This land of “vast, silent spaces” inspired America’s Bull Moose to begin saving wilderness treasures.
By Tim Fitzharris
Lost in the vastness of the Great Plains in western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park encompasses 70,467 acres of protected prairie wilderness. Here the deer and the antelope really do play, to the delight of wildlife photographers like me.
Described by its namesake as “a land of vast, silent spaces,” the park welcomes visitors modestly at first, with an undulating expanse of green.
But look closer: This serene landscape is gouged in places by a mysterious badland architecture of jumbled gullies, valleys, buttes, pinnacles and spires painted with a remarkable color palette.
The Little Missouri River links the two main sections of the park. Its waters support trees and shrubs that make this expanse of pristine wilderness into a hot spot for viewing wildlife.
Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Dakota Territory from New York to hunt bison in 1883, but he found that their once-great numbers had dwindled alarmingly. As he spent more time in the region, he grew more concerned about the damage to the land and the loss of wildlife. His observations from that trip shaped a conservation policy that benefits America to this very day.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the largest protected mixed-grass prairie ecosystem in the U.S. It is home to bison, wild horses, elk, bighorn sheep, white-tailed and mule deer, prairie dogs and nearly 200 species of birds, including golden eagles, sharp-tailed grouse and wild turkeys.
Wildlife photography can be challenging if you are intent on capturing a shot of a special bird or drawing close to the wary pronghorn or wild horses.
But the bison, elk and deer are accustomed to people, and I shoot them at my leisure right out the side door of my motor home.
I can grab close-ups of wildflowers, cacti and small critters like chipmunks and prairie dogs by hiking the numerous trails.
Both sections of the park also offer scenic drives that allow for easy wildlife observation and panoramic views up and down the Missouri River valley.
In May and June, a trio of attractions lures me here with my camera—lush prairies dotted with wildflowers; frisky newborn bison, pronghorns and prairie dogs; and thunderstorms that light up the sky.
July marks the beginning of the bison rut, when gigantic bulls bellow, plow up the prairie with horns and hooves, and battle one another in dust-raising head-to-head battles.
September offers the nicest weather, with fair skies and mild temperatures that provide relief from the sweltering humidity of August.
While the scenery and wildlife attract photographers, the park’s well-preserved attractions, including Roosevelt’s original ranch cabin and several Civilian Conservation Corps projects—a legacy of the other President Roosevelt, FDR—appeal to history buffs.
In and around the restored frontier town of Medora, museums, displays, live theater and historic sites provide insight into the challenges of settling this wild country. Tales of legendary personalities like the Marquis de Morès, a French entrepreneur who named Medora after his wife, make the past come alive.
Medora offers plenty of shopping, restaurants and lodging, but I prefer to stay in the park’s campgrounds, surrounded by nature, keeping my camera handy to capture each breathtaking detail of the High Plains.
Photos by Tim Fitzharris