The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is right along I-94 near the Montana/North Dakota border, so it is easily accessible. My first stop was the Painted Canyon rest stop and overlook at exit 32. There was one buffalo at the edge of the parking lot! I took a short 1-mile loop trail down into the canyon. As always, it was good to stretch my legs.
It seems that driving is the thing to do in Theodore Roosevelt NP. The dry badlands were not my ideal environment for hiking — treeless, shadeless, and hot (temps were in the low 90s). This was one park where I found myself “just” driving and stopping at various viewpoints to look and take photos. I drove a 36-mile scenic loop drive accessed from the Medora entrance to the park.
The scenic drive held its own rewards. The badlands scenery was otherwordly — hills and rock formations in striated bands of subdued colors. I saw wild horses and a couple of huge prairie dog towns.
“The prairie dogs . . . sit at the mouths of their burrows with their usual pert curiosity.” — Theodore Rosoevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
It was nearing sunset when I arrived at the Wind Canyon overlook. I ate a quick picnic dinner in the shade of my car, and then walked over a rise to a short 1/4 mile trail to the edge of the bluff. Below, the bend of Little Missouri River glittered in the low light. Some wild horses raced down to the water in the far distance. Down the other side of the bluff was a green valley with a herd of about 75 bison grazing, calves and adults mixed. It was a bucolic scene.
As I waited for the sun to sink slowly, by degrees, toward the horizon, I noticed that the bison herd was making marked progress across the meadow. They covered a lot of ground quite quickly. It wouldn’t be long before they reached the road — and just up the road was the parking lot/trailhead and my car. I recalled all the danger signs I had seen warning to keep your distance from these wild animals, and the conversation at the campground the previous evening about people who had been attacked. The sun was falling so slowly, and the bison were progressing through the grazing ground quite fast.
I decided to leave the sunset viewpoint and walk at least halfway back down the trail so I would be closer to my car for a quick exit. I lost sight of the buffalo herd, but I did finally see the sun sink below the horizon — another red sunset in the hazy atmosphere.
Then a young man who was also photographing the sunset at the viewpoint came running past me — “The buffalo are on the road,” he said. I followed closely on his footsteps. Coming up over the rise to the parked car, I saw that there were already some bison in the parking lot! Thankfully I had parked at the far end. I raced to my car and shut the door. Safe!
So I ended the day with a little bit of excitement, an encounter with buffalo. Something to remember about my trip to Theodore Roosevelt NP.