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Tourism bounces back for Medora, TRNP; Keeping history alive: Officials keep Elkhorn Ranch pristine

A pumping jack is seen in the distance from just outside the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Elkhorn Ranch Unit on Saturday. Friends of TRNP as well as park officials are worried what private development visible and audible from the Elkhorn Ranch will do to the park's smallest unit. This oil well was placed on the butte in the 1990s, Superintendent Valerie Naylor said. More recently a well has been placed on that same bluff, but the company worked with the park to make it less noticeable.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK -- Over the river and through the Badlands, to Theodore Roosevelt's ranch we go.

On Saturday, the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park hosted a trip from the park's South Unit to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, which is located approximately halfway between the park's other two units.

One bus and about a dozen cars carrying around 80 people made the winding trip originally planned for half that many through the Badlands to observe the place where our nation's 26th president sought solitude after the Valentine's Day 1884 deaths of his mother and first wife.

The purpose of the trip was to show off the rarely seen smallest unit of the park and to educate about Roosevelt's time at the ranch, and about possible threats to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit and the rest of the park, writer and Roosevelt historian Clay Jenkinson said.

The ranch's name came from Roosevelt's discovery of the skeletons of two elk that had died of starvation after locking horns, he said.

The ranch is one of the least accessible spots in the park, said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs at TRNP. Park officials plan to keep it that way.

"You have to want to go there," she said.

There is a road that goes through the South Unit up to the Elkhorn Ranch, but it requires fording the river and last year's flooding has made it difficult, but not impossible. The route taken Saturday was mostly on gravel roads starting with the Sentinel Butte Road west of Medora on Interstate 94.

The land surrounding the park is owned by a variety of different interests, both public and private, which creates a complicated web for those wishing to protect not only the park but the vantage point from protected lands, Superintendent Valerie Naylor said.

"How do you figure out how to draw the lines and to get the right agencies involved and who would manage it and under what circumstances and what would the implications be for the current 218 acres of National Park Service property?" Jenkinson said of asking for further protections for the Elkhorn Ranch and its surroundings.

Friends and park officials wish to keep the Elkhorn Ranch Unit as pristine as possible so visitors can recreate Roosevelt's initial visit as closely as possible.

"One of the things we do try so hard to preserve here is the natural sounds," Naylor said. "We want to preserve the view shed -- as we call it -- the soundscape."

The solitude of the Elkhorn Ranch was what drew Roosevelt to the spot, he said.

"When he got here in June of 1884, he went out to the Maltese Cross (his first ranch in North Dakota) and he realized it was too crowded," Jenkinson said. "It was on a trail, there were too many people coming back and forth, it was too close to the railroad and it was too close to the new town of Medora."

When he first came back to what would become North Dakota, Roosevelt planned to stay in the territory and take up politics as it became a state, Jenkinson said. But he made a trip back home to New York and met up with childhood sweetheart Edith Kermit Carow. An old romance was rekindled. The couple married in London in 1886.

After his second marriage, Roosevelt visited North Dakota and the Elkhorn less and less, Jenkinson said. His last known trip was in 1892, but he did bring his wife and sister and a few other friends and family members to the ranch in 1890.

"And Roosevelt brought them out and he so wanted his wife, Edith, to fall in love this place, and she just didn't," Jenkinson said.

Many people visiting the ranch Saturday were there for the first time, including Friends President David Nix.

"We need to get people excited about what is here," he said. "If we can't do that, potentially unpleasant things are gonna happen."

Interest in TRNP and energy development brought Steven Hilbert through North Dakota on his way home to suburban Boston from a job as an X-ray technician in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Father-son duo John and R.J. Dobbins were also visiting the Elkhorn Ranch Unit for the first time.

"When we left, we got ahead of everybody else," John Dobbins said. "This is how (Roosevelt) would have done it, it was really nice."

The pair plan to visit again with camp chairs and books and experience the park as Roosevelt did.

For more information about the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, TRNP and the Friends of TRNP visit

Map from South Unit to Elkhorn Ranch Unit

Elkhorn Ranch history:


Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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