Back Road: North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park | Midwest Living

Back Road: North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A century after Theodore Roosevelt died, his legacy lives on at his namesake national park in North Dakota.

Before his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt immersed himself in the wild Dakota territory. A century after his death, you can do the same at his namesake national park.

I am a Theodore Roosevelt fanboy. So I hiked North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park to understand how the frontier changed and shaped him—from sickly asthmatic boy into exemplar of the rugged life and, ultimately, into a U.S. president and a pillar of the conservation movement.

I wasn’t sure what I was searching for until I crested a small rise near Medora, not far from where Roosevelt owned a ranch. Behind me, to the west, stretched vast badlands, with buttes like sand castles erupting from the clay floor. Ahead of me, to the east, a prairie rolled out as flat as a board. The duality echoed Roosevelt’s life. He was a cowboy and a politician, a Rough Rider and a preening aristocrat, an avid naturalist who carried a Tiffany and Company knife from New York.

Roosevelt initially visited the western edge of North Dakota to hunt bison. He celebrated his first kill in 1883 with a wild dance. And he moved here the following year, after the deaths of his mother and wife on the same day in New York. Broken by grief, he sought solace in ranching and hunting. But when he pursued bison again, something close to regret mingled with his excitement. The animal had nearly gone extinct due to overhunting, and he lamented that its disappearance would rob the world of such magnificent creatures.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Roosevelt considered the loss a human error that he could work to correct. In 1905, he helped found the American Bison Society. As the 26th U.S. president, he created two big-game preserves and supported plans to populate them with bison. Today, the species numbers 500,000 in North America, compared to about 12,500 when Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919.

The president’s conservation efforts went far beyond bison. He started the United States Forest Service and protected roughly 230 million acres of public land. Fittingly, only one national park is named after a person—this one. Standing here, at the intersection of badlands and prairie, I looked north. Two bison grazed, their faces buried in grass. I can only imagine the dance Roosevelt would have done at that sight.

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