It’s hard to believe it was once a swamp, with gator-like dinosaurs crawling around among the water plants. Fossil remains found by paleontologists testify that the “champsosaurus ” lived here 55,000,000 years ago. But today the scenery, and the animals, are a bit different.
The site in western North Dakota is now 70,000-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is not as big as Yellowstone (2,200,000 acres), and there are no geysers, but visitors are treated to a peaceful drive-through with lots of wildlife. Buttes, trees, tall grasses and the Little Missouri River are their home.
Rock formations are lined with red ignite coal, also known as scoria. Geologists call it “clinker.” Montana may claim the Big Sky nickname, but there’s plenty of it here, too.
On a brief stay at in Medora, we drove the park’s southern loop in midmorning, slowing for a group of buffalo. This was the animal that brought Theodore Roosevelt west in 1883. He got one of the last from the wild but helped to re-establish their presence in their original home.
“…where the deer and the antelope play”
Feral horses roam the park, munching on abundant salt grass, wheatgrass, and bluestem grass.
Prairie dog towns dot the roadsides; if you roll down the car window, you can hear some morning gossip.
The land was first surveyed for a park honoring President Roosevelt in 1924, five years after his death. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds and other buildings. In 1946 it was given the name of Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge — the next year, President Truman signed a bill to call it Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. Finally, in 1978, it received the national park status that it retains today.
The visitors’ center at the park’s entrance has a number of exhibits. They sponsor programs on birdwatching, stargazing, and Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross cabin, which stands a little way from the back door and houses TR’s traveling trunk and other authentic furniture.
It is a good combination of nature, history, and western culture in America. On summer nights, in an outdoor ampitheatre on the other side of the buttes, “The Medora Musical” celebrates it all with a fantastic show. If they could just work in a song and dance number for the dinosaurs.