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We have a tendency to take our national parks for granted. We don't realize that they are among our country's best vacation bargains. Or that the "ooh-ah" wonder of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser, the surprise of seeing a bison block traffic, or the magic of a misty October morning in Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains can make family memories as resonant as a trip to Disney World.
The concept of a national park is a uniquely American idea, first introduced by 19th-century landscape artist George Catlin. Worried about the impact of settlement on wildlife and wilderness, Catlin proposed the creation of a "nation's park." His idea caught the imagination of a country eager to match the cultural treasures of the Old World with its own natural wonders. And so in 1872 Congress designated two million acres that straddle Wyoming and Montana to become Yellowstone National Park, the first area to receive such protection.
Today nearly 60 million visitors flock to 384 national parks every year. And you won't have to wander far from home to enjoy one of these national treasures with North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park nearby.
Like many young society dandies, Theodore Roosevelt was lured to the Dakota Territory in the 1880s by buffalo hunting. While there, he fell in love -- with the spectacular beauty of this wide-open and rugged land, with the mental and physical demands it placed on him, and with the wildlife that was quickly disappearing because of cattle ranching. And as President, he did his best to share his Dakota experiences with others by establishing five national parks and founding the U.S. Forest Service.
The park in western North Dakota that honors his memory spans some 70,000 acres, a distance that's most easily covered by car. Through your windshield you're sure to see why early settlers compared the rolling hills covered with plumes of tall green grass to the seas they crossed to get there. But it's only when you get out of the car that you'll hear the twitter of songbirds now extinct in many other parts of the country, listen to the whoosh of the wind, and sense the vast peacefulness of open spaces.
If you're pressed for time, plan your visit around the southern unit of the park. The visitor's center near Medora is next to the Maltese Cross Cabin, the relocated rustic headquarters of Roosevelt's own cattle ranch. Here, period furnishings, ranching equipment and personal belongings give an idea of the man whose imprint shaped our national park system. A 36-mile scenic loop drive covers a "greatest hits" of the park: Prairie dog towns, herds of bison and antelope, and the chaotic landscape of high buttes, windswept bluffs, twisting canyons and dry multicolored cliffs known as the state's infamous badlands. You'll want to make this drive twice: once during the day and then again just before sunset (or at dawn) to see the most wildlife and to catch the deepening colors and sharp silhouettes of angled sunlight.
The northern loop is even more dramatic, following the Little Missouri River as it twists and writhes like a prairie rattlesnake through the canyons below. At the Oxbow Overlook, you can see where the river swings around in a 180-degree turn, a classic oxbow.
Speaking of rattlers, be careful while hiking the many excellent trails or exploring the prairie here; the snakes are shy but nasty when surprised. One popular way to see many of the park's sights -- and stay off the ground -- is on horseback; inquire about trail rides at the visitor's center. A more unusual way to explore the park is floating down the Little Missouri River; both short sprees on inner tubes and multi-day canoe trips are available.
The gateway to the park is the town of Medora, an Old West charmer that hosts "The Medora Musical," a rip-roaring spectacle celebrating Roosevelt and the area's ranching heritage that's held every night in the summer. Medora has plenty of accommodations, but don't expect much more than the standard spectrum of motels. For more information, contact the Medora Visitor Information Center at 701-623-4828 or the Medora Visitor Information Center web site.
The park is open year round, but the best times to visit are from late spring through early fall. After a rainy spring, the prairies are carpeted with wildflowers. Later in the year, the grass turns the color of gold under the September sun. To find out more about Theodore Roosevelt National Park, contact park headquarters in Medora at 701-623-446 or the Theodore Roosevelt National Park web site.