Bison and badlands

Jacqui Agate journeys to North Dakota to discover the raw beauty and intriguing history of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Bison crossing the river in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Credit NPS

Paid partnership with The Great American West

Bison and badlands

Jacqui Agate journeys to North Dakota to discover the raw beauty and intriguing history of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The bison move in unison, heavy and slow, tails swishing, noses to the ground. They feast on sweeping prairie – great tracts of Western wheatgrass – and behind them rises a tangle of gnarled rocks the colour of Champagne. I drive into a pull-out, cut my engine and take in the view.

I’m in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western reaches of North Dakota, an area defined by the badlands, a twisted and gullied landscape formed over some 65 million years. It mightn’t be the best known of America’s national parks (it was the 32nd most visited in 2022), but it’s one whose layered history is as intriguing as its raw natural bounty. 

First realised as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in 1947 – and given national park status in 1978 – the site was christened after the 26th US President and remains the only park to be named for a person, let alone a president. 

This is a park that slows you down – not just because of the bison, which lumber into the road and huff across hiking trails – but because of the views, which are rugged and vast and halt you in your tracks.

In South Unit’s Scenic Loop Drive, wild horses graze lazily – their dappled-grey coats breaking an expanse of green and flaxen – before disappearing into some cottonwoods. In the quieter North Unit, I tackle a portion of the Buckhorn Trail.

It beats across sagebrush and grassland, and passes through a prairie dog town. The squirrel-like creatures squeak and scatter, dipping in and out of their holes so the land writhes and pops like a Whac-A-Mole game. It’s a nature-lover’s delight, and one all too often overlooked by travellers eager to visit America’s bigger hitters.  

Still, the park is now due to bask in an international spotlight, with the construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library. The library broke ground in June 2023 in the town of Medora, at the gateway to the park’s South Unit, and should be completed by 2026. But the story of these lands does not start with Roosevelt – it begins much earlier than that. 

“In order to tell the story of the badlands, you cannot divorce yourself from the indigenous people,” says Michael Barthelemy, who originally worked as a tribal archivist at the MHA Interpretive Center on the Fort Berthold Reservation, some 60 miles to the northeast of the park, and is now the Director of Native American Studies at the tribally-operated Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College.

He identifies as Mandan and Hidatsa, the original inhabitants of these lands, and is enrolled with the Three Affiliated Tribes, or the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“In our perspective, these lands fit within a larger cultural complex,” he explains. “Indigenous people have always traversed these landscapes, and they came to define us.” 

The badlands, he explains, were rich in game, and tribal peoples would pass through them in annual cycles, intimately attuned to fluctuating animal populations and the lay of the land. Instead of grand European-style monuments, indigenous peoples would build effigies pointing to water sources and construct camps that were visited year upon year. 

Modern conservation efforts also involve native peoples – in bids to maintain a flourishing and balanced bison population, the park has just rehomed some 300 of the animals from the park’s South Unit with local tribes, including the MHA Nation. 

The park is about more than its physical attributes, though. “It is and was a place of spiritual renewal, too,” Barthelemy continues. “Mandan and Hidatsa people would go out and fast and have visions within these spaces. Some of these major topographic points, in our perception, are places where spirits dwell. This land is living; that concept is something we still have today.”

But while Barthelemy sees national parks as fertile ground for storytelling, physical traces of these original inhabitants are all but absent from this site today. In the late 1800s, the US reservation system – which saw the government push indigenous peoples from these plains to federally designated territories.

Yet whispers of the park’s namesake are much easier to find. Roosevelt famously said that he would not have become president were it not for the time he spent here in the wilds of North Dakota. His legacy is writ into the land, and the land writ into his. 

“Theodore Roosevelt first came to this place in 1883 to hunt… and he returned in 1884 at a serious low point in his life. He lost his wife and his mother on the same day and he had no idea how he would survive,” Ed O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, tells me. “But the region reinspired him.”

Perhaps ironically, it was upon his quest to hunt bison that Roosevelt noticed the degradation of the species – these enigmatic mammals were nearly extinct by the late 19th century, as indigenous peoples were forced off their lands, and new Euro-American settlers hunted the animals aggressively for their hides. 

Moved by the plight of the bison – and the wild natural beauty of the badlands – a young Roosevelt spent several years here as a rancher and was ultimately galvanised to embark on conservation efforts that would later define his presidency. He would go on to set aside more than 234 million acres of land for conservation and public use – that’s more than any other president.  

Still, Roosevelt has a complex legacy. While his conservation efforts are lauded, his attitude towards indigenous peoples was neglectful at best and disdainful at worst, and many of his preservationist policies siphoned off land and divorced native peoples further from their homes and hunting grounds.

The library will take a holistic approach to this history and, O’Keefe explains, is primarily designed to get people out into the park. “For Roosevelt, this place was about a connection to nature,” he says. “We want people to go out and experience the badlands as he did.” 

As I continue my drive through the region’s North Unit, it’s not hard to see why the late president was so stirred by these landscapes. The Unit’s Scenic Byway twists its way through weathered rock and past grunting bison, until it reaches the Oxbow Overlook. And from here the ground stoops, revealing a sea of rippling crags and a dramatic oxbow in the Little Missouri River. 

“America has many spectacular and beautiful parks,” O’Keefe continues. “But when you look at a mountain, it builds up and rises towards the sky. You drive through Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the ground drops beneath you. It’s otherworldly. This is a place where you can find your soul.” 

Need to know

Getting there

The gateway city of Minneapolis-St. Paul has the closest international airport to North Dakota.

From there you can fly into one of eight regional airports. Bismarck is a good bet for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Best time to go

The weather is most pleasant between May and October, when the skies are blue, wide and beautiful.

Alternatively, November to January will be the best for skiing.

Where to stay

Experience the great outdoors under canvas — in tents or tipis. Try glamping or stay in a wagon, RV, dude ranch or historic inn.

There’s luxury too with spas, contemporary hotels and magnificent lodges all making the most of the beautiful scenery.

Must-pack item

Walking boots provide essential support, grip, and protection for navigating rough and uneven outdoor terrains.

And a decent camera will be essential to capture ‘big sky’ country.

How to do it

National and regional car hire companies are located at most airports. This is easy driving country whether you are on two or four wheels. 

Routes lead through national and state parks, major cities, small towns and attractions big and small.

Anything else

Hike the famous Maah Daah hey trail through stunning countryside

Visit Lewis & Clark Interpretive Centre for an historic perspective, and spend time in Fargo for quirky events, great food, art and nightlife.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with The Great American West

Journey through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming and experience awe-inspiring scenery, iconic National Parks, legendary history, American Indians, and the great outdoors.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.