Fall months offer a fantastic opportunity to visit national park

MEDORA - School is back in session, the temperature is gradually cooling down and soon the leaves will change to indicate the coming autumn. Before old man winter comes, however, there's still plenty of time to enjoy Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

MEDORA - School is back in session, the temperature is gradually cooling down and soon the leaves will change to indicate the coming autumn.

Before old man winter comes, however, there's still plenty of time to enjoy Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

"The fall is a great time to come to the park and see wildlife," said Bruce Kaye, chief of interpretation at the TRNP. "Temperatures are evening out and all the factors come together. September is the best time to visit the Badlands and our services are all still going on for the month."

The only reason for closing any services is if there is a freeze and the water is affected, he added.

"Evening camp fires continue through the month and periodic ranger-led hikes and guided tours of places such as the Maltese Cross Cabin are happening through Sept. 11," Kaye said. "After that, people can still visit it on their own, but it will have to be self-guided tours. The cabin is also getting cleaned on Sept. 10."


The Painted Canyon Visitor Center remains open daily until mid-November, but hours are cut back slightly to 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. instead 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., he added. Visitor center hours could be cut back depending on visitation and the weather.

"The Medora Visitor Center hours are cut back from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (MDT) starting at the beginning of September," Kaye said. "At the end of this month, we will see how visitation is going to determine a 6 p.m. or other closing time."

The park's South Unit is still open seven days a week, all year and is closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, he added.

For September 2005, the entire park saw only 65,061 visitors, which is about half of what the park experiences in the month of August, Kaye said. In August 2005, the park had 120,960 visitors compared to this August, which saw 101,647 visitors, representing a 16 percent drop.

"Visitors for the entire park, year-to-date is 343,340, which is down 11 percent from last year at this time," he added. "Camping is down in the North Unit by 42 percent compared to this time last year, and for 2006 so far is 10.4 percent down overall. For this August, camping in the South Unit is down by 36.9 percent and year-to-date has seen 10,543 campers, a 22 percent decrease from last year."

Many people have called to ask about the burn ban which also could be a factor as far as people not being able to have a camp fire and not wanting to create a hazard, Kaye said.

Factors such as burn bans from a dry summer or too much snow from an early winter storm are all part of the waiting game for the Park Service.

"We were closed briefly for last year's October snowstorm, but still kept most sites open until mid-November," he added.


One factor for fewer park hours besides the number of visitors and weather conditions is the decreasing amount of staff available.

"We lose staff who only work during the summer and go back to their other jobs and recently we lost some staff who went to Billings, Mont., to fight fires," Kaye said. "We send personnel off to other parks with fire danger, if needed. Also, since visitation drops off in the fall, we tend to need less staff."

Another incentive of fall fun in the park is hiking.

"It's a great time to hike, especially longer distances or being in the wilderness section of the park west of the river," Kaye said. "The Petrified Forest is a popular hike in the fall. There are two access points, the west and east. The west is longer than the east, but both are great hikes."

The park service keeps a close watch on the weather conditions for its visitors, he added.

"People should know it can still be hot and should be aware of the heat," Kaye said. "It is important to keep water while going on a long hike since North Dakota is known for having temperatures in the 90s this time of year, but overall it does get cooler."

Another thing to be aware of is poison ivy, he added.

"Poison ivy can be worse because the resins are more active this time of year," Kaye said. "Also, snakes are still probable with hot weather."


The only other thing visitors should keep in mind is more maintenance work in parts of the park.

"By mid-September, we close off different sections of campgrounds at a time, partly for maintenance and partly due to reduced staff," Kaye said. "The south end campgrounds will be closed Sept. 11-12 and the horse concession will probably close after Labor Day at Peaceful Valley Ranch or at least by mid-September."

Hiking trails are in good condition after summer crews did plenty of work on them in the back country, he added.

"Also, as the fall continues, visitor programs are geared more towards the weekend," Kaye said. "People can call the park to see what's available, but we still have a schedule of activities through the month of September for the North Unit since the south remains open year-round."

Many people already know how picturesque the park is in summer, but fewer see it with the leaves changing.

"Leaves start changing pretty soon, anytime within the first weeks of September, but it doesn't take long before the colors are changed and the first wind storm takes them away," Kaye said. "When the temperatures start dropping into the 40s, the colors come out."

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