Exploring the Dakotas - Wind Cave, Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks
While I love our quest to visit all 61 National Parks, I am growing weary of trip planning. Visiting the Dakota National Parks from Seattle via air presented a logistical challenge, so, after our neighbors encouraged a road trip and Tom happily agreed, it made my life easier. I was even able to add a visit to Mt Rushmore, a bucket list thing, onto the trip.
In September of 2019 we are off, the car packed with everything but the kitchen sink; Yeti cooler, SodaStream, blender and latte machine.
An easy eleven-hour drive to Bozeman, MT puts us in the Zen type road trip mood watching the country go by. It is a little sad knowing that this is our last National Park road trip having already visited all but two of the lower 48 states’ National Parks – in total 47 out of 61.
After a good overnight visit with friends, Phil and Sue in Bozeman, MT we drive six hours, before approaching a large columnar rock formation (magma uplifted from an ancient sea) jutting up into the sky 1,300 feet – an awesome sight. It’s Devil’s Tower National Monument, a rock-climbing mecca, made famous in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
An additional two hours, with some fun going fast on curvy roads in the Audi, gets us to Mt Rushmore Memorial which I am terribly excited about. From the parking structure we walk down the Avenue of the Flags gazing up at Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln in complete awe. Following a short patriotic program, at 8 pm the four Presidents are illuminated – we love it! Each President was selected to represent a different stage during our country’s first 150 years; founding, expansion, abolition and the world stage.
The Rock Crest Lodge and Cabins in Custer, only 30 minutes away, works well night two.
Day Three – Wind Cave National Park
After lattes in the Custer sunshine, we head 30 minutes east to Wind Cave National Park where, unfortunately, the elevators are broken. Who let’s their elevators break? So, we can’t visit the cave. Being claustrophobic, I am not that heart broken.
We learn that the cave itself “breaths” with the barometric pressure, thus the wind sometime blows out of the cave and sometime blows in! As of this writing, over 100 miles of cave passages have been explored on several levels within only one square mile. Wind Cave became the 7th National Park in 1903 after it was discovered, explored and then owned by a mining family and a family run tour company. The US took the land back when both families sued each other, and both basically lost.
The area is as unique for the merging of the prairie and Black Hills (think Ponderosa Pine and uplifted hills) ecosystems as it is for the cave and is surprisingly green this year because of unusually heavy rainfall. We take the scenic drive, several walks, the most scenic being to the fire lookout, as we begin our education of the nearly lost Midwest prairie lands. I am thrilled as we come upon a herd of bison, including calves, re-introduced in 1913 to the Park, on highway 87 going north.
Day Four and Five – Badlands National Park
Two hours from Wind Cave the landscape changes from hilly ponderosa pine country to desolate territory with brown striped mounds, or rock formations. We have left civilization behind. As we enter Interior, SD and check into our hotel, I am more than disappointed. Interior, a town of 58 (they know because they recently counted) only has one bar which serves pizza, hamburger and bison burger.
Knowing that we don’t want to spend two more nights here we get reservations in Wall, SD, home of famous Wall Drug and named after the long rock formation in Badlands National Park.
The longest hike in the park is 10 miles but it’s going to be 85 degrees, we are getting a late start, there is zero shade and we like loops, so we opt for the Castle and Medicine Root trails, 7 miles. Once on the trail we realize, as often is the case, that a harsh environment has wonderful plant and wildlife. The mixed grasses are green, and the prairie sunflowers are in full bloom. The trail meanders through rock formations and vegetation, new to us, with fabulous views of the Wall, the uplifted ancient sea which has been carved by centuries of erosion, for which Badlands National Park was established in 1978.
The Best Western in Wall, SD is a vast improvement. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the restaurants. Wall Drug has numerous shops and restaurants on a re-created western street. It’s strange but I am trying to go with the flow here!
Storms roll in on our second day in the Park, so we drive the scenic loop, complete with the requisite scenic pull outs, around the Wall. Wildlife; bison, big horn sheep and pronghorn antelope are plentiful on the dirt road back into town – reminds us of Yellowstone.
We enter the National Grasslands Visitor Center in Wall, during the rainstorm, not really knowing what to expect but learn an amazing story – a part of our country’s history. The Midwest prairies were initially healthy grasslands (mixed, high and low grass regions) where 30-60 million bison roamed and supported the plains native American population. The white man killed most of the bison and moved the remaining native Americans to reservations. Farmers and ranchers then settled on the prairies encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862. Problem was that the area has highly volatile rainfall. Along came the Dust Bowl (much of the ecosystem was destroyed) and the Great Depression. Farmers left and the US government bought back their land. That land is now the patchwork that comprises the eleven National Grasslands, only 2 % of the original unique and beautiful ecosystem!
On our last night we try the #1 rated restaurant in Wall – they are out of everything I order. Glad we brought the cooler!
Day Six, Seven and Eight – Theodore Roosevelt National Park
After driving from Wall, SD, another five hours, we arrive in the town of Medora, ND just outside the southern section of Teddy Roosevelt Park and check in to the nicely renovated Rough Riders Hotel. I am anxious for a decent meal which we enjoy at Theodore’s in the Hotel. Afterwards, we meet Theodore Roosevelt in a highly entertaining and educational one man show at the Old Town Hall Theatre.
Teddy Roosevelt National Park is as much about commemorating the man, and his impact on conservation and the National Parks, as it is about the specific geography of the Park.
The story goes that Theodore Roosevelt came to the badlands as a young man, husband and soon to be father to “bag a bison” even though he knew they were going extinct. He fell in love with the area and lifestyle. Soon after returning to New York, Theodore’s mother and young wife both died at his home on the same day. He heart was broken and came back to the badlands to mourn and heal. He is quoted as saying that his time in the badlands prepared him to be President. The swift devastation of natural resources, he experienced in the badlands, inspired his future conservationism.
The badlands average only 16 inches of rain per year. But, the forecast calls for nearly two inches during our stay so our first day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a day to explore the Visitor Center and drive the loop road. Due to a landslide it’s really an out and back 48-mile drive.
Against recommendations, we try a walk, but the rain has been so heavy that the trail is flooded, and the soil is extremely slippery gray clay created from the silt of the ancient sea. Back to town it is!
The cute little historic town of Medora, population 132, is so intriguing. I have never heard of a town being owned and managed by a Foundation, but we learn that Medora is! Harold Schafer of Mr. Bubble, Glass Wax and Snowy Bleach fame began unintentionally buying up the town in the early 60’s. He did the first renovation on the Rough Rider Hotel and acquired and then updated an outdoor amphitheater which hosts the Medora Musical, a big show (gospel, patriotism and cowboy) which draws over 100,000 people each summer. Since 1986 the Foundation has kept Mr. Schafer’s vision alive in historic Medora.
As promised, the clouds clear and blue-sky appears for our final day in the badlands. Today we heed recommendations and head to the closed section of the Loop Road for an 8-mile walk instead of on the flooded trails. Frantic chirping greets us as we walk through a large colony of prairie dogs – they are sure busy this morning. The road meanders up through green and golden cottonwood trees, the first sign of fall, more prairie and views of badland buttes. We are headed to mile four where the landslide has closed the road but at mile three a huge bison bull causes us to turn around and cut the walk short. No need to tempt fate on our last day.
We pack up and say goodbye to quaint Medora and Teddy Roosevelt National Park with a new appreciation for prairies and the Great Plains knowing full well we may not be back in the Dakotas for a “vacation” anytime soon. After 3,000 miles, this trip, we are 50 down and 11 to go on our quest!