July 29 – August 3, 2019
WAY up north is a National Park well worth the drive. We’d heard about it and actually hoped to get there last summer with Chloe but it is so far away from anything else and our time was limited so we dropped it off the list… but remembered.
In July 2019 we were lounging in Spearfish, SD in the Black Hills, happily enjoying the cooler temperatures and the trees (I love trees) when hundreds of Sturgis Motorcycle Rally early birds started rolling in.
We were a week away from the massive rally that roars into the Black Hills each summer and sends residents running for quieter locales. One week before the rally is not enough for many rally goers anymore. Locals told us that the rally has expanded. Area traffic gets so congested during Sturgis that bikers come a week early and stay a week later to enjoy the rides without the crowds. So many bikers have adopted this strategy that Sturgis is nearing a full month of motorcycle madness. We watched them roll in day after day and finally decided it was time for us to roll out.
But, where to go? We looked at the atlas (I love maps too) and spotted Theodore Roosevelt National Park way up there in North Dakota. We missed it last year, it was less than four hours away, and it was north – gotta be cool up there, right? Wrong. We headed on up and sweated our butts off but we loved it anyhow. If you like natural beauty; if you like animals; if you are into photography – you’ll want to spend time in this park.
The Cottonwood Campground is half reservable and half walk in. We left Spearfish early in hopes of snagging a walk-in site. We did, but JUST. There were only a few RV sites left and a few tent sites. We booked a sunny site for one night then shifted to another site with shade for the next three nights. (There is a lot of changeover every day, so to get a better site check with people scheduled to leave the next day and ask them if you can claim their site.)
Once in camp, we jumped in our car and went out to explore. We were amazed at all the animals we saw driving the loop road.
I need to mention that the loop road is actually a letter “C” since a rock slide caused the park to close the last 4 miles of the loop – you drive out 24 miles, you drive back 24 miles – it takes hours. Which is okay if you’re not in a hurry, which we weren’t.
We saw hundreds of Bison… and they wandered all around our car. We saw dozens of wild horses… and they wandered all around our car. We saw two beautiful pronghorn… and they hung out right next to our car. We saw hundreds of prairie dogs… and many were within a few feet of our car. We saw a bald eagle, numerous hawks, a coyote (who ran through a prairie dog town, crossed the road in front of our car, and ran through the other half of the prairie dog town snagging its dinner along the way), and when we rolled back into camp, a cute little cottontail bunny hung out with us. This was all in about three hours. It was AMAZING!
That’s not to say we didn’t see other little critters while we wandered about. We should have been surprised to spot butterflies and even a toad in this hot, dry, not very hospitable environment. But we weren’t. We spent several months in early 2019 wandering southwestern deserts (Big Bend, Organ Pipe Cactus, and Saguaro to name a few) and there’s more wildlife than you could imagine. Lifeless those deserts and badlands aren’t.
The “loop” road goes right through the middle of several prairie dog towns so you are guaranteed to see them. The bison like to hang out in prairie dog towns (and take dust baths there) so you have a very good chance to see them also. The horses seem to like to shortcut on the roads so we saw at least one herd of them every day. But these are all wild animals. They go where they want to. You have to keep your eyes open and drive slowly. As we drove the “loop” road I started to recognize fresh poop in the road. Yes, poop! Sometimes bison, sometimes horse. If it was old and crusty, I ignored it but if it was looking fresh, I started scanning the area in earnest. It paid off. Fresh horse poop, fresh poop, fresh poop – look, horses! The same went for bison. Poop, poop, BISON!
The “loop” road has numerous pull offs and short drives as well as access to trailheads. You drive along the bottom of the badlands and twist and turn around the different plateaus. It is absolutely beautiful with the colorful rock layers, trees and bushes, and wildlife. At one viewpoint you can look far across the badlands and see the highway visitor center waaaay over there… and the trail that winds across that gorgeous expanse of rocks and gullies. I knew there was no way I could manage that hike in the heat BUT there is always the possibility of a return trip in cooler weather.
We did manage to take one hike, on Coal Vein Trail. As you walk the trail you can spot thin coal seams threaded in the rock layers.
A long time ago a 12-foot thick underground coal seam caught fire and burned for 26 years. Clinkers were created when the fire’s heat baked surface rocks, making them harder and turning them red.
While the Petrified Forest is technically “in” the South Unit, you have to drive out, around, and back in to access it. We headed out early one morning, strapped on sun hats, sun shirts and packs with lots of water and snacks then hiked out. It’s a good thing we did because it was super sunny and hot and we were hot and tired by the time we got back to the car. As we neared the car we passed families just starting their hike… with no hats, no water, NO preparation whatsoever! It never ceases to amaze us.
The hike wound through beautiful swaying prairies that rolled over the hills and crested against the colored layers of rock where the land lifted and split. It was a long way to the Petrified Forest but well worth the hike. We saw what looked like large trunks scattered on the ground. Others were slowly being freed from the soil as it eroded away and exposed them to our view. Several tree bases were upended and you could look through the hollow trunk to see daylight on the other side. Very cool. We hiked only a portion of the loop then returned the same way. We kept a constant vigil for wildlife, especially bison as they were still in their rut and we didn’t want to get close to any feisty ones… actually, we didn’t want to get too close to ANY of them wandering out on that prairie.
We were not as impressed with the North Unit as we were with the south. The majority of the road runs along the plateau so you can look down into the badlands. The heat was such that we couldn’t do much hiking so we didn’t go into the back areas as much as we would have liked to. Getting out and away from the road may have changed our views on the area. We did wander far enough to see prairie chickens ducking in and out of the grasses and a lone bison standing watch on a promontory. We also checked out some cannonball concretions that are found here. There are several overlooks you can walk out to and some hikes down and through the canyons but most of your time will be up top. We were lucky enough to see Bison climbing down the bluffs. It was impressive. We would never have thought those huge animals could navigate the angles and ledges and slides that they obviously traverse on a regular basis.
By the time we left Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we had seen bison in the road, in the river, rolling onto their backs with their feet up in the prairie dog towns, munching in grasslands up past their bellies, running through the woods, and jumping and skipping down the sides of the cliffs… oh, and the morning we left – they were in our campground.
Holly & John