I was excited to drive through North Dakota as it was my 50th state! (Obviously, I didn't visit every state with the camper (I visited Alaska and Hawaii via cruise ship), but I have now indeed been to every state, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico.)
Other than that milestone, was I actually excited to see North Dakota? As my cousin Michael put it, "It's not even the best Dakota." Well, I was determined to find something interesting to see. My first attempt (the largest metal sculpture of a bison) was... not thrilling. The drive down Interstate 94 promised the world's largest geese sculpture, and again, it wasn't something to write home about. Then I went to the state capital building in Bismarck, and it looked like this:
I couldn't describe it any better than Craig, who said it "looks like the headquarters of the SAT." Oof. Unfortunately, it was pretty representative of the rest of the 75,000-inhabitants city. So, Bismarck didn't have whatever it was I was looking for, but, I wasn't done.
And North Dakota did indeed have something amazing in store for me. Just before the border with Montana, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a South Unit that is right off I-94. Even better, there is one Visitor's Center and loop trail called Painted Canyon that is a few exits before the rest of the park and free to visitors. I have an America the Beautiful National Park Pass (highly recommend!), but if you don't and don't want to pay park entrance fees, Painted Canyon off Exit 32 is a great way to go.
Before I saw anything else, the parking lot was the main focal point for visitors because of this guy:
I have seen bison before, but man, are they big! And before you ask, bison or buffalo? let me explain.
Bison or Buffalo?
Buffalo do not live in the U.S. They are native to Asia and Africa, and they have awesome-looking horns that curl up at the edges and look like a unibrow. Google it. Bison, on the other hand, live in the U.S. We call them buffalo, but they are bison.
The landscape here is riddled with sandstone and clay formations that are iconic of this Badlands region of the country. There are prairies and prairie dogs and bison and the Little Missouri River and purple, white, and yellow wildflowers, and junipers and cottonwood trees, and so much more.
I planned to hike the entire Painted Canyon loop trail, but I was stymied by this guy lounging in the dirt. I don't think it was the same bison, but I'm not positive. You are supposed to stay 25 yards away from bison, so I left him to chill in the sun and walked only half the loop.
I also hung out for a bit and watched this rabbit eat lunch. Very photogenic and luckily not spooked by me.
The Painted Canyon loop trail was beautiful. It gives you an opportunity to hike down into the landscape and get up close and personal with the flora. (Give the fauna some room!) After that, I drove to the main park. I was excited about seeing one (or two) bison, and then I laughed when I saw this:
The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a 48-mile loop scenic drive, but unfortunately, part of it was closed. Instead, I drove ten miles into the Wind Canyon loop trail and then turned around. Unlike the Painted Canyon trail, Wind Canyon keeps you atop the formations, looking down on the Little Missouri River and surrounding Badlands. I personally liked Painted Canyon better, but the views here were stunning.
Look! You can see my house in the distance.
I drove to Wind Canyon and then stopped on my way back at some of the other points of interest. The big one was the prairie fields with prairie dog holes pock-marking the ground everywhere. Look at these little guys!
There were probably a hundred prairie dogs roaming these fields, and a few getting too close to the road, so be sure to drive slow! They didn't seem to enjoy company very much, and I couldn't believe my ears when I heard them bark at me to go away. Listen to this (and watch his little tail wag)!
One other exciting part of the park was the horses. Look at these beauties!
The town at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is called Medora, and it is charming. I got caught in a thunderstorm, so you can see the weather here ruined these photos, but I wanted to include them to give you a feel for the cute town. There are a few bars and restaurants, a couple of places to get ice cream or fudge, and of course souvenir shops. Medora, North Dakota is definitely a must-see on a trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Also, man, look at this sunset! Thanks for the good times, North Dakota.