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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.

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It is a low whistle, a sound I could almost mistake for birdsong. Almost.

Caught in midstep, my right foot just a few inches off the ground, I slowly swivel my head toward Tom, who stands still as a tree trunk among the sagebrush 30 yards to my left. He whistles again and then points at the tangle of cottonwoods just ahead.

Without moving, I search the stand of trees. At first I see nothing, just a maze of branches and leaves. Then, slowly, as if materializing before my eyes, the unmistakable dusty-brown outline of a huge shaggy head begins to take shape. I follow the outline to the crescent-shaped horns at the top, then back down to the square, leathery nose.

In between, there is a pair of black eyes peering through the branches. The eyes are staring straight at me.

It is September. Autumn along Paddock Creek in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Drops of dew are strung like diamonds in the sagebrush. The cottonwood leaves, yellow as butter- scotch, rattle quietly in a morning breeze. The trails are empty this time of year, and dust devils and buffalo droppings outnumber windshield tourists. Elk bugle from the roadside. Coyotes prowl the campsites and yip at the stars.

Backpacker Editor Tom Shealey and I have come to North Dakota’s Badlands seeking just this kind of solitude. We’ve also come to be part of the park’s two-year 50th anniversary celebration. The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established on April 25, 1947, and the North Unit, almost 80 miles away, was added in 1948.

It makes sense that this place needs two years to celebrate an anniversary. The Badlands is a place where time holds new meaning and seems to stretch as far as the North Dakota skies. The hills wear their age etched in the wrinkles, like old skin, that wind down their faces. The canyons wear it carved into their cliffs. This is a landscape created and sculpted by time, a place where events and celebrations have no beginning, no end.

It makes less sense, at least at first glance, why the park was named after Theodore Roosevelt, the only one of our 56 national parks to be named after a president. Roosevelt was born in New York and lived most of his life on the East Coast. He spent only about three years in North Dakota before being elected president and returned only twice for the briefest of visits during his administration. As a fledgling rancher, he nearly lost his family inheritance to the whims and weather of this rugged land. Though he fought hard for the protection of millions of acres of parks, refuges, and national forests, this backwater section of remote North Dakota was not one of the areas he championed.

Still, something about these time-sculpted hills touched Roosevelt deeply, molding his vision of the human relationship with nature, a vision that would make him the first conservation-minded president in United States history. What was it about this dusty collection of buttes, box canyons, and open spaces once described as “hell with the fires out” that so appealed to Roosevelt? What did he see in the place he described as a “land of vast, silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains, where the wild game stares at the passing horseman?”

It is a question I would love to sit down and ponder, but at the moment I am more concerned with the wild game staring at me through the cottonwoods.

The big bull lunges out of its hiding spot, stirring up a whirlwind of dust and leaves. It is out of the trees and in full view before my foot can touch the ground. Thoughts of the steep, cut-bank creek we just passed flash through my mind and I half-turn preparing to run. But then the buffalo stops. Something in its movement is awkward, off-balance. It takes another step, its nose dropping almost to the ground.

“It’s injured,” Tom says, the bull glancing his way at the sound of his voice. It is obvious now that the bull had come to the cottonwoods seeking refuge, a place to heal, or to die. Disturbed from its hideout, the old bull stands defiant in our path, eyes blazing so wide we can see the slice of white above each eye like crescent moons. Its right foreleg curls like a broken twig.

We back away slowly, trying to make it clear we are no threat. It watches us suspiciously, then swivels, hobbling off through the brush toward another nearby stand of cottonwoods where it backs in tight against the tree trunks.

“Oh, that’s a hard thing to see,” Tom says as we climb around the backside of a hill to get out of sight. “I know it is part of the natural process, but still it’s hard to see a proud old warrior hurt like that.” The last we see of him, the buffalo is lying down, framed by the trunks of two old cottonwood trees, autumn leaves tumbling down around him, and the knowledge of the coming winter deep and sure in his bones.

We crest a ridge and find another hillside dotted with buffalo. Downwind and distant enough to be invisible to them, we sit for hours, content to spend the morning watching them graze their way across the horizon like dark clouds against a sky of green.

It was buffalo and the itch to hunt them that first turned Roosevelt’s gaze toward the North Dakota Badlands. Once, the plains rumbled with the hoofbeats of close to 60 million of the beasts. Like the floods that flash across the plains after a rainstorm, they flowed across the land in immense numbers. Even as late as 1873, herds big enough to blacken 50 square miles were reported in the western Dakotas. But they were vanishing quickly, due in large part to a government-sanctioned policy aimed at controlling the remaining native tribes by eliminating the animal they so depended on.

At 3 a.m. on September 8, 1883, in a pouring rain, a 25-year-old TR stepped from the platform of a train station onto the empty streets of Little Missouri, North Dakota. He had heard there were still buffalo in the Dakota Badlands and he meant to hunt them. He had also heard the sad stories of “sportsmen” shooting from trains and leaving the carcasses to rot, the bleached bones littering the plains like driftwood. It was a bloody chapter in the history of the American West, “a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” he wrote.

On the other hand, the thought of stalking and bringing down such a big, powerful creature appealed to the hunter in Roosevelt. He saw a buffalo hunt as “genuine sport,” requiring “skill, marksmanship, and hardihood in the man.” Simply getting to the remote, out-of-the-way places where the buffalo roamed was no easy task and certainly no undertaking for any man “not of an adventurous temper,” as TR put it. Trophy hunting was, according to one biographer, part of Roosevelt’s “cult of manliness,” and the chance for a trophy buffalo hunt was an opportunity too great to pass up.

Despite the late hour, TR set about looking for a guide almost the moment he stepped off the train. No one was too anxious to slog into the backcountry with the youthful “Eastern punkin-lily,” however. Even so, TR persisted with the same determination that would get him through a week of riding in torrential rain and sleeping on the wet muck, all without spotting so much as a single buffalo track. “By Godfrey, but this is fun!” Roosevelt would say to his guide as they rode through the rain. The guide’s reply is left to historical conjecture.

Eventually they spooked an old bull that raced out of sight. Following its tracks led them to a herd.

“I myself am not, and never will be, more than an ordinary shot,” Roosevelt once wrote, “for my eyes are bad.” Through the pouring rain, the mist of his own excitement, and the jostling of his galloping horse, he proved himself to be correct, missing several shots as they chased the herd across the prairie for days.

Finally, on the third day of tracking the herd, they stalked to within TR’s range and he got his buffalo, an old bull brought down from 50 yards with three shots. TR celebrated with an impromptu dance around the carcass of the old buffalo that was stretched out on the prairie.

His thirst for big-game hunting earned Roosevelt the nickname “Bloody Teddy” among some detractors who thought he cared less for conservation than for maintaining a steady stream of animals to pursue. Even John Muir confronted Roosevelt about his penchant for hunting. “Mr. Roosevelt,” Muir asked during a camping trip the two shared in the Yosemite area of California, “when are you going to get beyond the boyishness of killing things?” Caught off guard, Roosevelt could offer little in his own defense.

Perhaps the answer, if there is one, lies more in Roosevelt’s deeds than his words. As president, TR left a legacy of conservation that still stands as an environmental yardstick. He passed the Park Protection Act, widely credited with saving the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, from total destruction at the hands of poachers, and reintroduced buffalo in the park to keep them from going extinct. He set aside 18 new national monuments, including Devils Tower in Wyoming, Grand Canyon in Arizona, and Washington’s Olympic, the latter two eventually becoming national parks. He established five new national parks, including Mesa Verde and Crater Lake. His efforts to halt the slaughter of birds led to the establishment of the first 51 national wildlife refuges. Compared with previous administrations, his designated three times as many forest reserves, some 194 million acres.

Roosevelt did more to further the fledgling conservation movement and preserve wildlands than any person before him. He was, as naturalist John Burroughs saw, “as far removed from the game butcher as day is from night.” Even to this day, however, TR’s accomplishments are often clouded by his love of killing.

“We still get a lot of that today,” Bruce Kaye, chief of interpretation at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, told me. “People come to the visitor center, where we have TR’s guns on display and interpretive signs talking about his hunting trips, and they say, ‘How could he have been a hunter? I thought he was a conservationist?'”

The answer closest to the truth is that he was both.

Ours are the onlY footprints in the dust as we head off on the Achenbach Trail a few days later in the park’s North Unit. The trail winds like a slithering snake through a stand of old, flood-rubbed cottonwoods. Although it is autumn the sun feels like a blast furnace, beating down on the backs of our necks and heating the air until it feels sharp against our nostrils. It has also baked the Little Missouri River almost to stillness, reducing it to a thin slice of gray water.

There may not be much water, but there is mud. With his first step, Tom sinks halfway up to his knees. I slip my boots off, unsnap the buckle of my pack’s hipbelt, and step into the cool, slick gumbo of the riverbed. The mud sucks at my feet with each step. Once I am used to the sensation, I notice the tracks. The nearly empty riverbed is a highway for wildlife-the dog-like tracks of a coyote, the stitchings of some waterbird, the deep-set tracks of buffalo, the heart-shaped traces of mule deer.

There is a deep silence here, interrupted only by the slow gurgling of the river, the soft swish of grasses blowing back and forth in the dry wind, and two muddy hikers clambering up the far bank. Except for a coyote that yips in surprise when we suddenly top a rise, it’s so silent that you can almost hear the clouds bumping into each other in the deep-blue sky.

It was, at least in part, the silence that drew Roosevelt back to the Dakotas in 1884 for what would be his longest stay. In one tragic day in February of that year, Roosevelt lost both his wife, who died in childbirth, and his mother. Already reeling from a series of defeats in the New York legislature, the deaths put his life into a tailspin. For solace, he left the bustling East Coast and headed for the deserted Badlands, where he bought a ranch, the Elkhorn, on the banks of the Little Missouri River.

“We led a free and hardy life, with horses and with rifle,” he wrote. “Ours was the glory of work, and the joy of living.” The hard labor and open air were good for his health and rejuvenated his sagging spirits. The land began to heal him.

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;

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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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