I’ve written a two-part series about winter camping at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for Dakota Country magazine. Here’s the first part.
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a tiny 218 acre island in a vast million acre sea of Bad Lands, broken prairies, scoria roads, cattle ranches and oil development. The fact that even this tiny parcel alongside the Little Missouri River, where Roosevelt once lived and ranched, remains intact is testament to both the foresightedness of some long-ago National Park Service employees and to our greatest naturalist President of the United States.
I’ve written about the threats to the Elkhorn Ranch here before. I’ve written how the Boone and Crockett Club, ten years ago, led a national fundraising effort to purchase the ranch across the river from the actual Roosevelt cabin site and donate it to the U. S. Forest Service to protect it from development. But there was a time, when the actual idea of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was conceived and proposed to Congress for inclusion in the National Parks system, that the place Roosevelt lived almost was not included as part of the National Park.
When the Park’s champion, North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, wrote the original bill to create a national park in the North Dakota Bad Lands, he left the Elkhorn Ranch Unit out of the bill. He felt the best chance of getting a National Park was to focus on the scenic value of the Bad Lands, not the historical aspect of Roosevelt’s time here.
But when it came time to put the bill to a vote in 1947, creating Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, Lemke added the Elkhorn Ranch back into the bill, actually making it the centerpiece of the park, which would be located on a new parkway to be built through the Bad Lands, connecting the North and South Units of the park.
In fact, the Park Service’s first master plan for the site included a full-blown living history site with reproductions of all the buildings of Roosevelt’s day, a working herd of longhorn cattle, and blacksmith demonstrations, with nearby developments including a motel, service station, restaurants, saddle horse livery, and a 200-site campground. Good grief!
Well, by the time the park achieved full National Park status in 1978, cooler heads prevailed, and Theodore Roosevelt National Pak’s Elkhorn Ranch Unit remains a primitive site, so primitive that you have to get out of your car in a gravel parking lot and walk a half mile along the Little Missouri River to get to it.
While oil development moves closer and closer to the border of the 218 acre protected site, it remains a place of solace to visitors who enjoy the sound of the wind in the cottonwoods, the call of the Sprague’s Pipits high overhead, and the ripple of the Little Missouri River as it drifts lazily by.
Thanks to the work of the Boone and Crockett Club and its conservation allies, and a generous Silicon Valley conservation buyer (and former North Dakotan), the site has good neighbors. The Forest Service owns land on three sides of the site, and the conservation buyer bought the remaining acreage across the river with a pledge to preserve it as a working cattle ranch.
While most North Dakotans have visited the Bad Lands, few have taken the time to do the one-hour trip on mean gravel roads to get to the Elkhorn. That’s actually as Roosevelt planned it. His first ranch was just south of Medora, beside the Little Missouri, and there was just too much “traffic” for the young cowboy who had escaped to the Bad Lands to mourn the death of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884. It’s probably safe to say TR never had more than a dozen visitors a year at the Elkhorn, maybe as few as half a dozen.
Today there’s a primitive campground a couple of miles or so up the hill, out of the river bottoms, and the Maah Daah Hey Trail winds its way past, with a few of the hikers and bikers making their way down the steep bluff to check out the cabin site and its interpretive sign. Maybe a couple dozen canoers and kayakers float by it in a summer.
I’ve been there many, many times, usually making it a stop on my now less-frequent canoe trips between the North and South Units of the park (a long two-day float), but mostly just to sit and relax and think about TR and the great conservation legacy he established in this country.
A couple of years ago my wife Lillian and I decided to make it the destination of one of our winter campouts. It was one of those winters when there was considerable snow in the Bad Lands, but we had a Jeep and figured we could plow through whatever snow banks we’d have to breech to make camp on the bank of the river beside the ranch site. Wrong.
We encountered a huge drift at the bottom of the hill a quarter mile from the site. Stuck. After digging out so we could at least get back up to the road, we made camp there with snow for a mattress (we have adequate winter camping gear to be comfortable down to zero, at least), had a great camp stove meal, and a most enjoyable night. In the morning, after a hot breakfast, we decided to hike into the site before going home. We weren’t quite prepared for what we found.
As I said earlier, the Elkhorn is a tiny place in a million acre spread of National Grasslands, completely surrounded by a barbed wire fence to keep out the neighboring ranchers’ cattle. Because it’s never grazed, the grass grows thick and lush, as opposed to the often overgrazed government-owned pastures surrounding it, leased to local ranchers. So thick and so lush that one of the ranchers decided it was just going to waste that winter. The snow was probably six inches deep on the level in the whole river valley, so there was no grass sticking out most places for the cows. But it stood tall above the snow inside that National Park.
And all it took was a pair of good wire cutters to open that tasty banquet to a small herd of cows that had been driven into the park, and then trapped in there when the rancher closed the fence up behind them, likely intending for them to stay for a few weeks until the grass was grazed down. Because of the snowy winter, the wily rancher probably did not expect any Park Rangers to come visit anytime soon.
Well, he likely didn’t expect a couple of crazy winter campers on a Saturday night escapade, either. We weren’t in any mood to tangle with those critters, so we hiked back to the Jeep and headed up the hill toward home. And that’s when we saw the pickup coming across the flat behind us, the driver headed toward what we assumed was his small herd of “federal” cattle. As sure as we saw him, he saw us. And when he got to where he had cut the fence, he likely saw our tracks in the snow. Busted.
When we got back to Medora, we felt some responsibility to tell our friends at the National Park office what we had seen. It was, after all a National Park. They thanked us. It was late in the day by that time, and we headed home. We later learned that by the time their ranger got to the site the next day, the cattle were out and the fence was repaired. We didn’t bother to ask for any more information than that, so we don’t know, to this day, whether a rancher suffered any consequences for his temporary free grazing allotment.
Of all the threats to the sanctity of the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, that was surely the least serious. But still. Two years ago, all of us concerned about the place were deathly afraid of the rapidly advancing march of the oil industry, and its encroachment on the park site. Thirty-dollar oil has given us a brief respite. There’s little drilling anywhere nearby now. There’s still the threat of a gravel mine across the river, and a new bridge nearby which could bring a thousand trucks a day if it’s built and the oil boom resumes. A lot of people are keeping a close eye on those developments. We’ll try to do keep doing that here too.