A unique feature of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is that it is comprised of two separate units that are 70 miles apart, posing challenges to a visitor. We first spent a day in the less-visited North Unit where took a ranger hike that focused on the geology and wildlife in the area, followed by the beautiful Caprock Coulee hike, a moderately challenging walk that took a couple of hours.
Next, we went south and relocated to the village of Medora, ND, which is the gateway to the South Unit of the park. Medora is sort of like Six Flags without the rides, that is, it seems like a place that was created to look like an Old West town for the benefit of tourists. In actuality, Medora was a railroad town, founded in 1882 by the Marquis De Morès, a colorful French nobleman, who named the town for his wife, American heiress, Medora von Hoffman. The Marquis was a neighbor of Teddy Roosevelt during TR’s time as a rancher at Elkhorn Ranch and the two sometimes socialized. This French cowboy, who was quite a curiosity to area locals, once challenged Roosevelt to a duel, which Roosevelt wisely ignored. Neither the Marquis nor Teddy Roosevelt lasted very long in the area, both leaving North Dakota after most of their cattle died in the harsh winter of 1886.
The Ghost Town and Mr. Bubble
Over the years, Medora’s population declined and its buildings fell into disrepair, until a North Dakota entrepreneur and Theodore Roosevelt enthusiast by the name of Harold Schafer took an interest in it in the early 1960s. He purchased and restored the Rough Riders Hotel and then bought a hillside amphitheater built in 1958 that was – and still is – the home of a popular summer musical production. Schafer continued to invest in the town until it became the most visited tourist destination in North Dakota. Harold Schafer’s business was called the Gold Seal Company and was famous for its highly successful bubble bath product, Mr. Bubble. Medora is now so well known for its Theodore Roosevelt connections that it was recently selected as the future home of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, set to break ground next year. I wonder what the Rough Rider would have thought of his legacy being so well preserved and promoted by a bubble bath magnate?
Today, it conjures up memories of Richard Dreyfuss’s mashed potato sculpture in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but historically, Devil’s Tower was our country’s first national monument. It has long been considered a sacred place for Native Americans, and is a favorite destination of rock climbers. For those who haven’t seen it in person, it is truly remarkable. I first got a look at Devil’s Tower six years ago when my daughter, Mary, and I were on our way from Buffalo, Wyoming to Mount Rushmore. Devil’s Tower was not on the itinerary, but when we saw a sign for it, we made a quick detour. This happened to be during the Sturgis motorcycle rally, so I remember little more than the thousands of motorcycles that were everywhere. This time around, John and I stayed near Devil’s Tower, enabling us to get to the site early in the morning. We enjoying seeing more than a dozen deer on our way to the monument and walking the path around the Tower in the cool of the morning before heading down to road to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.
Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and the Black Hills
Our lodging in the Black Hills was an cozy cabin on top of Bluebird Mesa in Hot Springs, SD. With Bluebird Mesa as our home base, we enjoyed Wind Cave National Park, drove and hiked the Needles Highway in Custer State Park, and visited the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial.
Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, with just half of its estimated 300 miles explored. It features great examples of rare geological features, including frostwork, boxwork, and popcorn. Ranger-led tours are the only option for visiting the cave. We enjoyed the fun and interesting tour where we learned about Alvin McDonald, a 16-year-old who, in the late 19th century explored the cave, started a little business leading guided tours, and kept dairies describing the cave’s features that have been valuable to generations of geologists and other scientists.
Wind Cave is also promoted for its wildlife and abundance of trails. John and I set out to hike the Lookout Point trail, but were disappointed to find an abundance of poison ivy. We also found ourselves a little too close to a buffalo along the trail that looked like a rock sticking up in the tall grass from a distance. Fortunately, he exhibited only a mild interest in us.