Tag Archives: Dakotas

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit: Coal Vein Trail and Ridgeline Nature Trail

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The second half of our tour of Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit’s loop road comprised two short nature hikes: Coal Vein Trail and Ridgeline Nature Trail. Throughout the park, we found the interpretive brochures consistently well-stocked, well-written, and informative. Kudos to the park staff and volunteers. Sean delighted in reading the brochures aloud in his radio voice.

The sky had grown insistently moody by the time we reached the parking lot for Coal Vein Trail, a 0.8-mile loop in the western part of the South Unit. It was here that a coal vein slowly burned for twenty-six years (1951-1977). While it has been out slightly longer than I have been alive, the evidence is captured in the rock, and the vein is clearly visible at points along the trail.

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Coal vein

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park: South Unit Loop Road

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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.

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Detour: Devils Tower National Monument

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In 1906, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which allowed the president to create National Monuments, as opposed to National Parks, which could only be created by Congress. The act was intended to allow for quick protection of land, particularly to allow the government to protect archeological sites that were being looted by pot hunters. It was the second step, after the invention of National Parks, in the creation of a system that would still not have its own managing agency until the Park Service would be created ten years later in 1916. Concerning restrictions on the use of land, it was also the second step in a series of protections that would culminate in the Wilderness Act in 1964.

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Detour: Cathedral Spires

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After we departed Wind Cave National Park, we entered Custer State Park. Founded in 1912 in part by the efforts of Peter Norbeck, who would be so instrumental in the creation of Badlands National Monument, the park now comprises 71,000 acres of the Black Hills. Our destination was the Cathedral Spires formation in the northwest corner of the park, deep in the granite heart of the Black Hills.

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Wind Cave National Park: Rankin Ridge Trail

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Next morning dawned overcast. It was our final morning at Wind Cave National Park, and we intended to get one more short hike in before continuing on our adventures.

We were still trepidatious about the changing weather. It was Tuesday, September 9, and the forecast for the Black Hills the next day was possible snow, while in North Dakota, our ultimate destination, the temperatures were forecasted to drop precipitously.

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Wind Cave National Park: Lookout Point and Centennial Trails Loop

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It was Monday afternoon, September 8, and we’d already explored two caves, but the day wasn’t over.  We arrived back at our campsite at Elk Mountain Campground just before 4pm, which still gave us plenty of time for an above ground hike at Wind Cave before the sun set at 7:19pm.

The hike we chose was the Lookout Point/Centennial Trail Loop, a four-mile loop that began not too far from the campground up the park road and wound through prairie, forest, and riparian areas.

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Eastern Kingbird. Image: Sean M. Santos

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