In June of 2019, I took an long-planned, epic 11-day road trip from Texas all the way up to the Dakotas! In order to keep to blog posts from being painfully long, I’ve broken the trip up into days and will release one post per day or so. On this day, I left South Dakota after four days and headed north into North Dakota for the first time ever! I hadn’t originally planned to do this side-jaunt at all, but I have a bucket list item of spending a night in all 50 states (I’m at 38 so far) and Theodore Roosevelt National Park seemed like an attractive destination and not too far away, so I added it on!
As I noted in the previous blog entry, I loved the B&B where I was staying; my room was extremely comfortable and charming. The only downside was it was on the east side of the building and the Black Hills are on the extreme eastern edge of the Mountain Time Zone, so the sunlight came blazing in my window at 5:15 am the next morning!
My hosts graciously got up very early and made breakfast for me before I headed out to church for Trinity Sunday. I always try (pre-COVID of course) to attend church even when on the road, though as an Anglo-Catholic it can be challenging to find Anglican churches in random locations (though you might be surprised!). I usually attend Episcopal churches when I can’t find an Anglican one, so I hit up All Angels Episcopal Church in Spearfish. It was a pretty building, and they had a real bell that they rang before the start of service (my church’s bell is electronic).
There are a couple of things to see in Spearfish, including the DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and the High Plains Western Heritage Center, but I was anxious to get on the road and I’m not much interested in fish anyway (except to eat). The Western Heritage Center might have been interesting, but it didn’t open until the afternoon and I had several hours of driving ahead of me.
Heading north, I made an impromptu decision to veer off the main road and see the Geographic Center of the Entire United States (that is, including Alaska). which is on a dirt road (which, if Google is to be believed, was US 85 once upon a time) about 8 miles off the highway. There it was, just a trig point with an American flag by the side of the road. Despite the extreme isolation, someone else was actually there at the same time as me.
This is pretty typical of the scenery around there: not completely flat, but just barely rolling, lush green grass, with hardly any towns and barely another soul to be seen. Way off on the southern horizon in this picture you can just barely still make out the Black Hills.
Rather than head back south to the paved highway, I rashly decided to keep going north on the dirt road for… oh, another 25 miles. I did a LOT of dirt-road driving on this trip, and though my car seemed to hold up fine at the moment, I ended up paying for it with VERY expensive car repairs months down the line… I’ll tell that story another time. Anyway, Google Maps predicted my driving speed would tank on the dirt roads, but it was surprisingly good quality and I was able to make up a lot of time.
I finally made it to the North Dakota State line and entered a NEW STATE!
Around the North Dakota state line, the land changes. The endless carpet of rich green grass rolls on, but there start to be more buttes and mesas – not the dry, dusty ones of Texas and New Mexico fame, but just sharp, flat-topped rises in the grass expanse. It isn’t really like anywhere else I’ve ever seen, and again, the sense of isolation is extreme, contributing to an otherworldly feel.
Something my hosts the night before in Spearfish said to me came to mind: Dakotans think of themselves as divided, not into North and South by the artificial state line, but into East and West by the Missouri River. “East River,” as they call it, is dominated by farming culture akin to Iowa and Minnesota. “West River” is marked by ranching/cowboy culture and relates more to Montana and Wyoming.
The highest point in North Dakota, White Butte at 3506 ft/1069 m, is just a few miles from the road I was on, though I didn’t investigate. Another thing that would have been cool to see but was juuuust too far away to make the detour was the Enchanted Highway, very intricate and colorful metal statues by the side of the road.
After over an hour driving through North Dakota, I arrived at I-94, and just a few miles’ drive west brought me to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It appears very dramatically; the land just drops away from the north side of the highway. The landscape was interesting; in a few parts it reminded me of the Badlands of South Dakota, but more often, it actually reminded me strongly of Palo Duro Canyon in Texas.
The Little Missouri River cuts through the park, with some dramatic bluffs:
On a trail leading to one such overlook, I encountered a Park Ranger telling us to go around him because he was trying to prod away a rattlesnake that was sunning itself on the trail! I could hear the snake rattle and hiss, and I do NOT do snakes, so I was only too happy to comply.
But there’s also wildlife of a much prettier and less-scary variety: buffalo and herds of wild horses!
I spent hours in the park. It’s a beautiful place, unlike anywhere else I saw on trip, though surprisingly similar to Texas. After leaving the park, I crossed the highway to the tiny town of Medora, which is a base for tourists at the National Park, but also has quite a colorful history in its own right. I checked in at the Amble Inn, a cool little place that’s unusual in that it has a large front-of-house bookstore and gift shop with stuff all about the region and North Dakota. The rooms themselves were spacious and very nice and comfortable.
“The thing” to do when you’re in Medora is see the Medora Musical, a musical revue-type entertainment featuring costumed performers in a natural amphitheater at sunset. An additional gimmick (for an additional cost) is the “Pitchfork Steak Fondue dinner,” where they literally cook the steak in tubs of boiling oil. Kind of against my better judgment, I splurged on $100 for a ticket, something I almost never do.
The steak was quite tasty, but the rest of the dinner was “eh.” The show was… fun I suppose, but pretty cheesy (I thought it was going to be more about the history of the town, and it was more just pure entertainment). I can’t honestly say it was worth what I spent on it, but on the other hand I can’t say I regret it, because it’s what you do when you’re in Medora. It just wasn’t necessarily my thing.
Tomorrow: Devil’s Tower!