Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. Stuck in a dangerous situation.

Park Visit: August 10-12, 2016.


After saying goodbye to my new friends following a successful climb of Granite Peak, I started making my way towards Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I stopped at a truck stop near Billings for a quick shower. By this point it had been three and a half days since I was last clean. Dang that shower felt good. I continued east into the night, through the open prairies of Eastern Montana. It was pretty country, but there was very empty. My radio options were classical, Christian, or hit the scan button and watch the radio go through every frequency over and over looking for something... anything.  

I eventually made it to TRNP just before midnight. I got to my campsite and put up my tent as quietly as I could, since it quiet hours and late. You don’t realize how much noise you make putting up camp until you have to be quiet doing it. I made dinner with a camp stove that sounded like a jet engine in the still night air of the campground. I was so ready for bed. Just that morning I was still at high camp on Granite Peak. With a nine mile hike out from there and a six hour drive to TRNP, it had definitely been a very long day. But adventure awaited, and I needed my beauty rest.

The view from my campsite at sunrise, looking across the Little Missouri River.

The view from my campsite at sunrise, looking across the Little Missouri River.

The next morning I woke up and was able to actually see the landscape around me. My campsite was at the end of a loop in the campground. My tent was just practically on the banks of the Little Missouri River, just a short stroll away. The river meandered lazily through the park. Not very deep, not very fast. On the other side of the river lay the signature badlands of the Dakotas. While not an exact copy of Badlands National Park, five hours away to the south, it’s obvious the two parks are related, with the hillsides eroding into the plateaus above. The plateaus aren’t very high, maybe around 200’ above the river plain below, but the rippled, exposed slopes were quite dramatic.

The plan for the day was to hike across Big Plateau out to the petrified forest, the third largest in the country. It was 5.3 miles one way with only a few hundred feet of gain. Simple. I got my gear packed and started driving up the road toward the trailhead. It didn’t take long before I started seeing the park’s native wildlife. Many spots along the road there could be seen prairie dog towns. And much like in Yellowstone, the bison are everywhere. If you go to either of these parks and don’t see bison, you’re doing it wrong. They tend to be such a common sight that, while always being cool to see, they do lose a little of that awe inspiring feeling. Oh hey, more bison. More on them in a bit. The other animal that I had heard about but wasn’t sure I’d see were the wild horses. I saw a few of them mixed in with one group of bison I saw. So I already got to see three of the major animals the park is known for and I had barely even started the day yet.

PHOTO GALLERY: the drive to the trail head

About two miles from the campground I arrived at the trail head. I went through my ritual of putting on sunscreen and sun protection. On Granite I had the luxury of it always being cool, even cold, and usually cloudy. Here it was quite warm with not a cloud in the sky. There would also be no shade along the trail, since there were no trees. There were some trees along the river, but once away from its banks they rapidly thin out until it is just grasses and shrubs.

One of the many prairie dogs on Big Plateau.

One of the many prairie dogs on Big Plateau.

About a half mile into the hike I came to the river. There are no bridges over the river inside the park, so I would have to walk through the water. I took off my shoes and socks went gently waded across. It’s slow moving and never more than shin deep. And it did feel nice and cool in the heat. From there the trail went up the biggest elevation gain of the day, 200’ to the plateau above. This part of the trail went through craggy, arid, beige hillsides. Once I got up on the edge of the plateau I was almost immediately greeted by chirping of prairie dogs. Dozens of them. Hundreds? A lot. The trail went right through the middle of a town. There were mounds everywhere with dogs on them, standing tall and chirping their heads off to alert the others of my presence.

As cool as it was to see the prairie dogs up close like that, my attention was quickly diverted to some other critters up ahead: bison. Big Plateau was a little less than a mile across, and on the far side of the plateau was a herd of bison. The trail went directly through the middle of the herd. Most of them were laying down and not moving much, but I still didn’t want to take any chances. I moved a little closer, maybe within half a mile, to see if maybe they would move on. They weren’t. I was trying to decide how long I should wait until I turned back to try another route, because I really didn’t want to mess with any bison. That’s when I heard it.

There was a rumbling from behind me. I turned to see a second herd of bison running up onto the plateau from where I had just come from. They were blocking my way back. Son of a bitch. I was now stuck between the two herds with no easy way out. The herd in front of me wasn’t moving and the herd behind me was creeping closer and closer. They were now milling about and grazing, seemingly oblivious to me, but still inching closer. I got my map out to weigh my options. I had two. Risk going off trail and over the side of plateau, or risk staying on the trail and going directly through the herd in front of me. I wasn’t too fond of either option, but I had to make a decision soon. I chose the latter.

I started making my way down the trail. There weren’t any individual bison closer than a few dozen yards to the trail on either side. That was good, but still too close. Soon after I started walking, a herd of pronghorns went sprinting across the plateau between me and the bison. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about them as well. After some time I started getting pretty closing in on the herd. I decided my best course of action would be calmly but quickly keep walking with no sudden movements and no eye contact. I wouldn’t even stop to take pictures. There was no escape plan. There were no trees to climb and I would never be able to out run one if it charged (top speed of 35 mph).

I entered the herd. I put my head down and just kept moving. For the most part they seemed fairly chill. Most of them had been laying down since I first saw them. I was calm, but on high alert. Off to my right one of them that had been laying down decided to stand up. I was hoping it had nothing to do with me, but then he turned to directly face me. Shit. He wasn’t moving, but he was staring me down. Just keep moving calmly, I told myself. Soon enough, although it didn’t feel soon enough at the time, I was through the herd and nearing the edge of the plateau. Now I had places to go if I had to. Fortunately none of them followed me.

Looking back at the two bison herds on Big Plateau.

Looking back at the two bison herds on Big Plateau.

From here the trail followed a ridge line for about a quarter mile up to Petrified Forest Plateau (PFP), which was around 200’ higher than Big Plateau. From here I could look out over Big Plateau. The resting herd I just came through still hadn’t moved an inch, and the herd that came up behind me had worked it’s way up to where I had been hanging out and waiting. Glad I got out of there. On to the petrified forest! I turned to start heading across this new plateau… and crap here comes another one.

A lone bison was heading in my direction. He was coming off PFP and heading in the direction of Big Plateau. The plateau kind of came to a bottle neck where it met the ridge line, so there wasn’t a lot of space for us to get away from one another. He lumbered past me, only about 20’ away. He seemed on a mission and didn’t really pay me attention. I just stood still and snapped off a couple frames. Once he had passed, I moved fully up onto the plateau where I could see clear across it. I saw absolutely nothing. No bison, no pronghorn, no prairie dogs, no trees, not even a cloud in the sky. Nothing but grass. It looked like the coast was finally clear, I think, so I started walking.

A map of my situation on Big Plateau.

A map of my situation on Big Plateau.

PHOTO GALLERY: the hike across Big Plateau and Petrified Forest Plateau

PFP was actually bigger than Big Plateau. A little over two miles on the trail to get to the other side. And there was nothing but nothing the whole way. It was actually rather beautiful in its vast emptiness. The park is a short distance from the Montana border, and this section definitely felt like it fit the description of “big sky country”. And with no clouds and no shade anywhere in sight, that midday sun was really starting to heat up. I was taking all the precautions but was still feeling pretty toasty. Sunblock and lots of water.

Sitting next to a large chunk of petrified wood.

Sitting next to a large chunk of petrified wood.

Turns out there were signs of life on PFP after all. Sort of. Somewhere around half way across there was a pile of bones next to the trail. I’m assumed they were bison bones, as they looked too large to be anything else. And they had been there a while. There were only about a dozen bones and they were stripped clean and very sun bleached. It was one of those settings where you expect to see a vulture looming nearby, but nope, just me.

I soon came to the edge of the plateau where it looked out over the petrified forest. The trail came down the slope and into an area the size of a football field that was filled with dozens of large chunks of petrified wood and countless chips and fragments. I took my pack off and wandered around for a bit. Considering they haven’t contained any organic matter in millions of years, the sizable pieces still look like wood. many were quite large, up to several feet in diameter. The colors ranged from grey to a coppery brown. Sometimes the ground around the large pieces wood be discolored from the all the tiny fragments of when the rest of the tree eroded away.

PHOTO GALLERY: the petrified forest

By this point it was pretty hot and the sun had been beating down on me for hours. While the petrified forest was awesome, I didn’t stay too long since I still had to hike at least five miles to get back to the car. I still had plenty of water and sun screen, so after some lunch I geared up and started heading back the way I came. The trip back across PFP was uneventful with no sign of bison. When I got back to the spot where I had encountered the lone bison, however, I was looked out over Big Plateau to see what the situation was. The herd that I had walked through was still exactly where they were when I left them, straddling the trail. Luckily, at this point the Maah Daah Hey Trail split off from the trail I was on and I could take that to go around the south side of Big Plateau. It would add another mile onto the trip back to the car, but I really didn’t want to push my luck with the bison again. The first time was tense enough.

The trail descended off the plateaus to a shallow valley. A creek ran through the valley which made it much greener than the plateaus just a short distance away. The trail went right through the middle of a prairie dog town. This one was much smaller than the one from earlier, but they seemed just as agitated by my presence. At one point on the trail there was even trees! Shade! I had been out in the blazing sun all day and this was the first bit of shade I had come across. I took a much needed break. As I carried on, I passed remnants of the area’s past life as a ranch. There was a watering trough that looked ancient and was half filled with caked mud.

I eventually made it back to the Little Missouri River. The wade across felt so good as the river’s cool waters flowed over my bare feet. From here it was a short quarter mile to the car. Crank that sweet A/C. My first stop was the visitor center at the park entrance where I bought my traditional fridge magnets and told the ranger about my run-in with the bison on Big Plateau. Then I headed into town for lunch to take a well deserved break.

A short video of my roundtrip hike to the petrified forest:

I’d be taking it easy the rest of the day. Between the Granite Peak hike over the last few days and the 12.5 miles I did going out to the petrified forest and back, I was feeling like I had reached my weekly limit. For the rest of the day I would be checking out the scenic drive that loops through the center of the park. I mostly stopped at pull outs with scenic overlooks. This part of the park was much more rugged than what I had experienced earlier in the day, with none of the flat-as-a-board plateaus. This was classic badlands. My two big stops were on the east side of the loop drive, both with short dirt roads leading two them.

The first was Coal Vein Trail. This was an area where a coal vein had burned unchecked for 26 years, from 1951 to 1977. It was less than a mile total and went through some interesting landscape where remnants of the fire could still be seen. The part that struck me was the trees. they were all gnarled and twisted, like somebody wringing out a wet sock. The next stop was Buck Hill, the second highest point in the park. This is where I decided I’d truly had enough hiking for the day. It was a short walk from the parking lot to the summit, maybe 50 yards, and I was feeling every step of it. And I still had a hike planned the next day of White Butte, the highpoint of North Dakota, so this was officially my last bit of walking for the day. Once at the top though, I was rewarded with a beautiful view of the surrounding badlands. Plus it was almost sunset, so that golden, magic hour light swept across the landscape, painting it with a soft amber glow.

The light faded quickly as the sun dipped below the horizon. I wouldn’t be making anymore stops, although I was only half around the loop, but the park wasn’t quite done with me yet. First, I would have one more encounter with bison. Heading back along the north part of the loop I encountered a herd that was in the road. This time I at least had the car for protection. I had to wait several minutes until there was an opening I felt comfortable going through. This is a common occurrence in Yellowstone, where the bison are just part of traffic. A little farther down I would have to stop again for the wildlife, this time it was horses. I had seen a couple earlier in the day when I was driving to the trail head, but this was a sizable herd with dozens of animals. They were all staying in a loose line while they slowly trotted off the road in front of the car and into the wilds of the park.

Once back at the campground, I was treated to one final display of nature’s glory. It just happened to be the date of the annual Perseid meteor shower. I sat at one of the picnic tables near my tent and watched for about an hour while the meteors streaked through the sky over the park, leaving long orange trails. It was pretty awesome. A nice end to a long, tiring, but satisfying day of exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

One last stop to pose with the entrance sign.

One last stop to pose with the entrance sign.