosevelt’s groundbreaking conservation and preservation efforts are the cornerstone of our national park system. He translated his love of nature into law. ‘He established the US Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 national monuments. He worked with Congress to create five national parks, 150 national forests, and dozens of federal reserves – over 230 million acres of protected land.’ Thanks, President Roosevelt … you done good!
On to the hike … We settled on a 5-1/2 mile loop that took in the Big Plateau Trail and parts of three other marked trails. The first hurdle, and actually a bit of a dragon, was fording the thigh-high Little Missouri River. We’ve both just read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’, a wonderful read by one of our favorite authors about his hiking on the Appalachian Trail. We took his advice and removed our socks, but left our shoes on to ford the river.
As we prepared to enter the river, a huge bison bull appeared on our path across the river seemingly out of nowhere and headed down to the river for a drink. The tonnage rule applies here … we waited … and after five minutes of slurping, he plodded down the trail in the opposite direction.
We successfully crossed the river without incident and though wet, we were no worse for the wear. We squatted on a downed limb to put our socks back on. As I finished and rose, another large bull bison appeared, heading our way down the path. Once alerted, David made haste to finish up and we scrambled out of the big guy's way. It’s amazing how large these animals are when you view them eye to eye instead of from your car.
We thought we were far enough out of his way, but then he began snorting and snuffling and his tail rose straight in the air. Uh-oh … a belligerent sign. Was he going to charge? Then he pooped rather grandly and moved along on his way. Another catastrophe averted.
We passed nearby the bison herd with nary a glance in our direction, then began a steep climb up to the plateau. Once up, the trail was oh so fine. We walked through a prairie dog town … no, this was a dog city taking up several large blocks … a vast expanse of burrows and hills. The dogs barked and whistled, then quickly ducked into their respective holes, peeking out when the coast was clear.
A closer look at one burrow confirmed that my eyes were not playing tricks on me. A burrowing owl had just landed and was sitting on the top of his burrow. We spotted another owl in another burrow. Actually, burrowing owls don’t dig their own burrows, but rely on small mammals, like prairie dogs for instance, to do the digging for them.
Further up the trail, we spotted pronghorns. As we approached, they bolted, but once they determined we presented no obvious threat, they became curious and came closer and closer to check us out.
It had been overcast since the morning rain, but now the clouds began to build again in earnest; the day turned dark and the sky was ominous. Lightning struck in the nearby hills and thunder rumbled loudly. Our rain gear was at ready when the first big drops fell.
We’d read an interpretive sign on the way to the trailhead about bentonite, a clay-like substance found in these hills. As luck would have it, the trail began to climb steeply again. As the rain soaked the path, it became smooth, slick and slippery. Our trekking poles helped, but we slipped and slid as we tried to maneuver the steep grade. The clay soil formed huge clumps on our shoes, weighing us down and making it difficult to walk.
We used our poles to flick off some of the mud and muck. We scraped our shoes on roots and rocks when we could find them. We wiped on patches of grass, adding to the muck instead of eliminating it; rocks clung on, too … adobe shoes. We plodded on, off-balance under a steady patter of soaking rain. After an hour or so, the rain finally did let up, the ground dried out quickly and our shoes shed some of their weight.
We’d read of wild horses in the park and were delighted to see a pair on our path. They trotted away, uneasy with our presence, but like the pronghorns, were curious and followed us warily till we crossed a muddy stream, the crossing made easier by planks across the muck.
Yet another stream crossing presented itself with deep, deep mud and this time, we diverted around a bluff only to find a large bull bison directly in our path. We diverted a bit further around him, too. Luckily, the trail was well-marked with large guideposts strategically placed for easy sighting.
Our path was through another prairie dog town and our presence did not go unnoticed. Sentries stood at attention and marked our every step with warning barks to the rest of the town.
At last, the final signpost pointing us to the end of the trail. Only the Little Missouri stood in our way of completing the hike. Still at thigh-high depth, we crossed with a new confidence, stepped onto the muddy opposite bank and sloshed back to Blue.
We drove back to the campground via the 26-mile scenic loop. It was indeed scenic and beautiful, but after our awesome hiking day, it seemed pretty anticlimactic. There are times when you just can’t improve on awesome.
Back at camp, the clean-up began. David worked on the muddy shoes while I rinsed out socks and began preparing dinner. We were tuckered out, but exhilarated … the best kind of tuckered-out to be.