By Jerry Ginsberg
As the virulent pandemic that has crippled our society for over a year recedes and the country and the world begin to open up again, our thoughts turn back to traveling. With the summer season now upon us, potential destinations include our 63 fabulous National Parks. If you want to get a little off the well beaten path to overcrowded places like Yosemite and experience something a little different, try Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
After having spent many years roaming our wonderful national parks with a fully loaded camera pack and a heavy tripod, I have probably become reasonably conversant with the pros and cons of these national treasures.
Since President Ulysses S. Grant signed the 1872 document that created mighty Yellowstone as America’s and the world’s first national park, another sixty-two of these precious gems have come into being.
As with any such group, some are more spectacular than others. There are even a few that are clearly a great departure from what is perhaps our perception of what a national park should be. While times certainly do change, there are some among our parks that probably deserve to be demoted to national monuments or a similar classification of NPS units.
Hey, I’m just sayin’.
The question that I am asked most frequently is, “Which is your favorite national park?” Of course, there is no real answer to that particular question, since each one of our now sixty-three parks has its own distinct personality, texture and feel; each offers its own unique experience. That said, I am often most attracted to those places that offer a variety of subjects for us photographers.
Why Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
For a photo excursion that is both fun and different, take a trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located in the rugged badlands of North Dakota.
Its wildness gives this park a singular beauty while the uncrowded ambiance offers the relatively small number of visitors who embark on this adventure more intimacy with nature and the landscape than that usually found in many of our bigger national parks.
Split into widely separated north and south units, each section offers its own individual touch and feel.
The south unit
Even before arriving at the actual entrance to the more popular south unit, you will likely encounter fabulous Painted Canyon right along I-94. Make sure to stop and take in the drama of the exciting views here. These brilliantly hued badlands look their best in the warm light of sunrise. Painted Canyon is a great preview of the sights that await you further on in the park’s interior.
Park headquarters and visitor center are found just inside the entrance to the south unit in the small town of Medora, North Dakota, where just about everything is owned or controlled by the local foundation.
Named for our twenty-sixth president who established five national parks, invented the whole concept of national monuments, and created the National Forest Service, thereby protecting hundreds of millions of acres of American wilderness, this park encompasses parts of a very young Teddy Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross cattle ranch.
Once inside the park’s entrance, stop at Theodore Roosevelt’s actual ranch cabin, dubbed, fittingly enough, the Maltese Cross. Once oriented there, drive the closed loop road to see the sights.
Along the loop road
These wildly eroded badlands exhibit forms and colors that will delight your eye and make you work hard to simplify your compositions.
My very favorite spot in the south unit is the wonderful Wind Canyon. The observation point to the right is a good spot for sunrise, early morning and often even sunset. The cleft in the hill to your left with a great view of the curving Little Missouri River is perfect for late afternoon light. No matter the season, Wind Canyon has much to offer.
Don’t miss the Badlands Overlook right along the road and the various mushroom shaped caprock formations close to the road. These can make for great images during both morning and evening if the light is just right.
In addition to the dramatic landscape, keep a sharp out for the four legged creatures who make these badlands their home. With a little luck, you might see a few members of the band of wild horses who sport some unique white markings. Besides them, bison, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, and countless little prairie dogs live here in the park. The horses are more likely found in the south unit with bison roaming the park’s north unit. The prairie dogs, as cute as they may seem, can carry plague so keep your distance.
One warning: do not attempt to drive or even walk directly on any of the bentonite clay found here. It is far too slick to fool around with! Even with beefy manually controlled 4 wheel drive, your efforts to extricate yourself and your vehicle from this relentless goo are dicey at best. Trust me.
The north unit
After an easy 50-mile drive straight up Route 85, the road will deliver you to the park’s north unit. Perhaps the first difference of which to take note is that, rather than the looping road configuration found in the south unit, the park road here in the north runs about 14 miles to the end where you will eventually need to turn around and retrace your steps back to Route 85 to exit.
Along this track you will find several fun spots to shoot. Among the best of these are Cannonball Concretions and Riverbend. Make sure to keep a sharp eye out for bison. Give these one-ton creatures a wide berth. They are not as placid as they seem and can run at over thirty miles per hour.
This road ends at the visually stunning Oxbow Overlook of the Little Missouri River where young cattle rancher Roosevelt, his righteous indignation sharply aroused, once single-handedly apprehended several cattle rustlers. At the road’s end, park in the small lot, walk a few feet to the edge and set up your tripod. This is a great place to end your day with last light. All in all, there is enough here to keep you busy for a couple of days.
Up here in the Dakotas, temperatures vary widely with the seasons. Summers can be broiling and winters are far too harsh for outdoor fun. My favorite times of year to be here are May-June and October.
A word about logistics. It will be easy to find a selection of lodgings right near the entrance to the south unit of the park in Medora. The north unit will not be quite as easy. The closest facilities and services to that entrance are a bit farther north in Watford City. Not quite as convenient, but well worth the easy drive.
Since there is no need to ever leave the pavement in Theodore Roosevelt (impossible bentonite, notwithstanding), renting a standard passenger vehicle will do just fine.
Jerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 63 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.