WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- Things are more quiet in the north.
On a weather-perfect June afternoon, visitors to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park will see herds of free-roaming bison, skittish groups of mule deer, countless prairie dogs, and dozens of wild turkeys crossing the road at will. They will encounter geological anomalies that are millions of years in the making, and views of the winding Little Missouri River that are nothing short of stunning.
What they will not see, except on very rare days and special events, is many other visitors.
The post-pandemic travel boom has meant packed airplanes, long waits at tourist attractions and never-before-seen visitor numbers at state and national parks. Perhaps that will mean an eventual discovery of this gem tucked away in the most remote reaches of one of the nation’s least-populous states.
But for now, the North Unit remains a place of great beauty, and great solitude.
“People who speak to our own heart go there for the seclusion, the remoteness and the quietness. You get out to those places and it’s mostly devoid of people,” said Mike Kopp, who -- along with his wife Mary -- maintains the Beautiful Badlands ND Facebook page and website, and who serves as a kind of evangelist, leading a lost flock toward the wonders of North Dakota’s rugged western edge.
Centuries of solitude
More than a century later, visitors can still find the peace and solitude that Roosevelt sought and found in the 1880s -- decades before he was elected President -- when he came to what was then Dakota Territory and invested in two ranches in the Badlands. This can be invigorating, as one stares up at a stunning canopy of stars, unhindered by any nearby light pollution. It also comes with the normal challenges of isolation, which can mean inconvenience and even danger if things go badly, even in this era of cell phone communication.
“I canoed the Little Missouri River from the South Unit to the North Unit a few years ago and that’s five days where you see nothing. No light poles, no farms, nothing for five days,” Kopp said. “And if you get caught in a hail storm like we did, sorry Charlie, you’re screwed.”
For many Americans, North Dakota is thought of as a flyover state, or at best a place to drive through on Interstate 94, on the way between the Twin Cities and Seattle. The fact that Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit is adjacent to this well-traveled corridor, and the additional attractions and eateries of Medora, N.D., mean that a vast majority of those who pay the $30 entry fee, good for seven consecutive days in the park, have seen some or all of the 36-mile driving loop in the South Unit and maybe have spent a night at Cottonwood Campground after seeing the Broadway-quality Medora Musical in town. All of those are entertaining and informative pursuits, to be sure.
But much like a trip to New York City that does not venture more than a few blocks beyond the bright lights of Times Square, there is much, much more that remains to be seen in the Badlands.
“We find that it’s so true among readers of our website who say, ‘I’ve been to Medora. What else is there?’” Kopp said. “Medora is a nice little tourist town, but if you really want to get into the Badlands, get away from Medora.”
Rugged, and rearranging
The region’s geology, as Kopp explained it, is one of the biggest differences between north and south in this part of North Dakota. The underlying rock is harder and more rugged the further north you go. The valley carved by the Little Missouri is up to 150 feet deep in the South Unit. In the North Unit and nearby, it can be twice as deep, with a landscape that is continually being rearranged and remade through the forces of nature.
“If you go north of Killdeer, up to Little Missouri State Park, you enter into the roughest region of North Dakota and of the entire northern plains. That area is shifting continually,” Kopp said. “I used to take kids on horseback trail rides out there and we could never take the same route twice, because it always changes.”
The most recent notable revamping of the landscape is just a few months old. Less than a mile past the North Unit visitor center -- housed, for now, in a mobile unit -- one can see scorched junipers and other brush, with new, bright green prairie grasses surrounding them. Visitor center staff noted that the fires burning the region happened in April 2021, and the emerald hues surrounding the blackened underbrush are indicative of just how quickly nature regenerates when left to its own abilities.
The folks at the visitor center are helpful, knowledgeable, and blessed with a sense of humor that can frankly be rare for employees of the federal government. Asked if there was a shorter-term park pass available than the seven-day version for $30, the staffer offered options.
“Yes, we have a one-day pass available,” he deadpanned. “It’s $30. We also have a 45-minute pass. That’s also $30.”
After hearing roughly 43 podcasts while passing the windshield time across the vast expanses of eastern North Dakota, the smart-aleck interaction was welcomed with a smile.
When exploring the North Unit by car, a 28-mile out-and-back trip offers an outstanding first look at the area, with two notable overlooks and myriad hiking trails branching off from the main road. A perfect introduction to the landscape, and a stretch of the legs after what is likely much time in the car, can be had via the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This out-and-back route that is less than 1.5 miles comes with a guidebook and numbered signs which show the many plants in the park (prairie grasses, chokecherry, sagebrush, prickly pear cactus, etc.) and illustrate how centuries of wind, rain and yearly freezing/thawing have shaped the landscape.
If one looks to the north, where the slopes are exposed to the bright sun each day, you will see shades of brown and gray on the mostly barren land. To the south, the slopes are more shaded, which means more moisture, less sun, and lush patches of green pines, juniper and other blooming plants.
A colorful canvas
At the Oxbow Overlook, at the end of the 14-mile road, one can see nature’s forces at work. Here at a sharp bend in the Little Missouri, surrounded on all sides by bright green and water-loving cottonwood trees, one can see how the river is slowly carving an oxbow, which in time will be cut off from the shallow river’s main channel, making the waterway a little straighter and leaving a marsh patch of former riverbed in its place.
Perhaps the most famous and most visited spot in the North Unit is near the halfway point of the entry road, and at one of the highest points in the state. Even in the rain or snow, a stone shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression in 1937 provides a covered way to take in a stunning stretch of the Little Missouri from high above. In contrast to the bone-colored moonscape of the South Dakota Badlands -- which are beautiful and mysterious in their own way -- the North Dakota version is a place of great and varied color.
In a conversation with Kopp during the 600-mile drive from the Twin Cities to the park’s North Unit, he offered perhaps the best advice that a visitor to the region can receive.
“Find a high point, like the River Bend Overlook, and go there an hour before sunset,” Kopp wrote in an email. “Sit, watch the colors change as the sun lowers, shadows grow, contrasts appear, the landscape will change from green to gold to maroon and finally to blue. It is goosebumps chilling.”
He was right. In this place of solitude and unspoiled beauty, where temperatures routinely reach the double-digits below zero in the long winters, one can get chilled to the bone by the wonders of nature, even on a warm summer evening.