One of the few places folks are able to ride their horses cross country among free-ranging wild buffalo is in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. On your trail ride you're treated not only to views of buffalo, but also of wild horses, elk, deer, mountain sheep, and prairie dogs. This varied wildlife display against a fantastically eroded landscape of the Badlands makes for memorable trail riding experiences.
The town of Medora sits at the entrance of the park's South Unit; there's riding in the park's North Unit, as well. The south area around Medora is very horse-friendly. We were introduced to this region a few years earlier by avid horsemen Angie and Joyce Bissell who've guided us on trails both inside and outside the park. We were returning to do further riding and exploration.
Medora was founded in 1883 by a French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores. He named the town for his bride, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker. The marquis constructed a large meatpacking plant with plans to process cattle and ship the beef Back East in newly developed refrigerator cars. He built a large house on the edge of Medora, dubbed Chateau de Mores. Today, this house is a State Historic Site and is open for tours. Unfortunately, the marquis met financial ruin and left the cattle business - and Medora - in 1886.
At the same time, another colorful character arrived in the area, Theodore Roosevelt. Both Roosevelt's mother and wife had just died. He came out in 1883 to hunt buffalo and have a mental escape. He quickly fell in love with the land. In spite of his "Eastern dude" appearance and thick spectacles, he gained the respect of local cowboys.
Roosevelt also invested in cattle-raising and owned two large ranches: the Maltese Cross, seven miles south of Medora, and the Elkhorn, 35 miles north of town. John F. Kennedy was the youngest elected president. However, Roosevelt was our youngest president, ascending to that office at age 42 with the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. He called his years in the Badlands, "the romance of my life," adding that if it weren't for his experiences in the Badlands, he never could've become president.
Before entering the park, stop at the visitor center. There, you'll find park maps to help you plan your rides. Buy the detailed National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for the park, which lists selected waypoints of various trails and trail junctions (800/962-1643; www.trailsillustrated.com). Inquire about trail conditions and any trail closures. Camping information is also available.
While there, browse through the museum displays. You'll find Roosevelt's personal artifacts, including the shirt (complete with bullet hole) that Roosevelt was wearing during an assassination attempt in 1912. At the time, he was running on the Bull Moose Party's ticket for president. The bullet knocked him down but stopped short of doing mortal damage. He got back up and said, "It takes more than that to stop a bull moose!" He finished his speech before seeking medical attention. Now, that's tough!
You may also want to stroll through Roosevelt's cabin, which was moved from his Maltese Cross Ranch to the visitor center.
Roundup Horse Camp
Previously, we'd stayed at horse campgrounds outside the park. We planned several camping spots this time, including Roundup Horse Camp, located inside the park. Roundup Horse Camp is very popular and interested parties should plan on reserving it with the park service by March for the upcoming summer. We felt lucky to have reservations for two nights. Upon entering the park, we drove past undulating Badlands, along the Little Missouri River, and past prairie dog towns to the entrance of Roundup Horse Camp. Eager to see the camp and visit with other horsemen, we rounded the last bend and came into a deserted camp. We were the only ones there.
After checking our paper work more closely, we realized that Roundup Horse Camp is a group camp and we had reserved the entire place just for ourselves. This is a very nice camp with four spacious corrals, a loop drive, several picnic tables, and a large covered kitchen area. Charlene noticed how heavy duty the metal corrals were built to keep horses in. I said that wasn't for keeping horses in, but rather for keeping buffalo out! We felt a bit guilty at holding this nice camp for just ourselves, so we cut our two-day stay down to one night.
We did enjoy sharing our one night with my mother, Betty Shadduck, and her friend of more than 50 years, Arlis Burns. They've both lost their husbands, but have continued their friendship, traveling and seeing the sights of our country just like they did back in the 1950s.
We sat by our campfire and watched the sun slide behind the Badlands, leaving streaks of color in its wake. We felt very fortunate to be together in such spectacular surroundings.
Lone Tree Spring Loop
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a horse-lover's paradise. You can ride numerous loop trails, as well as cross-country. For our first ride, we selected the 10-mile-long Lone Tree Spring Loop behind Peaceful Valley Ranch.
Note: If you don't have your own horse, Peaceful Valley Ranch maintains a full schedule of trail rides. It also hosts bed-and-breakfast rides, which include a full day's ride through Petrified Forest and National Grasslands to the Diamond Bar Ranch, where food, evening entertainment, and a night in a log cabin are provided.
Almost immediately, the Lone Spring Loop crosses the Little Missouri River. At which point, also almost immediately, my horse, Buddy, sat down in the river! I jumped off into the murky water and let Buddy know this was not the time, or place, to lie down on the job!
Back in the saddle, we continued on to a terrific ride. We passed prairie dog towns and enjoyed the antics of the little critters as they chattered warnings to their neighbors of our oncoming presence. We also passed several buffalo herds. Buffalo may seem lethargic and tame, but they can become a raging mass reaching speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Horses have been gored by charging buffalo. This loop was where Charlene and Scout came face to face with a buffalo bull that blocked their route on a cliff-side trail. Getting around the buffalo required a 45-minute detour working our way up eroded cliffs that protruded out like boney fingers of an old sun-bleached skeleton.
Quicksand is prevalent in the park. Be careful at all stream and river crossings. Cross at established trail crossings or where you see that buffalo have been safely crossing. We didn't run in to quicksand, but we did have a bad, gooey mud experience on this loop. Buddy started into a small creek and began sinking in the thick, soft mud. With some quick thinking and powerful jumping, we were able to get turned around. We had to do another detour around this spot to get across the stream and continue down the trail. Following that experience, we were home free.
Bar X Ranch
We changed camps to the Bar X Ranch, located outside the park and just south of Medora. This is a private camp that provides cabins, campsites, electrical hookups, showers, and corrals in a peaceful flat dotted with large, shady cottonwood trees. There is even a hot tub to rest weary bones after those long rides in the badlands. The camp has a convenient location along side the Maah Daah Hey Trail and the Little Missouri River.
From the Bar X Ranch, riders may ride on the ranch's private land, along the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and over to Sully Creek State Park, another horse camp facility. We rode along the Maah Daah Hey Trail to check it out. This is a newly built trail that traverses the scenic and rugged Little Missouri Badlands. It starts at Sully Creek, very close to the Bar X Ranch, and travels 120 miles north connecting the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: the South, Elkhorn, and North. It ends at the CCC campground next to the North Unit.
For our next riding adventure, we trailered to the Painted Canyon portion of the park located a few miles east of Medora on I-94. Painted Canyon has a visitor center and beautiful views of a small, but colorful version of the Grand Canyon. We rode our horses across the parking lot and a short distance east to where the trail drops over the edge and descends into the canyon. Our horses followed the Painted Canyon Trail past pockets of timber and eroded buttes to the bottom.
Not far from the trail we found a strange place where spires appeared to protrude from the ground like stalactites hanging from an upside down cavern. Upon closer inspection we found each spire was topped by a section of a petrified tree. Over many, many years the petrified tree sections had protected the softer ground underneath them. Erosion had removed all other soil leaving a delicate, mystical fairy land of spires. We termed this unusual area The Hoodoos.
We turned left at the junction of the Upper Paddock Creek Trail and then went cross country northeasterly for approximately five miles intersecting the Upper Talkington Trail. Be prepared for traveling cross-country. You may find yourself easily disoriented by Badlands terrain. Be aware of the sun's position. Try to keep familiar landmarks in mind in case you have to turn around and follow the same route back. Use a global positioning system, and use the maps you picked up at the visitor's center.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few areas in the West today where you can readily observe free-roaming wild horses. Horses evolved on the North American continent, but they were one of several mammalian species that became extinct around 10,000 years ago. Having survived on the European/Asian continent, the horse was reestablished in North America by the Spanish in the 16th century. Escaped horses became known as "mustangs" from the Spanish word mesteño, meaning "wild." They're also referred to as feral horses, since they came from domesticated stock. From 1600 to 1850, mustangs ranged throughout the plains in vast herds, sometimes numbering in the thousands. Today, there are between 70 to 140 mustangs left in the park.
Some of these horses resemble horses of the 1800s. As can be seen in early drawings and photographs, local horses of that time were typically large-headed, short-backed, and a little larger than the mustang of the southern plains. They were often blue or red roans with white faces and patches of white on their sides. This color pattern, called an "apron," can be seen in paintings by prominent Western artists Frederic Remington and C.M. Russell.
If you're lucky enough to spot a group of wild horses, take time to study their behavior. Wild horses range in bands of 5 to 15 animals, consisting of a dominant stallion, his mares, and their offspring. Frequently a subdominant stallion will "run second" to the leader. Stallions herd their mares by extending their heads and necks low to the ground in a threatening gesture known as "snaking." When a band is in flight, a dominant mare will take the lead, with the stallion bringing up the rear. Young stallions roam together in bachelor groups, sometimes in proximity to a stallion harem.
An excellent book about wild horses is Tyger, Wild Stallion of the Badlands, by Les Sellnow. Although a work of fiction, the book is based on the life of a real stallion that lived in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sellnow, a noted author and lifetime horseman, donated a yearling stallion to the park. During the following years, Les and his wife traveled frequently to the Badlands to study his colt and the lives of other wild horses. The book emerged from these observations and Sellnow's extensive experiences. Charlene says it's one of the best horse books she's ever read.
While traveling cross-country, we did encounter a wild horse herd. We weren't sure how our horses would react. At first, Buddy and Scout were a bit excited. Perhaps the sight of wild horses running free drew feelings of unabashed freedom from their primeval instincts. Fleeting thoughts of charging across the plains came to our horses' minds. However, these thoughts were apparently quickly replaced with memories of the warm barn on a cold winter's night, and yummy hay and grain. Our beloved mounts calmed down and continued walking right down the trail.
'Eye of the Needle Ride'
Our last ride was what we called the "eye of the needle ride." If you have time for only one ride, this is it. At about 12.4 miles, this ride has everything: scenery, buffalo, prairie dogs, wild horses, petrified trees, and a curious natural formation.
We started the loop at the Jones Creek trailhead about one mile north of the Peaceful Valley horse concession. Riding the one mile back to Peaceful Valley on a connecting trail, we then turned east following the Lower Paddock Creek Trail.
Almost immediately after starting the Lower Paddock Trail, we encountered a large group of widely dispersed buffalo. They stretched from rough hillsides on the left to a muddy stream on the right. Carefully, we angled our horses through wide spaces in the herd, keeping as far as possible from each buffalo.
A few miles later we came to the "eye of the needle." This curious formation isn't readily seen from the trail. Keep looking to your left. You may see it most easily after you pass it. In that case, turn back and look for a small trail turning off. The "eye" is about one-quarter mile from the main trail and is actually a small rock arch large enough to ride a horse through. Take time to photograph members of your party riding through the "eye."
About 4.4 miles from Peaceful Valley, the Lower Paddock Creek Trail connects with a park road. Turn left and follow the road for about a half mile. Where the road turns to the right, look to the valley going left. Work your way up this valley searching for the trail and trail markers. In a mile the trail connects with the Lower Talkington Trail. Turn left here; in 1.8 miles, you'll connect with the Jones Creek Trail. From this point, you have it made. Go left; in 3.5 miles, you'll arrive back at your starting point. Watch along the way for petrified tree stumps and piles of petrified rocks that look like freshly chopped wood.
To put a grand finale on our stay at the beautiful, eerily shaped badlands, we went to a Pitchfork Fondue and, believe it or not, a musical show. The Pitchfork Fondue starts with an 11-ounce rib-eye steak cooked "cowboy style" on the end of a pitchfork. Add to your plate some baked potatoes, beans, coleslaw, breads, dessert, and beverages, and you have a meal befitting the surrounding vast Dakota landscape.
After dinner, wander a short distance to the 2,900-seat outdoor amphitheater for the professionally produced musical extravaganza known as the Medora Musical. Each night throughout the summer, the musical is performed with the North Dakota Badlands as its backdrop. This high-energy Broadway-style show combines singing, dancing, comedy, and nationally known variety acts. An enjoyable, patriotic portion of the show is dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt. Our time in the Badlands had come to an end. The area's scenic trails, wildlife, sweeping vistas, and mysterious beauty compel us to return again someday. As the sun set across the North Dakota sky, we thought of Roosevelt's words, "The badlands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth."