Once I unhitched myself from following the Lewis and Clark Trail, I was free to choose routes and destinations that seemed interesting. I had about 15 days to work my way back home. When making my route decision back in Montana, I identified two places that I wanted to visit. I wanted to stop in North Dakota to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I also wanted to eventually get to Grand Rapids, Michigan to visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Having these two landmarks helped me chart a general route where I could search out interesting places to visit.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Teddy Roosevelt first came to western North Dakota in 1883 to hunt buffalo. He enjoyed the rugged lifestyle of western North Dakota and decided to invest in a small cattle ranch operation near Medora. The following year, both his wife and mother died on the same day in February. The tragedy hit him hard and he sought solitude and solace in the North Dakota badlands where he had hunted the previous year.
On his return in 1884, he started a second cattle ranch, The Elkhorn Ranch, about 35 miles north of his Maltese Cross Ranch. Roosevelt’s time as a cattle rancher was short-lived. By 1887, bad winter weather had wiped out the cattle and he returned to New York.
After his death in 1919, the area was considered for a National Park. The CCC established camps in the area during the 1930’s. In 1947, President Truman designated the 40,000 acres that surrounded Roosevelt’s original ranches as a National Park.
Today, the park encompasses 70,000 acres of the badlands in western North Dakota. There are three separate sections that form the park. The badlands are a unique jumble of hills, rocky outcrops, and gulleys. The Little Missouri River winds its way through this rough terrain. It’s a wilderness area that’s very scenic and a great place for wildlife.
I visited the South Unit of the park, where there’s a small visitor center and a museum containing some Roosevelt history. The cabin where he spent his first stay, Maltese Cross, has been relocated to the visitor center grounds.
Scenic Loop Drive & Medora
The key feature of the south unit is the 36 miles Scenic Loop Drive. I did the drive in my RV on a somewhat rainy day. I saw some wildlife (buffalo, prong horns, wild horses, and young elk) on the route. However, the weather made for some drab photographs. Here’s a video I made while on the drive.
I spent two days in the small town of Medora, just outside the park entrance. The National Park has a small campground with limited facilities (i.e., no hook ups or showers). I wanted to recover from my long drives across Montana, so I chose one of the two RV parks in Medora. I stayed at Red Tail Campground, which I would not give high marks to. Some of the facilities that I saw were dated (e.g., worn and cracked electrical outlets, rusted water connections, filthy showers, and untrimmed trees). The only good feature for me is that it’s within walking distance of the town.
Also, Medora had a somewhat of a “made for tourism” feel to it. Several of the businesses (restaurants, bar, pizza place, ice cream shop, hotel, golf course, motel, RV park) are owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation. The Foundation is non-profit, but you couldn’t tell this from the prices in all the stores. They also own a popular musical review show (The Medora Musical). I thought that the small town had somewhat of an artificial “Disney” feel to it.
While I was there in mid-June, the RV parks were full and there were lots of tourists walking around Medora. But while I was in the park on the scenic loop drive, I only saw a handful of vehicles. I enjoyed visiting the park, but perhaps most folks come to Medora for the shopping and music show.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
I left Medora and headed east on I-94 towards Bismark. My focus was the historic Mandan villages that are near Bismarck. Jumping back in time to the Lewis and Clark expedition, during their 1804 journey the Corp of Discovery spent the winter with the Mandan people. The village where Lewis and Clark stayed in 1804 is about 35 miles north of Bismarck at the Knife River Indian Villages NHS. But, just below Bismarck, another village is located at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. This turned out to be a great stop.
The state park is located right on the Missouri River about 7 miles south of Mandan. The park has a nice campground, a museum, a replica of the historic fort, and a replica of a Mandan village. With so much to see, I spent two days at the park.
The Mandan village is a replica of the original village that was on the site. The Mandan occupied the site, called On A Slant Village, from around 1650 to 1750. There were over 70 earthen mound houses on the site. The village was decimated by a small pox outbreak so the surviving Mandan moved up river to the Knife River village, which is where Lewis and Clark met them in 1804.
In the 1930’s, the CCC reconstructed 6 earthen mound houses at the On A Slant site. Some Mandan history and artifacts from the site are on display in the museum.
The park is also the site of Fort Abraham Lincoln. This fort was built in 1873 to protect the surveyors and builders for the Northern Pacific Railroad. It is noteworthy for its first commander. Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was the first commander of the fort and lived there with his wife Libbie for three years. He departed from Fort Lincoln on his fatal expedition against the Sioux at the Little Bighorn.
The fort was decommissioned in 1891 and all the buildings were either moved or dismantled. Today, on the original fort parade grounds, 8 building have been rebuilt from the original blueprints, including Custer’s post commander house. The buildings are open to the public and tours are given of Custer house.
During my stay, I made this video of the state park.
I was not expecting to see so much history at the state park. It’s also a lovely setting along the Missouri River. The two days I spent there were very enjoyable.
Sitting Bull Gravesites
Leaving Fort Lincoln, I followed Route 1806 south along the Missouri River. Looking at the route on the map, I noticed two sites marking Sitting Bull’s gravesite. Both of the sites are in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. One site is in Fort Yates, ND and the other is Mobridge, SD. Being a history addict, this peaked my interest, so I decided to check them out.
For those who may not know, Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake) was a Hunkpapa Lakota. He was a holy man for his people, not a war chief. But as a spiritual leader he provided leadership and direction to the Hunkpapa and other tribes in resisting the US government actions to take his people’s land and freedom. Sitting Bull never signed or agreed with any of the treaties put forth by the US government. He was very well-respected by the chiefs and war chiefs of other Lakota tribes (i.e., Brule, Miniconjou, Oglala, Yankton). And today he’s a key historical figure for the Hunkpapa.
In 1890, Sitting Bull was shot and killed near the Standing Rock Indian Agency as he was being arrested by Indian Agency police. He was buried by the Army in nearby Fort Yates. And that’s where he laid until 1953. But in the early 1950’s, some distant relatives of Sitting Bull obtained a ruling from the BIA that said descendants could determine his final resting place. In the early morning hours of April 8, 1953, the relatives dug up his remains and reinterred them at a spot along the Missouri River near Mobridge, SD.
The folks in Fort Yates say that the relatives got the wrong set of bones and still claim that Sitting Bull rests in Fort Yates. The Mobridge folks claim that they got it right and buried the remains in a large concrete tomb and placed a large monument on top.
Fort Yates, ND Site
On my route south, I drove through Fort Yates which is sort of the main town on the Standing Rock Reservation. It’s not a big place and the town suffers from poor economic conditions. It took me a couple passes through town to find the gravesite. There’s just a small sign and headstone on the side of the road.
While driving around Fort Yates, this lone white man in a Mercedes RV got lots of long stares from the Hunkpapa people. I was an obvious outsider on their reservation and wasn’t sure if there were still some hard feelings left over from the 1870’s. A “wasi-chu” (white man in Lakota) taking pictures of their beloved leader’s grave might not be well received. Best to avoid any conflicts, so I decided not to stop and discreetly made my way out of town.
Mobridge, SD Site
The other Sitting Bull grave site is about 50 miles south near Mobridge, SD. It’s in a remote area about 3 miles off the road at a beautiful site overlooking the Missouri River. There were no groups of Lakota people staring at me here, so I was able to walk around freely and soak in the site.
There are two impressive monuments marking the site. Sitting Bull was supposedly born near this area. Unlike several of his counterparts who ended up buried at nondescript cemeteries, he ended up with a nice peaceful spot all to himself. Very fitting for this significant man who fought to preserve his people and their way of life.
I left Sitting Bull in peace and continued south along the river through the never-ending wheat fields of South Dakota to Pierre.