Nowhere, not even at sea, does a man feel more lonely than when riding over the far-reaching, seemingly never-ending plains; and after a man has lived a little while on or near them, their very vastness and loneliness and their melancholy monotony have a strong fascination for him. The landscape seems always the same, and after the traveler has plodded on for miles and miles he gets to feel as if the distance was indeed boundless. As far as the eye can see there is no break; either the prairie stretches out into perfectly level flats, or else there are gentle, rolling slopes, whose crests mark the divide between the drainage systems of the different creeks; and when one of these is ascended, immediately another precisely like it takes its place in the distance, and so roll succeeds roll in a succession as interminable as that of the waves of the ocean.
– Theodore Roosevelt, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman
At more than 46,000 acres, the South Unit is the largest of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It lies immediately north of the town of Medora and I-94 and is therefore by far the most visited of the three. A 36-mile scenic loop road allows motorists from the interstate to easily take in the sites, grab a bite or some gas in Medora, and be on their way across the continent. The loop road was the first thing on our agenda after breakfast on Thursday, September 11.
From Cottonwood Campground, we drove east/northeast through Peaceful Valley passing the site of a horse ranch and its ranch house that date to about 1885.
We stopped at the prairie dog town in Beef Corral Bottom, so named because it was one of the sites the cattle were driven to during the annual roundups of Roosevelt’s time. The Badlands of western Dakota were part of the open range system wherein cattle would roam and graze more or less freely. Each ranch had a brand to identify the those it owned. At the yearly roundup, the beeves were driven to a flat, protected area, often along the river, and sorted into herds based on their brands.
It was here at Beef Corral Bottom that Sean determined that he was Mayor of Prairie Dog Town. His constituents had much to tell him.
After Beef Corral Bottom, the road climbed out of the valley and into the rolling Badlands. A small lookout afforded us a view of the rolling country.
The image above, looking north/northeast is the point where the loop road (pictured) comes closest to the park boundary. Immediately beyond in the center of the image the tank of an oil well is visible. It’s a vivid reminder of how closely Bakken oil activity is encroaching on this park.
By contrast, the westerly view below (taken from the same spot) looks out into the solitude of the federally designated Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness.
We continued on the loop road as it dropped into another valley. We’d not gotten far when we encountered a herd of bison cows, calves, and young bulls leisurely crossing the road while they grazed.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Video: Sean M. Santos
We continued on the road as it rose again to overlooks affording grand views across the park to the south/southwest.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Farther along, we parked at Buck Hill and walked the short distance to the top to take in more views of the park, the surrounding national grasslands, and the country beyond. Clouds had moved in since the morning, causing the Badlands to be dramatically lit.