The Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is not a very well-known park, at least not on the East Coast. We had originally planned to come through South Dakota and see Mount Rushmore but we’ve come through North Dakota because it’s Sturgis Week in Sturgis, SD, the time when thousands of Harley Davidson motorcyclists from all over the country converge on the town. We didn’t even try to get hotel reservations, we just re-routed our trip slightly north.
The park is in the North Dakota Badlands and it’s certainly a beautiful, if slightly scary land. We keep thinking what it must have been like to drive across the northern prairie in a covered wagon and then hit this: canyons and sage brush, cliffs and a very pathetic-looking Little Missouri River.
We stop at the Painted Canyon visitors’ center for a quick peek at the landscape before heading down to Medora and the entrance to the South Unit of the park. Walt’s senior pass – we call it the “golden ticket” – kicks in again and we dodge another entrance fee. We plan to camp but since there’s no filterable water in the park, we’re not overnight hiking. We hit the Cottonwood Campground before noon and snag a nice campsite, setting up camp and paying our $7 senior fee.
The park has a 36-mile driving loop and we set off in 80-degree temperatures, actually pretty happy that we’re not hiking. The park is known for its herds of bison and elk and, before very long, we see a small bison herd walking on the shoulder of the road. I’m glad they’re saved from extinction and they’re very impressive in size, but they’re actually a little mangy-looking up close. Reminds me of the lions we saw on the Serengeti; majestic from a distance but when we looked at them through binoculars, we could see all the flies on them.
Onward to short hikes up to various lookouts and to Wind Canyon where the rocks have been sculpted by wind instead of the usual water. We don’t see elk but we do see plenty more bison up close before heading back to town for a late lunch/early dinner. We haven’t hiked enough to earn it, but there’s an ice cream/fudge depot in town so we eat dessert there.
Back in camp, we play gin until the sun goes down and it gets too cool for us to be outside. We retreat to our tent and are so happy that tonight we get to sleep on new air mattresses we purchased in Duluth. Not only are these lighter but they also have a higher R value than our old ones, and we won’t be hitting the ground during the night, so we should be much warmer, even though the temperature promises to dip into the 40s (our coldest night yet).
How, you wonder, do we sleep on the ground in this cold? Besides the tent and air mattresses, we each have a sleeping bag liner and we share a synthetic down blanket called “the Puffin.” I also wear a knitted winter cap, long underwear, wool socks, a wool sweater and, sometimes, my Patagonia Nano-Puff jacket. Twice on Isle Royale, I put handwarmers in my socks. Walt usually just sleeps in his hiking clothes.
I mention the Puffin by name because it has taken on a life of its own. When we get settled in at night, I’ll ask Walt if he’s “properly Puffined.” Usually I’ll wake up a couple of times each night, realizing that the Puffin has gotten away from one of us. If Walt wakes up and asks what I’m doing, I’ll say, “I’m re-Puffining” and he knows what that means.
We decided to forego individual sleeping bags because we just don’t have room in our packs on the longer hikes, where we have to take so much food and, given our space restrictions in the car, we had to have one solution that would work for all of our hikes. After a bunch of online research, the Puffin was our choice. So far, it’s worked well. I’ve been cold a few nights but that was before I realized that if my feet start to feel cold, it means the Puffin has probably slid off my feet and needs readjusting. I’ve also learned to pull the sleeping bag liner over my head instead of just up to my neck. No, it’s not pretty, but it’s all part of the experience and we don’t mind a few nights’ inconvenience for the joy of the sights we get in exchange.