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Backpacker Magazine – September 1998

Theodore Roosevelt's Badlands

Theodore Roosevelt ventured into the North Dakota Badlands an East Coast city Boy. After the land got through with him, he had the fortitude to run a nation and the insight to preserve more wildlands than anyone in history.

by: Jeff Rennicke

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It also began to teach him. Where some saw only a wasteland, TR began to understand the value of "the silent places...unworn of man, and changed only by the slow change of the ages through time everlasting."

"His time out here helped Roosevelt foster the conservation ethic he would make use of while he was president," says Kaye. "He saw the decline in the numbers of bison, of elk. He saw declines in the wolf, in the mountain lion. He sensed what was happening out there on the land, and he saw it with his own eyes."

"Conservation of our natural resources is the most weighty question now before the people of the United States," Roosevelt would write as president. "It is not what we have that will make us a greater nation, it is the way we use it."

Despite all the lessons TR learned in the North Dakota Badlands, he may have stayed a rancher if not for the winter of 1887. It was one of the worst on record, as storm after storm hit the Badlands. The Elkhorn, which at its peak had 5,000 head of cattle, lost almost 60 percent of the herd. The same wild country that gave TR so much showed it could take it back.

Financially, it was a huge blow. TR had no choice but to sell and head back East to pursue his political career. His last visit to Elkhorn Ranch was in 1889. Though he had been defeated by the harshness of the Badlands, he had regained his spirit and won the admiration of the ranchers and cowboys who once chided him. "He is the most remarkable man I've ever met," said one. "Unless I am badly mistaken, the world is due to hear from him one of these days."

He was right. In early September 1901, while hiking alone toward the summit of Mt. Marcy in New York's Adirondacks, then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was halted by a messenger. President William McKinley had been shot. In the black of night "ol'-four-eyes" picked his way down the mountainside to a waiting carriage that whisked him to Washington, and into history as the 26th and youngest president of the United States.

Tom and I set up our tent on a wide-open ridge surrounded by endless sky and orange-brown grass, then move off separately, content to sit silently and look out on the land. As I listen to the wind and watch the sunset, I wonder what voices TR heard out here, riding alone on some evening shot through with storm light just like this, or in the sound of the wind blowing through the empty shell of a buffalo skull. No one can ever say for sure, of course, but something about the North Dakota Badlands spoke very clearly to Roosevelt. This land of lonely spaces and weirdly colored rocks helped TR define himself as a person, gave him solace in a time of personal crisis, and helped shape the bedrock of the political and environmental ethic that would guide him as president. "I never would have been president," he once said, "if it had not been for North Dakota."

If he had not been president, the fate of over 230 million acres of public land-towering waterfalls, snow-clad peaks, groves of tall redwoods, endless forests, a maze of North Country lakes, a whole system of refuges and national monuments, many of the places we hike today-would have turned out very differently. TR changed the face of a continent. But before he did, an out-of-the-way stretch of buttes and canyons along a river they call the Little Misery changed him.

Late in his presidency, Roosevelt was told by photographer and naturalist William Finley that it would be the wildlands he helped protect that would remain "one of the greatest memorials to your farsightedness." The response was vintage TR. "Bully," the president said. "I had rather have it than a hundred stone monuments." Looking out at the sunset coloring golden the endless stone bluffs of the national park that now bears his name, I realize Teddy Roosevelt got those, too.

Expedition Planner: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota The park is divided into two units. The South Unit, located just outside Medora, North Dakota, is 46,158 acres (10,510 of it designated Wilderness). The North Unit, 80 miles to the north, is 24,070 acres (19,410 in designated Wilderness).

Permits: Free backcountry permits are required for overnight hiking.

Trails: There are 85 miles of designated trails in the park. The longest trails are the Achenbach Trail (North Unit) and the Petrified Forest Loop Trail (South Unit). Both are 16 miles in length. Other shorter trails can be linked to create good, long hikes that will keep you happy for days. With proper map-reading skills, off-trail hiking is limitless. Also, the new 128-mile Maah-Daah-Hey Trail will eventually connect the North and South units.

Prairie dogs: Lots of 'em! These black-tailed prairie dogs are cute as they can be, but they can bite and often carry disease. Enjoy their antics from a relativelysafe distance.

Water: This is dry country. A few springs show up on maps, but they are not reliable. Water from the Little Missouri River can be thick as mud. In other words, expect to carry plenty of your own.

Cautions: Buffalo can be dangerous if approached or surprised. Rattlesnakes abound. Trails require repeated crossings of the Little Missouri, so contact rangers for river conditions.

History: The visitor center in the South Unit has an extensive interpretive display on the life of TR as well as a log cabin from his Maltese Cross Ranch, which he co-owned prior to establishing the Elkhorn. Guided tours are given daily.

Contact: TRNP, Box 7, Medora, ND 58645; (701) 623-4466; http://www.nps.gov/thro/.

Manti-La Sal National Forest Utah

Trail Notes: Canyon floors bake in the sun while the summits are still frozen in snow. TR set aside a diverse piece of Utah with this forest. It includes both the peaks of the La Sal and Abajo mountains, and canyons carved into the Wasatch and Colorado plateaus. A good hike is the 40-mile horseshoe-shaped route that passes through Peavine, Dark, and Woodenshoe canyons on the flank of the Blue Mountains. Watch for cliff dwellings, pictographs, hanging gardens, and rattlesnakes.

Bully Quotient: Dark Canyon was the first major canyon of the Colorado Plateau that the U.S. Forest Service included in the Wilderness System.

Contact: Manti-La Sal National Forest, 599 W. Price River Dr., Price, UT 84501; (801) 637-2817.

Superior National Forest

Minnesota

Trail Notes: Primarily a paddling area and home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, this area also features great hikes like the revitalized 38-mile Kekekabic Trail. The "Kek," as it's known, leads through miles of deep forest and along lake shores that echo with loon calls. Watch for moose tracks and listen for wolf howls.

Bully Quotient: When 3,000 blowdowns blocked the trail in 1990, volunteers cleared them by hand. When a winter storm toppled 800 more just months later, they rolled up their sleeves and cleared the way again.

For more on the trail and the volunteer efforts, see "Back From The Brink," May 1997.

Contact: Superior National Forest, P.O. Box 338, Duluth, MN 55801; (218) 720-5324.

Tonto National Forest

Arizona

Trail Notes: The backbone of this national forest is a wild, rocky ridgeline known as the Mogollon Rim. In the 1800s a trail was built along the rim to link homesteaders. Today, that route is preserved as the 51-mile Highline National Recreation Trail. Dozens of spur trails, such as the 8-mile long Pine Canyon Trail, can be linked up to make it even longer.

Bully Quotient: The Mogollon (pronounced "mow-gee-yon") Rim was the stomping ground of Geronimo.

Contact: Tonto National Forest, P.O. Box 5348, Phoenix, AZ 85010; (602) 225-5200.

San Isabel National Forest

Colorado

Trail Notes: The San Isabel contains plenty of classic Colorado peaks, but the lesser known and unpoetically named East and West Spanish Peaks provide the best hikes. The Wayatoya Trail offers great views of both peaks and connects with the Peaks Trail for those who want to summit 13,626-foot West Spanish Peak.

Bully Quotient: Although Colorado is the land of snow, these peaks were born in fire. A hike here offers a lesson in volcanic geology and the power of heat.

Contact: Pike-San Isabel National Forest, San Carlos Ranger District, 326 Dozier St., Canon City, CO 81212; (719) 275-4119.

Inyo National Forest

California

Trail Notes: The Inyo is home to some of the most beautiful and, unfortunately, most used hiking trails in the Sierra. A good place to get away from the crowds is the 16-mile (round-trip) Sawmill Lake Trail. It is hot, dry, and steep but ends at the cool waters of Sawmill Lake.

Bully Quotient: Continuing past Sawmill Lake you'll hook up with a trail named after one of TR's favorite backcountry traveling companions, naturalist John Muir.

Contact: Inyo National Forest, Mt. Whitney Ranger District, P.O. Box 8, Lone Pine, CA 93545; (619) 876-6200.

Lolo National Forest

Montana

Trail notes: The Lolo encompasses some of the wildest country in Montana along the Bitterroot Divide. The Great Burn Loop offers a 30-mile route through a 200,000-acre roadless area featuring everything from wet bogs to high and dry plateaus with 360-degree views. Although TR set it aside as a national forest, the job of protecting the area will not be done until the proposed Great Burn Wilderness wins full wilderness protection.

Bully Quotient: The trail takes its name from a huge forest fire that swept through in 1910 when TR was still president. Scars from the great burn are visible to this day.

Contact: Lolo National Forest, Ninemile Ranger District, 20325, Remount Rd., Huson, MT 59846; (406) 626-5201.

Grand Canyon National Park Arizona

Trail Notes: "Leave it as it is," TR said when he proclaimed the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908 (it became a park in 1919). "The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." He was right, although a few trails here and there didn't hurt. The Nankoweap, which comes off the North Rim, was likely used as a route by early canyon inhabitants. It has since been "improved," although it can still be difficult to follow in places, and washouts are common. The trail can be hooked up to others across the river as part of a canyon traverse.

Bully Quotient: The Nankoweap Trail was reportedly used by horse thieves fleeing Utah in the late 1800s.

It was described as "a perfectly fright-ful trail" by geologist and apparently less-than-avid-hiker Charles Doolittle Walcott.

Contact: Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023; (520) 638-7888.

Devils Tower National Monument

Wyoming

Trail Notes: Long before its close encounters with aliens, Devils Tower was the nation's first-ever national monument, created by TR. It is only a dayhiking area, and the longest trail is the 3-mile Red Beds Trail. Still, if you're in the area it's worth a hike around, and perhaps even a climb up, the 865-foot tower.

Bully Quotient: "There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of a man," Native American author N. Scott Momaday wrote. "Devils Tower is one of them."

Contact: Devils Tower National Monument, P.O. Box 8, Devils Tower, WY 82714; (307) 467-5283.

Tongass National Forest

Alaska

Trail Notes: TR liked things big, and the 17-million-acre Tongass qualifies. It's our largest national forest-26,000 square miles, more than twice the size of all the national forests of Oregon and western Washington combined. Here you'll find 11,000 miles of shoreline, and 19 designated wilderness areas totaling 5.7 million acres. There are few established or maintained trails, though. Bushwhacking and off-trail hiking possibilities are endless. Try the Deer Mountain/Silvas Lake/John Mountain Trail, where you begin on a trail, of sorts, that leads about 10 miles to Silvas Lake, then opens up to off-trail heaven.

Bully Quotient: Never one to shrink from a good debate, TR would have plenty to argue about regarding the controversial Tongass, where out-of-control logging is eating away the best remaining example of temperate coastal rain forest in the world. To get in on the debate contact: Alaska Rain Forest Campaign, 320 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20002; (202) 544-5205.

Contact: Tongass National Forest, Ketchikan Ranger District, 3031 Tongass Ave., Ketchikan, AK 99901; (907) 225-2148.

Ouachita National Forest Arkansas

Trail Notes: Some called TR "Bloody Teddy" for his love of hunting. And the name of this national forest means "good hunting grounds" for its high numbers of deer and wild turkey. Even if you just want to see or photograph the game, the Ouachita National Forest features more than 600 miles of trail highlighted by the 192-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail. The wildest section is found where it passes through the Upper Kiamichi River Wilderness.

Bully Quotient: Just pronouncing this place can be a challenge worthy of TR. Try "wash-e-taw."

Contact: Ouachita National Forest, 100 Reserve, Federal Building, P.O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, AR 71902; (501) 321-5202.

Editors note: Look for a feature on the Ouachita National Recreation Trail in the upcoming October issue of Backpacker.

Wenatchee National Forest Washington

Trail Notes: As a staunch, red-blooded American, TR would have loved the American Ridge Trail in the William O. Douglas Wilderness. This 27-mile trail can be hiked by itself for a good four- to five-day trip, or connected to the Mesatchee Creek, Pleasant Valley Lake, or Goat Peak Trails for extended hikes. Timing can be touchy; too early and the snowfields will block the way. Too late and the last of the trickles dries up completely, leaving you high and dry and lugging your own water.

Bully Quotient: A tough trail that guidebook authors Ron Judd and Dan Nelson, in their book Pacific Northwest Hiking claim will "make your legs feel like canned hams after a few days with a backpack."

Contact: Wenatchee National Forest, Naches Ranger District, 10061 Highway 12, Naches, WA 98937; (509) 653-2205.

Olympic National Park

Washington

Trail Notes: This land of snow-clad peaks and lush rain forests is about as far removed from TR's Badlands as you can get. Still, he designated most of the Olympic Peninsula as a national monument in 1909 (a park in 1938). Both human and animal trails lace this nearly million-acre park. Try a 30-mile loop that takes in Elk Mountain. Add another 23 miles to include spectacular Cameron and Gray Wolf passes. You'll get views of glaciated Mt. Olympus, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, even Mt. Rainier.

Bully Quotient: The tracks in the damp ground are from Roosevelt Elk, named after, you guess it, TR himself.

Contact: Olympic National Park, 600 E. Park Ave., Port Angeles, WA 98362;(360) 452-4501. --J. Rennicke


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