Another Unheralded Gem of the National Park System

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

*This post continues the mining of old photographs taken in the pre-digital era. We therefore apologize in advance that the quality of the pictures is not quite up to the usual standards.

Today we’re again going back into the vault, to the days when photographs were printed on paper, phones didn’t have cameras unless you worked for the CIA, Brian was still single and Donald Trump hadn’t even starred in a reality show yet. We’re talking the very early 2000’s here…

As a younger man Brian loved to take long road trips across the US and visit as many National Parks and monuments as he could. In a three years period from 1999 to 2002, for example, he visited some eight major national park units plus a dozen or more other national forests, monuments, seashores, preserves and such. Since then he has visited at least sixteen more parks, including a few that weren’t National Parks when he visited. Many in that batch he visited with Sylvia by his side.

One interesting observation that came from these expeditions is that many of the less well known National Park units compare quite favorably to the bigger, more famous ones. Not that I am saying these places are as good as the best of the US National Parks…simply that they are more than half as good, and with less than half the crowds. In some cases, one tenth the crowds. The result is a greatly enhanced experience.

I have already discussed a couple of my favorite underrated National Parks, Big Bend and Gaudalupe Mountains. Here’s another unheralded gem…and this one, though quite out of the way, has a celebrated name…Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If you even can tell me where this one is located, then you obviously know your stuff.

Interestingly, TRNP (it’s out yonder in North Dakota, by the way) is not among the least visited of the National Parks despite being very far from any major city. It’s actually just middle of the pack, getting about the same annual visitation as the larger Crater Lake and the much larger Kings Canyon. The reason for this may be that, like the similar Badlands National Park, it sits pretty close to a major highway (I-90) which also happens to be one of the main caravan routes along the summer RV tour.

A lot of people therefore stop here and at Badlands on the way to other more celebrated destinations further west like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Black Hills and Glacier NP. And in fact, that’s exactly how Brian found himself here.

Brian cleverly disguised as a Cubs fan in the North Dakota badlands circa 2002.

While Glacier is the superior park, TR is definitely worth seeing in it’s own right for its stark, endless, weird landscapes. This country will no doubt remind many of old Western movies they have seen on TV. No wonder…This is after all the authentic American West.

An starkly beautiful landscape that rolls endlessly to the far horizon…the American West.


TRNP is the only National Park unit named after a famous American. There used to be several other parks with this distinction…for example, Kings Canyon was once General Grant National Park. But those parks had little or nothing to do with the people they were named after. They just needed a name and chose a handy one. Back in those days, the national and the early administrators of the parks had different priorities than today. Back then people were writing names all over uncharted wilderness…it was seen as important to enshrine American heroes by naming pieces of the landscape after them. No one even considered that the landscape itself might posses its own history, from which a more suitible name might be drawn.

TRNP can make some claim on the man himself. He did own a ranch here; the Elkhorn Ranch unit of the actually park preserves this site. Plus, it seems fit that Roosevelt of all presidents should be memorialized with a National Park. After all, he was an important factor in the formation of the National Park system as well as an early and vigorous champion of conservation. (Though in this regard he still stands behind one other American who definitely should have a park named after him, John Muir.)

Whatever it is named, it’s a fine place in its own right to visit. The pictures below are from a road trip with my brother Chris in 2002, as we were en-route to Glacier National Park in Montana. We ended up having awful weather in the Rockies, but limitless clear blue skies in TR. The Big Sky of the Dakota Badlands did not disappoint.

That big fella is Christopher.
The Little Missouri River runs through the park. If you guessed it was a tributary of the Missouri, youdah guessed right.


Of all the places that resonate with the vast distances and open skies of the mythical America West, only the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone tops the Dakota Badlands in Brian’s opinion .


Mule Deer






There are some Buffalo in the Park, but they are not exactly free range. The park itself is isolated from the land around it and ringed with cattle fencing. This is unlike Yellowstone, which is itself vast and part of a larger ecosystem.

There are also wild (or more accurately feral) ponies here. We saw a herd of them as the sun was setting, but alas the light was poor and none of the pictures came out. Still it is Brian’s favorite memory from this trip…no pictures are needed to remind me of it. But alas I can’t share this memory. Sorry folks.

And each day ends with a coyotes serenade.

It may be that Brian will return to TRNP. But it’s as likely that he won’t…there’s just too many other extraordinary things we want to do in any number of places that will occupy the years we have left. TR is great. But so are the Dolomites. We haven’t even seen the Himalaya yet. Or New Zealand.

But you never know where your path might take you. There is still much to lure one back to Big Sky Country…Brian saw only a glimpse of the Black Hills and never saw even Custer State Park, considered by many to be the best state park in the US, at all. It could be that at some future point Brian will return to these rugged hills, with Sylvia beside him. What a treat it would be to see this part of the Big Sky Country again after all these years!


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