WATFORD CITY - The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park has long played the role of "little brother" to the park's much larger South Unit. However, visitors to the North Unit cherish the time they spend there.
While visitation to the South Unit is enhanced by a large number of travelers using the Interstate highway that threads through the South Unit, about 70 miles to the north, the North Unit is situated adjacent to two-lane U.S. Highway 85. The only physical connection directly between the two parks is the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a dirt path used by hikers and bikers.
Bearing a wilderness declaration and somewhat isolated, the North Unit has a wide appeal for a number of people. Those who see it for the first time are usually amazed at the myriad stunning, colorful buttes, abundance of juniper trees and the variety of wildlife. The geology of the Badlands is unlike any other landscape in North Dakota.
The unique landscape is a big reason visitors are attracted to the scenic drive at Theodore Roosevelt National Park-North Unit. Above average rainfall this summer has benefited grasses, shrubs and trees throughout the park.
"When I see this I think what a mighty God we have. It is just awesome to look at the different plateaus and slump formations. It is majestic," said Lin Krutz, a Florida resident who visited the North Unit this past week. "I think the Badlands are my absolutely favorite part of our country."
Krutz and her husband, Bob, had just returned to their vehicle after peering over the edge of a butte and into the vast valley below where the Little Missouri long ago cut a rugged path.
"I'm just soaking it in," remarked Bob Krutz. "I like the grassland area where it flattens out. You can see forever. I like the emptiness of it. It just shows you how vast it is without people. Where we are from, it is just wall-to-wall people. This is nice to see."
The Krutzes were enjoying the weather too. Daytime temperatures in the mid to high 70s were welcome relief from the 95- to 100-degree temperatures they experience in central Florida this time of year. The cool evening air also made for perfect sleeping weather at the nearby Juniper Campground.
"We tent camp, been there for two nights," said Lin Krutz. "Next we're going to Bennett Campground. We heard the coyotes talking to each other there probably 10 years ago. We are going back for that."
Bennett Campground is located on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, south of the park. Like the North Unit, it is isolated enough that sounds other than those produced by weather and animals are seldom heard. For a couple from a heavily populated area, the sound of coyotes yipping and howling from one side of a vast canyon to the other is well worth the trip. It is a perspective sometimes forgotten by those who frequent the area.
"We saw an antelope buck today. The bison are still here. While I was watching them, three mule deer came across the opening," said Bob Krutz.
The sights and sounds of North Dakota's Badlands will be forever etched in the memories of the Krutzes. It is a reason for going there.
Mike and Leslie Lucy of Monticello, Ind., were touring the North Unit on a three-wheeled motorcycle this past week. They, too, expressed pleasure and amazement at the unique terrain they discovered in western North Dakota.
"This is like going to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon," remarked Leslie Lucy while parked at a scenic overlook within the park. "There's a lot of different hills and valleys and a lot of different things on the roads, like the buffalo we just passed."
The buffalo was a young bull grazing on green grasses emerging alongside the paved roadway that winds through the park. Bison show no fear, which often results in visitors approaching them a little too close for comfort. It is particularly risky at this time of year. Bison bulls are in the rut.
"The landscape is impressive," said Mike Lucy. "It is totally different from where we were at. It's what we came to see."
The Lucys described Indiana as flat, covered with corn and beans. The Badlands, they said, was remarkably different.
"Nice," said Mike Lucy while surveying the Badlands around him. "It is the first time I've been this far north and west. It's really nice so far."
At the temporary Visitor's Center established in the Camptender's Cottage at the entrance to the park's Juniper Campground, Ranger Eric Hauglund was visiting with a man from Minneapolis. The man had returned from his backcountry camp along the park's Achenbach Trail to obtain a supply of water. He and his two sons, ages 5 and 6, were running low after two nights of camping well off the beaten path.
"I had to come back here. It's a great place for a father to teach his sons about the outdoors and the value of national parks," he said.
Eileen Andes, director of interpretation, says that cooler weather this summer has made it much more pleasant for visitors to spend time in the park. Sometimes, particularly in late summer, the Badlands can be unusually hot for the northern plains.
"We've been having an incredibly lovely late summer," said Andes. "The weather hasn't been too hot. It's still green, not as brown as you might expect for this time in August."
Grasses are noticeably taller and trees appear much fuller throughout the park. It is a result of rainfall approaching twice the yearly average for the fourth time in five years. Wildlife are feasting on an abundance of browse.
"We have between 30 and 35 bighorn sheep in the North Unit," said Andes. "They come and go and are difficult to see in areas that are not very accessible. For bison, about 140 or so. Maybe 180. They are right within our target population range."
Excessive rainfall is being cited as the culprit for the closure of the park's Visitor's Center located at the main entrance. The building has begun to shift, something the Badlands has been doing for centuries. At the temporary Visitor's Center, the hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Previously the Visitor's Center was open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The change reflects a cutback in staff.
"In the North Unit we have one instead of two season rangers," said Andes. "Instead of a summer staff of four, we now have three. We are down six to seven employees in the South Unit, too.
Oil activity impact
Despite the cutback in staff, the number of visitors to both units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is on the increase. Growth in the oilfields of western North Dakota has resulted in increased traffic immediately outside the entrance to the North Unit, which in turn has led to more visitors. A big part of the increased visitation, says Andes, is from oil workers and their families who are newcomers to western North Dakota.
"We have a lot of folks from the oil industry visiting both units of the park. They are surprised we have such a nice national park here," said Andes. "There's families new to the area and single guys wanting to get away from the dust and the dirt and the noise of the oilfields."
Flourishing oilfield activity outside both units of T.R. National Park is as big an attention-getter as the parks themselves, albeit for different reasons.
"Oh yeah! You've got to stay in the lane of traffic and no passing," said Mike Lucy.
"It's amazing what is going on in the area with the oil and gas discovery," remarked Bob Krutz. "It's like a gold rush. You can see the mania going on here. After all these millions of years, it's going to change now. One man said the wildlife is gone. They tell us the noise from drilling has chased off everything."
Wildlife, primarily mule deer, have been less visible in the park's North Unit in recent years. No one is saying with certainty whether or not the sole cause of the decline is oil activity. What is known is that winter weather, habitat and predators are vital influences on deer populations.
Even with fewer deer in the park, there are still enough of the animals for most park visitors to encounter them on a regular basis. For those looking to get away from regular routines and experience the magnificence of a national park, Andes says there is still time to do so this summer.
"It has just been gorgeous. It is a great time to visit the park," remarked Andes. "The North Unit campground almost never fills. The last time was over two years ago. There's plenty of room and lots of trees."