Theodore Roosevelt National Park (NP #24), North Dakota

I identify with Teddy Roosevelt.


There isn’t any cell service here in Cooke City (7/12/15) at the edge of Yellowstone National Park so I’ll look up the specifics later, but in general, Teddy Roosevelt was a well off city boy with an enthusiasm for the outdoors which only grew through his adolescence and young adulthood. He saw the value in roughing it, and so do I. (He was born and raised in Manhattan, and I grew up in suburban Orange County. His family was decidedly in New York’s high society, and I won’t make any attempt to downplay the financial security I enjoyed because of the successful manufacturing business my father built)


On top of that he is credited with initiating many National Parks and Monuments between 1902 and 1909 which led to the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916. Credit where credit is due – Teddy only began designating National Parks at the relentless persuasion of legendary naturalist, John Muir. The apex of that persuasion occurred over a three day camping trip to California’s Yosemite Valley in 1903. The naming of Theodore Roosevelt National Park pays tribute to Teddy’s foresight in creating federally protected lands and to the time he spent seasonally ranching in the grasslands of North Dakota.


Roosevelt and Muir at Yosemite.



Theodore Roosevelt National Park (map / wiki) is bisected by Interstate 94, and the terrain is a combination of grassland, badlands, and dense tree groves in the better watered ravines and valleys. The northern half tends toward more rugged badlands, the south toward prairie and brush flats. The park ranger at the visitor center recommended I hike a 10 mile loop in the southern half through the park’s petrified forest.


After confirming that the thunderstorms in the area were going to miss west, she set me up with an overnight backcountry camping permit. Before I left she warned me to keep a close eye on the trail posts because bison herds walk in lines and can create their own paths tangent to the formal hiking trail.


I would have had an easier second day of hiking and a harder time coming up with something to write about if I had taken that warning more seriously.


This is the map I used, and if you reference it when I describe my hike, the story will make more sense. My planned loop was to take North Petrified Forest Trail to the Maah Daah Hey Trail south to the South Petrified Forest Trail west.


The hike-in was happily uneventful.


I headed northeast on the North Petrified Forest Trail and began south on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. All told, I did a little over five miles that first day before settling in and heating up dinner. I had a good view down into the valley to the northeast. I counted nine campfires, and turned in early with the rainfly off my tent. The sounds of bird calls and crickets continued past full-dark, and I reflected on the deep sense of satisfaction I get when I see insects crawling on the outside of my tent.






I rose early the next morning, partly because of how early I went to sleep and partly because I wanted to complete my hike out before the heat of mid-day hit. Leaving at 7:00am I figured I would be back to my car before 9:30am. After the apple I ate for breakfast, I only had a Cliff Bar and less than a liter of water, so I was eager – but in no rush – to keep to that timeline. Enter: Murphy’s Law.


I continued south on Ma Daah Hey Trail keeping an eye out for the turn off that would take me back northwest through the petrified forest to my car.


On the way I noticed that some of the 4″ x 6″ trail posts had been broken off at the base. I later learned that this was due to the bison getting too aggressive with them as a scratching post. After an hour of hiking I came to the marked trail post for for Lone Tree Loop Trail, which was problematic because that meant I had hiked a mile past where the South Petrified Trail was supposed to turn off. There were two options, I could hike 1.5 miles back the way I came and keep a closer eye out for the South Petrified Trail, or I could take the 3.8 mile Lone Tree Loop Trail which dumped back into the South Petrified Forest Trail further down in the direction I needed to go. I went with the loop, figuring it would only add about an hour extra to my hike at this point.


It became obvious that the Lone Tree Loop Trail was less well traveled, but I didn’t have too much trouble finding my way to begin with. I was especially motivated by the prairie dog groups I passed through. They all stood at attention, and there were designated callers who would warn the rest of my approach. These callers kept a “cheep…cheep…cheep” rhythm whenever I was within ~100 feet of them, and when I exited that radius the next caller down the line would take up the alarm. I was impressed with their organization, and I would estimate there were 100 prairie dogs that I saw throughout their community which stretched for a tenth of a mile.


Then the trail became ambiguous.


This is an example of the bison trails splitting off of the main trail.


The Lone Tree Loop Trail was faint. In this picture it extends from the shadow of the post.


After going longer than I was used to without seeing a post, I back tracked to see if I had missed a turn in the trail.


It appeared that I hadn’t, and after walking further down I found the next trail post. Then it looked like the trail turned right and crossed Knutson creek. The crossing was relatively wide, and well stamped with bison split-hoof prints. I slogged through and followed a trail which was mostly hoof prints but clearly had a boot tracks as well. After a while of hiking east without any posts I became suspicious of my route. I checked my GPS and assured myself that I was in the correct area going the correct direction. It sounds silly typing it now, but after I became frustrated trying to tease out where the formal trail was I attempted to hike cross country (no trail) north to intersect the South Petrified Forest trail (a look at the map might help you visualize it).


After a 20 minute jaunt it looked like I was in luck.


I came upon the trail and, assuming it was the South Petrified Forest Trail, I began hiking west. A mile into that I began to have second thoughts. My GPS showed my trail trending slightly southwest instead of slightly northwest, and about the time I realized that I had actually been hiking the Lone Tree Loop Trail in the wrong direction, my water ran out. On the plus side, now I for sure knew where I was and where I needed to go. On the down side it was now mid-day, and I had about 4 miles to hike without water.


I realize this is a bit of a long description, but trust me the best part is yet to come..




I made it back to the point where I started in the wrong direction, and decided to take a 10 minute break under the trees to regroup. There was a crawling sensation up my right ankle, and when it gathered enough of my interest to investigate, I found two ticks.


I inspected my other ankle and I ended up pulling four off of my ankles and one from behind my knee (only one of them had had enough time to get a firm bite). The unsettling thing about ticks is that they are able to burrow into your skin without you feeling it so when you find and remove a few of them, there’s always the voice in your head saying “that can’t have been all of them..”


I ended my break and hiked up a muddy section of the ravine. Considering my luck so far, I made the decision to try to boil up a little water to take with me. I found the largest puddle in a particularly deep bison hoof print and filled my stove with about a pint and a half of muddy water and algae. After a 10 minute boil, I filtered the water through my North Dakota flag into my CamelBak bladder and took a first taste.


I think the name “cow-patty tea” best captures the concoction, and I couldn’t be happier to gulp it down faster than I could breathe. From there my hike out was predictable, and in less than two hours I was back at my car pulling a few more ticks off of my waistline.


And so it was that Jay learned not to cut it too close with water rations because if you don’t heed the recommendation of a gallon per day per person, you do so at your own risk.

2 Comments on “Theodore Roosevelt National Park (NP #24), North Dakota

  1. Jaay
    Got your e-mail and just read your Teddy Roosevelt trail experience, live and learn.
    two essentials for hiking , a compass and a distance meter , of course when you get up early you have the ultimate compass, the sun.The gopher colonies are fantastic. A favorite past time was hunting gophers with a 22 rifle, I should say shooting gophers with a 22. You could sit in one place and shoot until you were bored. The farmers welcomed getting rid of the gopher colonies but I don’t think that ever actually happened. After the muddy Missouri you will have an opportunity to see the beautiful Yellowstone which runs clear across Montana. Your mother was down yesterday, which is always a pleasure. Take care and enjoy

    love, gpa

    1. Yeah, that hike turned out to be more exciting than I expected. The colonies of prairie dogs were hilarious. I was big news to them when I walked through. Yellowstone was amazing, and I’ll have a post for it soon!

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