North Dakota Driving Guide: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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The roughrider state of North Dakota marks the geographic center of the North American continent, commemorated by a stone obelisk in the small town of Rugby. The state’s nickname pays homage to its close association to Theodore Roosevelt, whose experiences as a North Dakota cowboy at Elkhorn Ranch had an indelible influence on his future experiences and career—from his reputation as a Spanish-American War hero to his landmark conservation efforts as the 26th President of the United States. With this history as a backdrop, we investigate the photographic possibilities awaiting visitors to the three distinct sections of North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park—the South, North, and Elkhorn Ranch Units.

Above: Fog burns off at sunrise from River Bend Overlook, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. Photograph © Chuck Haney

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt first arrived in North Dakota in 1883, on a short trip to hunt bison. He invested in the Maltese Cross Ranch, requesting that ranch owners build him a cabin. That structure, the Maltese Cross Cabin, is currently located at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) Visitor’s Center, just outside the town of Medora.

Maltese Cross Cabin in autumn, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota.Chuck Haney

TRNP covers 70,446 acres of land in three sections: the largest South Unit, the remote North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which is on the site of Roosevelt’s second home in the area, built in 1884.

“Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of those places where you never quite know what to expect. You can go with a subject in mind, but there are so many great surprises, which end up being phenomenal photo opportunities,” says photographer Jason Hahn, co-founder of the Black Hills Photo Shootout, an annual three-day photography festival in the region with a variety of photo workshops that will next be held in Spearfish, South Dakota, September 29 – October 1, 2017.

Getting to TRNP’s South Unit

The park’s South Unit—the most visited because of its easy access to Interstate 94 (I-94)—is about a four-hour drive north of Rapid City, South Dakota, on U.S. Route 85. “People can also fly into Bismarck, North Dakota (about three hours to the east, on I-94) or Billings, Montana (about four hours southwest, on I-94), so you do have some options,” says Hahn, “but these are all pretty small airports, so you’ll generally have to fly into Denver or Kansas City, and take a commuter flight from there.”

A dirt road twists and turns through the rugged and colorful landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, Medora, North Dakota.Hahn Nature Photography

Featuring the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive, which takes about 90 minutes end-to-end, due to the speed limit, the South Unit’s terrain varies from very flat to rolling to shear, and ranges from arid Badland areas to the meandering Little Missouri River, which traverses the entire park. “The landscape is very diverse,” says Hahn. “There are not really any bad areas, just different areas. It provides some very stunning photo opportunities,” he adds.

While North Dakota’s Badlands have some similar characteristics to the Black Hills and South Dakota’s Badlands, “For the most part, they aren’t as dramatic,” says Hahn. “There are still some great outcroppings and opportunities for landscape, but not quite on the same scale as sheer cliffs. The environment is primarily a lot of sage, a lot of grasses, and a lot of pine.”

Although he has camped in the park before, Hahn generally stays in Medora. “There are a couple of little hotels, and restaurants, but they go to bed early there,” he notes. “Everything pretty well shuts down at six or seven p.m.”

From Sunrise to Sunset

Retiring early is essential for anyone seeking to capture the sunrise. “Medora is right on the eastern edge of the time zone, so the sun rises really early in the summertime,” says photographer and workshop instructor Chuck Haney. “I tell my workshop students to pretend they’re on Central time, so it sounds a little better. I think my groups meet at 3:45 or 4:00 a.m.”

Sunset over Painted Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota.Hahn Nature Photography

Hahn adds, “It’s a bit of a drive in, and I want to be at my sunrise location about an hour out. With it being so flat, you’ll get some great colors an hour before sunrise, especially when there’s a little bit of cloud cover.”

Among the locations that Hahn recommends for sunrise are Scoria Point and Badlands Overlook, along the southeastern edge of the loop road. “These locations are a bit easier to get to first thing in the morning and they face well to the light,” he says.

To get there, enter the park at the South Unit Visitor’s Center, and follow the winding East River Road as it crosses over the interstate. After passing Cottonwood Campground, pick up Scenic Loop Road where the road forks. Alternatively, continue along East River Road to Peaceful Valley Ranch, for “another real pretty spot,” Hahn says. “You’ll get the sun rising through the Valley, running from Peaceful Valley down across the Park.”

Morning fog on the badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.Chuck Haney

Given the park’s northern latitude, the position of the sun relative to the landscape varies greatly, depending on the time of year. To plan accordingly, Hahn advises spending the first morning scouting shoot locations. “Scoria is OK in the summer, but it’s going to be blocked by more hills than it is later in the year, which is also the case with the location up by the ranch,” he explains.

Photo Tip: “If the atmosphere is real dry, which it is during much of the year, the sunrise gets very fast, and the sky doesn’t hold its color for long, so you don’t want to miss it,” says Hahn.

When planning for a sunset shoot in summer, another factor to account for are the extremely long days—up to 16 hours of daylight—due to the Park’s northern clime. For a nice sunset option, both Hahn and Haney recommend Painted Canyon, located about 5-10 miles outside Medora, off I-94.

“It’s part of the Badlands area in the south unit, with a very pretty overlook. It’s got such neat colors, and it really lights up when you get that early or late light,” Hahn says.

Adds Haney, “It’s a picnic area, but it’s a really dramatic setting. From the overlook, you’re looking over miles of Badlands, but you can be out there from town in like 10 minutes. I’ve had really good luck there,” he adds. “It’s a good place to race out to if you see a storm coming at the end of the day.”

Stormy light at Wind Canyon, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Chuck Haney

For more intrepid photographers, Haney recommends the overlook at Wind Canyon, near the northwestern corner of the loop road. “It’s right over the river,” he says. “I’ve had good luck both at sunset and sunrise, but I tend to shoot more sunsets there.”

Another remarkable site for photography at any time of day is the Petrified Forest, located in the South Unit’s remote northwestern corner. To get there, head west of Medora on I-94 and pick up West River Road to get to the trailhead about 30 minutes north. After about a mile hike across a grassy plain, you drop down into a more eroded area. “There are a million fascinating shapes, that are contoured and that change over time,” says Haney. “Every time a big storm hits, the wood erodes a little bit more.”

Photo Tip: “I like to do wide-angle shots in the Petrified Forest, to really emphasize the colors, and the details in the petrified wood,” says Haney. “It’s such a fascinating landscape. I use my Canon 24-70 mm lens to get tight up to my subjects and shoot with natural light.”

Gear Tip: In addition to photo gear, North Dakota weather means coming well prepared with clothing. “The whole area is known for sudden crazy changes of weather,” says Hahn. “It’ll be subfreezing in the morning, and by midday it’ll easily be in the upper 70s. This is a place where you just have to layer,” he adds. “It can very easily snow in July, so you have to bring clothes for both hot and cold.”

Wildlife at TRNP

Hahn does most of his wildlife photography in TRNP’s South Unit. “The pine forest there supports a lot of animals, and you also have sage and grassland areas that support a wide range of creatures,” he says.

Black-tailed prairie dog at its burrow in one of the numerous prairie dog towns throughout the park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota. Hahn Nature Photography

One lively highlight are the inhabitants of the many prairie dog towns. “They are everywhere, and they give you some phenomenal opportunities,” says Hahn. “You’re talking about thousands of prairie dogs in one town, and then everything that potentially hunts them. I’ve seen coyotes, eagles, hawks, and all manner of other animals. It’s not uncommon to see rabbits and other small mammals, especially early mornings or late in the day, as they’re feeding.”

As Hahn points out, prairie dogs are fast, noting, “They have to be because of the predators in the area.” For this reason, among many others, he advises against wandering too far into prairie dog towns. “It’s better to stay on the edges,” he says. “You really don’t realize what you’re walking on, and your weight could actually collapse a tunnel. You could fall into it and hurt yourself, or hurt a prairie dog.” Another cause for caution is the large population of rattlesnakes that tend to hang out with the prairie dogs, using the same tunnels to hide from the midday sun.

Photo Tip: “Every year one of those little dogs manages to figure out a way to make a burrow through the road,” says Hahn. “You’ll be driving along, and there’s a pothole, and suddenly a prairie dog sticks its head up out of it.”

Black-tailed prairie dogs are very social animals, living in a close-knit group called a coterie. The members of the coterie work together to raise young and dig burrows, and can often be seen grooming each other and playing. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota. Hahn Nature Photography

For best success in photographing such critters, Hahn recommends being patient, staying still and not making a lot of sudden movements. “As with all wildlife, you’ve just got to let them have their space. I get as low as possible, so I get down to their world,” he says. “In certain places, the road is a little lower than the town itself, which makes it easier to get intimate, in-your-face kind of shots.”

Gear Tip: “I like to stay very versatile with my lenses, because we do a lot of shooting from the road,” says Hahn. “You can use anything from a wide angle up to longer telephotos. I use a Tamron 150 – 600mm, which gives me a lot of versatility.”

Most important, he says, “don’t just hold down the shutter and machine gun your camera, because that sudden clacking sound of a DSLR can spook a really timid animal. Instead, take a few shots and then quit and let them get used to the sound. Especially smaller critters that are prey animals, you don’t want them to associate you with that sound and aggressive movement.”

Photo Tip: “This is one of those places where using a car as an impromptu blind works very well,” says Hahn. “Most animals are not able to differentiate you from your vehicle, it is all one creature. And to their knowledge, this big metal thing stays on the road and makes a big noise, but doesn’t really mess with them. So, a lot of times, they’ll let you get closer in the car than if you actually crack the door and climb out.”

Two wild mares graze on a hillside in the park while their colts take a momentary break from playing. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota.Hahn Nature Photography

Another popular subject for photography are the bands of wild mustangs. “They are completely free-roaming, but they have hangouts in specific areas,” says Hahn. “The first place I go is the Cottonwood Campground, and I frequently find horses there.” He also recommends a side road headed south from the ranch. “It’s a little dirt road where people bring their own horses to follow the trails. The mustangs smell the horses and show up.”

Hahn explains that, throughout the year, the wild stallions mark out their territory and try to gather as many mares as they can into their own little herd, noting, “The bands are constantly on the move, but each band will stay within a couple of square miles.” Certain behaviors can make for quite dramatic pictures. “Stallions are quite aggressive with each other and you see a lot of fighting between them, especially in the fall,” he points out.

According to Hahn, optimal times for photographing mustangs, as well as other animals, varies with the seasons. “If it’s warmer they’re going to be more active in the morning, and then late afternoon to evening,” he says. “When it’s warm, everything quiets down in the middle of the day; however, in colder weather you can see them out just about any time.” The phase of the moon is equally significant. Says Hahn, “If you’ve got a full moon, the horses may be a little more active overnight, because they can see a little bit better than if it’s a new moon, when they may be a little less active after dark.”

A recently born bison calf peeks out from behind its protective mother. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota.Hahn Nature Photography

Gear Tip: While it’s always important to have a good tripod, Hahn often uses a monopod in the field, as well. “A lot of wildlife shooters don’t use monopods, but I do,” he says, “because it serves as part hiking stick and part camera support. This is a place that may not have a lot of cloud cover. Depending on the time of year you’re going to have a lot of light and a lot of shutter speed, so a monopod’s great to help walk through that environment and then take the load of the camera off.”

In addition to the horses, “It’s not at all uncommon to see elk,” adds Hahn, “especially on the eastern side, where it’s a little more forested. They’ll typically be up in the tree line during the summer months. They start drifting down as the fall comes, especially as you get closer to the rut.”

But perhaps the most emblematic creature found in the park is TRNP’s plentiful supply of bison. “You see them all over the place, with the bulls, the cows, and the calves exhibiting all kinds of behaviors,” notes Hahn. Earlier in the year, you’ll see more bison calves, in their almost blondish, red phase, and later in the year they’re a little bit stockier.”

Haney notes, “You definitely need a lot of respect for bison, especially bulls. For the most part, you’ll see them along the road and it’s easy to photograph them. If you run across a few out on the trail, take the long way around, and just keep an eye on them,” he advises. “Keep a safe distance, and preferably use a long telephoto lens.”

Bison crossing the Little Missouri River, Theodore Roosevelt National Park.Chuck Haney

Haney recounts a particularly memorable photo op involving Bison during one of his workshops. “We were at the Little Missouri River for sunrise and I said to my class, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to see a bison cross the river and be silhouetted.’ And literally, two minutes later, here came a buffalo, followed by about 300 of his friends,” he recalls. “We had bison crossing the river in front of us, and behind us, basically the whole herd. It was just amazing.”

TRNP’s North Unit

TRNP’s North Unit is located along Highway 85, just south of Watford City, about a 90-minute drive from the South Unit. “The North Unit is a little more isolated,” says Haney. “The Little Missouri River cuts a lot deeper than in the South Unit, so the canyons have a bigger feel as far as relief. There are a couple of overlooks down into the river, which are quite dramatic.”

Sunset over the Little Missouri River, which runs along the western side of the park’s South Unit. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, North Dakota. Hahn Nature Photography

Hahn finds the photo opportunities up north to be a bit different than in the South Unit. “The northern section is more geared to landscape,” he says. “You’ve got oxbows in the Little Missouri river, and sunrise is really pretty because the canyon runs east to west.”

Oxbow rivers are very twisty, with sand bars throughout. While the flow dries down to a trickle in the summer, “If they’ve had a good snow melt it’s going to be running really, really hard,” Hahn points out, “so it varies wildly throughout the year.”

It takes at least an hour to drive the North Unit's 14-mile Scenic Drive to its terminus at Oxbow Overlook and back. Haney recommends capturing sunrise from either Oxbow or Riverbend Overlooks, noting, “The sun hits the river bottom real nicely in the morning.”

Five miles from the park entrance, Juniper Campground is accessible year-round, offering 50 campsites. Says Haney, “Both the north and south units have really nice campsites along the river, situated in cottonwood groves. It’s a good habitat for songbirds,” he points out. I’ve had my best luck hanging out and photographing them from my campsite. The birds there become a little more used to people.”

TRNP’s Elkhorn Ranch Unit

Midway between the North and South Units, along the banks of the Little Missouri River, the 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch Unit is the smallest section of TRNP, accessible by car via 30 miles of gravel roads running north from I-94, west of Medora. This remote site is widely considered as the Cradle of American Conservation, due to its role in inspiring the conservation initiatives of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Cannonball concretions and eroded Badland formations, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit. Chuck Haney

Established in 1884, Roosevelt hired two Maine woodsmen to construct the ranch, as well as to manage his cattle interests. While this site soon became Roosevelt’s headquarters during his North Dakota visits, it’s active life was short-lived, and by 1901 every scrap of the Elkhorn Ranch had disappeared, except for a couple of half-rotted foundations.

“It’s quite a way off the main highway, and there’s just a little cottonwood grove left today,” says Haney. “But it’s a calm beautiful little area, for sure.”

Maah Daah Hey Trail and Medora Entertainments

For dedicated cyclists, the Maah Daah Hey Trail stretches for 144 miles across the Little Missouri National Grassland to form the longest continuous single track mountain biking trail in America, which is also accessible to hikers and horseback riders. While the trail unites all three units of the park, biking is not allowed on trails within TRNP itself. “There are wild buffalo in the park, so they have to keep a fence around it, to keep the animals in,” Haney points out. “You really wouldn’t want to be cycling out there and run into a huge herd of buffalo along the trail.”

Mountain biker rides along the Maah Daah Hey Trail in the Little Missouri National Grasslands of North Dakota.Chuck Haney

A veteran of several excursions, Haney says, “June or July is a nice time to ride the Maah Daah Hey, when it greens up out on the prairie. It can get really hot out there in late July and through August,” he warns, “but later September into October is also nice, when the colors turn, and it’s not so hot.” It took Haney about four days to complete the trip from north to south. “That’s if you’re in shape,” he adds.

The route features designated campsites every 20 miles or so, “but you can basically camp anywhere you want out there,” Haney explains. But instead of traveling with camping supplies, he recommends using the Medora-based bike shop, Dakota Cyclery, to shuttle gear from one campground to the next, noting, “The trail is pretty tough, with a lot of ups and downs, so you really don’t want to haul your own gear.”

Each morning, a Cyclery trailer picks up your gear and transports it to the next campsite. At the end of your ride stage, your gear is waiting in a locked trailer, “So you can just set up camp and then repeat the procedure the next day, all the way down to Medora,” he says. “It’s nice, you can usually have a cooler of beer waiting for you when you get done with the ride.”

Wild horses running through the grasslands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park.Chuck Haney

For visitors who prefer an adventure on horseback, Medora Riding Stables offers hourly trail rides through Badland buttes and canyons from late May through early September. During its short summer season, the town of Medora comes alive in the evening with nightly entertainment. Highlights include the Medora Musical, held at the open-air Burning Hills Amphitheater, and a Cowboy Cookout buffet offered five nights a week. “Medora really gears up for their three months of tourism,” Haney sums up. “The park just happens to be located right there, but a lot of people come for the entertainment.”

Do you have any adventures to share from visiting a National Park or Monument? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.

About the photographers

Chuck Haney is a Whitefish, Montana-based professional freelance photographer, writer, and videographer who lives in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Haney’s provocative use of natural light in landscape imagery, along with his wildlife, avian, and outdoor sports subjects, have drawn national acclaim, landing him many assignments with leading publications, travel bureaus, and corporate clients. The author of numerous books with the publisher Far Country Press, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park Impressions, and his most recent title, Badlands Impressions, Haney travels extensively in pursuit of the finest and most intriguing images. He also teaches 5- to 10-day photography workshops, leading small groups to a wide range of outdoor locations within America’s National Parks, and to foreign locales such as Iceland. To subscribe to Haney’s monthly newsletter, click here.

Jason and Nicole Hahn are Florida-based professional outdoor and nature photographers. Together, they run Hahn Nature Photography, focused on creating compelling images of all the wildlife, scenery, and outdoor adventure found on our big beautiful planet. They also run Outdoor Photo Workshops, providing tailored one-on-one and small group photography workshops and photo tours, as well as two regional photo festivals annually: the Tampa Bay Photo Shootout in Florida and Black Hills Photo Shootout in South Dakota, which will next be held September 29 to October 1, 2017.

This story is part of an ongoing series on America’s National Parks, Forests, and Monuments. Read the other stories in our series here: South Dakota: From the Black Hills National Forest to the Badlands and Maine Driving Guide: From Mount Katahdin to Acadia National Park.

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