Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

Painted Canyon in TRNP

Tuesday July 22, 2014
Cottonwood Campground
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora, North Dakota

“…we do not understand that it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy
or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff,
a forest or a species of animal or bird.”

~Theodore Roosevelt 1913



The more I learn here, the more I like Theodore Roosevelt.



I always thought of Roosevelt as a bit of a loud mouth animal killer and stuffer. A man with a gun. Teddy the “Rough Rider” did not appeal to me. 

I knew that his politics were ones I admired and that he signed into law the first 51 National Bird Sanctuaries now our National Wildlife Refuges. But hearing that as President he created the National Forest Service even if he did appoint the wrong man to head it, that during his time in office the US Forest reserves went from 43 M acres to 194 M acres, that he established 5 National parks and 4 National Monuments including protection of a large portion of Grand Canyon has really changed my attitude. 

Reading and hearing quotations by Roosevelt, which make me want to pump my fist and say YES!, has added to my new admiration for him.   So I now say YAY Teddy!!




For the remainder of our time here, or until I run out, I’m going to begin each post with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt.  The first one is the italics above.  Remember that these are from the turn of the 20th century, Roosevelt died in 1919.  

On the way to our adventures for today, we stop by the South Unit visitor center to return our “family pack” (see yesterday’s post) and while there I pick up a copy of a biography of TR done by one of my favorite biographers, David McCullough.  It’s entitled Mornings on Horseback: The story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt.  I’ll eventually let you know what I think of it.  It’s 370 pages  not including 75 pages of Notes and Bibliography so unless I end up with a lot of rainy days or uninteresting stops, it may be slow going.



We are going East on I 94.


Theo. Roosevelt National Park is 70,416 acres divided into 3 units. Only two of them have campgrounds. The third has the Painted Rocks Visitor Center and today had two ranger talks we thought we’d do. 

This unit is accessible only by foot or by an exit off of I94.  The park is so vast and they want few interior roads to mar the landscape so we have to drive back 5 exits to Exit 32.   There is also a rest stop here which I am conflicted about.  It’s a great idea to bring people to the park since the information center is the visitor’s center.  But the tractor trailers sit and idle their diesel engines right outside the entrance sometimes for hours in order to have AC if they are napping.   Putting a separate parking lot for them closer to the interstate and further from the VC would have been a better plan in my mind.



The first of the ranger talks is at 10:00 and was supposed to last 30-45 minutes. It was to be a rim hike. So I thought we’d learn something about the natural history of this Painted area below us. But the intern, graduated to volunteer, talked only 15 minutes. Two of it about Theodore Roosevelt almost as a precursor to apparently one of his favorite subjects a British botanist named Thomas Nuttall.  Nuttall was apparently an interesting guy but had nothing to do with this area.  I am still stumped as to why he was allowed to do this talk here rather than what was advertised in the newspaper “ learn more about the natural and historic aspects of the park”.   Perhaps this is another result of our poor funding for our national parks.  We now have folks who don’t know much about this place substituting for the real rangers who do.


Here is what we see from the rim even if we don’t learn much.  


And what we see is fantastic as you have seen from the pictures!






Though the talk was a disappointment since we’d hoped to go off on a hike armed with some knowledge, we go off armed only with our curiosity and our cameras.

We take the Painted Canyon Nature Trail and down into it we go.   There are many wildflowers which I will show as we see them today.  I’m not certain of them all so please correct me if I’m wrong.



Either the path isn’t used a great deal or the bushes and grasses are growing like weeds.  I’m thinking about whether rattle snakes would like to be in there where I am walking on a path I can’t see.  David says “no, they want to be in the sun on the rocks”.  Hmmm maybe if it’s cold outside but what if it’s not?


Field Bindweed

Part of the path down

Blue Flax


Wild Bergamot



We’re now looking up at them. On the way down, in the Juniper trees which provide most of the shade, we find a Western Towhee flitting about.  he’s hard to get since he hides behind the branches but he’s just as handsome as the Eastern (rufous sided) that I love.   I’m really happy to see him here.





At the bottom, it is a very different perspective


We’re now looking up at them. 




The story of the geology of this place is pretty amazing.  It was, as were most places in the US, once a shallow sea and in other sections of the park there are petrified cypress trees.  Alligators and shore birds where here.  Ultimately the rise of the Rockies changed everything and the volcanic ash coming from the west settle here in some of the layers.  Sure wish that Ranger had known more than I do this morning.





We get close up views of the base of these formations and can see what they are made of and touch them. We can see the shades of color up close.









Prairie Coneflower “Mexican Hat”

Purple Coneflower




These remind me of elephant skin and toes.





The area like most of the park is full of sage.  There are actually 6 different kinds of sage and sagebrush here here.  I had no idea they were all in the sunflower family.  How can that be?  They are an Artemisia. 

I really can’t tell them apart except that this one is over 5’ tall and that means it is probably BIG Sagebrush and that is actually its name.   Also in the park are western sagebrush, pasture sagebrush, white age, long-leafed sage and  dwarf sagebrush.  I LOVE the smell of sage.  I rub it with my hands so I can smell it whenever I want to.





It’s just beyond here that we see the lazuli bunting.  He’s the hit of the day.  We seldom see buntings and we’ve never seen this one before.   These badlands are really nothing like the ones in South Dakota.



We’ve also never seen either of these before.


Squirrel Tail grass



Silverleaf scurfpea



We take a last look from ground level before heading back.




On the way we find these sunflowers basking in the light beside our last ground formations.





I love being able to see them close up and examine them.  I wish I could remember the term used for this gray crumbly stuff that is hard as rock when the sun is shining and as slick as ice when it rains.   Beware!



While we’ve been hiking we keep seeing theses brown butterflies.  They are fairly small and never seem to light anywhere.  So although they are everywhere we cannot get a picture of them.  As we start the first of the climbing steps up, there are several around us and one actually stops and lights on a stem.  We are amazed as he stays there long enough to get a picture. 

We had taken to calling him the brown eyed never stops.  And I guess everyone else had a hard time getting a picture of him too because I can’t find him anywhere.  Hope one of you knows who he is.









Even at 85, it’s warm in this North Dakota sun so we are praising the brilliance of the trail designers when about half way up they send us through this forest of Juniper.  Ah cool!!



It’s a steady climb up but not strenuous.  We stop and look back as we gain elevation and watch our perspective change.







We’re aiming for that flat ridge on the left.  The VC is up there.




On the last leg.  We just all the way down there a little bit ago.  Actually this is a one mile loop hike and it takes us about 2 hours to do it.  It takes me about 4 hours to post it.  LOL



And here we are, back at the top.  Time for LUNCH!!





David gets the lunch out of the car while I snag a front row seat in one of the  most interesting picnic areas I’ve seen yet.   Each table has it’s own little “room” open on the front.  So if like us, you have one open to the canyon, you can have a lunch view that looks like this. I am so sorry I didn’t get a picture of this unique picnic area.  I’ve never seen any thing like it.  I didn’t discover I’d forgotten until I started putting this post together.





In addition to our beautiful view this lone cedar waxwing entertains us by flying out and away and then back to the fence over and over again.  I’m surprised to see him alone since in Virginia they showed up in gangs to strip our mulberry trees.



After our late lunch we endure the no information geology talk and then jump in the car to head back to the South Unit visitor’s center.  We want to make the last tour of the Maltese Cross Cabin.  Theodore Roosevelt’s first Dakota home.  Normally we would just go on back to the rig and come back out for the tour another day.  They do it everyday except maybe Monday.  Not sure about that.


But first of all it is a 6 mile trip one way and secondly it takes extra time these days because they are redoing half of the road from the VC to the campground.   The work delays are legendary.  30 minutes we’ve heard although we have never had more than 10 or so.  This will be not be finished until October.  It’s not terrible but you don’t want to make multiple trips in and out.



We are only a few minutes late and the ranger has started what is a very interesting talk about Roosevelt and this cabin which he had built in 1883 after coming to North Dakota to hunt buffalo. He liked the area so well that he bought an interest in the Maltese Cross Ranch whose brand was – drumroll – a Maltese cross.   The cabin was located on the ranch 7 miles south of the park.  A few years later Roosevelt built a bigger home further into the interior of what is now the park and named it Elkhorn.


Apparently although he came from great wealth and lived in opulence in New York city, the simple life was just fine with him.  This is his bedroom.  The trunk is an original possession.  The others are period pieces

This is the only other room in the cabin other than a small kitchen.  I was surprised to find the twin of an oak rocker we had in the farmhouse in TR’s cabin.






If you are ever driving across North Dakota, do it on I 94 and make an easy stop at exit 32, even in a big rig towing.   Even if you only look over the rim at this gorgeous Painted Canyon be sure to say a little thanks to Teddy Roosevelt whose presence here helped to save this wonderful place.


  1. Given enough time, I think I could do that hike (despite my miserable back), but I guess I won't hang around for any of the ranger talks.

  2. This just all looks so different than anything we've seen. And we've seen quite a bit of this beautiful country. But there's always more. Gotta get this area into the rotation!

  3. We have a lot to thank Teddy Roosevelt for. It's obvious all through the west. I wonder whether we'd have National Parks if it weren't for him.

  4. I read "River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" by Candice Millard and really enjoyed it. He was a very interesting man all in all. Thanks for the tour can't wait to see more. Even though so far I have no fond memories of North Dakota (you know why!) this park is on my bucket list.

  5. I really enjoyed your post and pictures since I only visited Units #1 and #2 last year. Gives me something to go back to see! I'm still chuckling about David's comment on rattlesnakes. My late-ex-husband would have said exactly the same thing, and in such a way that convinced you he knew it to be fact. I know a lot of times he made stuff up, but it was stuff meant to ward off any worries. Good job, David!

  6. I'm really glad my brother reminded me of the NP, and that you are there to give us a wonderful preview.

    LOVED the photo of you standing up on the NP sign. . .so great!

  7. What beautiful rocks and formations - and blue skies and more open spaces!!! Love all those subtle colors and bright flowers - the 'brown eyed never stops' is beautiful too! Thanks so much for sharing all of this with us/me - I am loving traveling with you :)

  8. 51 years ago this month, I had started my government career at TRNP. I have ridden horseback in much of the South Unit. I also gave tours through the cabin. Most people think the North Unit is more beautiful but each visitor has their own definition of "beauty." Your write-up does capture the essence of that area beautifully. Since I grew up close to the area, I didn't have the appreciation that I now have when I visit.

  9. Great pics and info.
    It was smoking hot when we went through there and we just wanted to keep driving.

    We had clay which was super hard when dry and too slick to walk on when wet. Not good for farming or driving.

  10. We attended the Maltese Cross Cabin talk yesterday and attempted to hike the trail at the Painted Canyon late today, but the weather was getting nasty looking and we decided to try another day. I agree with your assessment about the parking area out at that visitor's center/rest area. Seems as though they could have designed it better.
    Very nice pictures and explanations of the rock formations and wildlife. You could be the interpreter at the Visitor's Center out there beside the interstate. LOL

  11. Such a shame about the ranger talk, but glad you didn't let it ruin your day.

  12. Too bad about the ranger talk and the truck idling. Dislike! Great wildflowers and bird sightings though :) Love the lazuli! Neat history about Roosevelt that you were able to learn despite the guide.

  13. Sorry the Ranger Talks were such a disappointment. We are finding that lack of funding is affecting our state parks also;o(( Just glad you still were able to enjoy and share all that beauty with us!!!

  14. I think I must clarify. Only the two talks given by one ranger were disappointing. The one given st the cabin was excellent. Poor talks at National parks are rare in my experience. So I was very surprised by this ranger.

  15. Glad to hear that not all of the ranger talks were lackluster ... really enjoyed the tour of the cabin ... in some ways it reminds me of Rapidan Camp in Shenandoah National Park

  16. You made some amazing discoveries on your hike despite the poor talk by that volunteer. I guess you do get what you pay for.

    Interesting pictures of an amazing area, glad that it has been preserved in all its original glory for generations to enjoy. :c)

  17. Thank you so much for being in North Dakota. It's not one state I was all that interested in, but it's on the list now! Beautiful formations, and a nice hike!

  18. I am reading "Bully Pulpit" by Doris Goodwin. It is very good. Great pics of the Towhee and Waxwing.

  19. I'm so loving this place! It might be the sage - I'm a big fan :-). Is that maybe a brown moth? I know nothing about the differences, it just seems "moth-ish" (and lovely). The elephant toes are interesting formations - both up close and as part of the landscape.
    I'm learning that hunters and fishermen are some of the strongest advocates for protecting our wildlife and their eco-systems. They are often some of the most passionate protectors against development and abuse, and in many areas are responsible for the increased populations of several species. I'm not a fan of hunting, but I'm no longer adverse to the practice. That Teddy made use of the power of his office to save so much of this beautiful land for generations to enjoy makes him a hero for sure :-))).

  20. Another great adventure that your are sharing! All your captures are really showing what a wonderful place the park is. And yes we will thank TR once we get there. Glad to see that you are wearing long sleeves and long pants! I guess after my Chigger attack Im leary watching people hiking in shorts now :(

  21. What a beautiful hike and gorgeous landscape! Your photos are wonderful. I've had exactly the same thought about snakes when I'm hiking through tall grass -- and Eric has told me exactly the same thing that David told you. I'm not so sure they're right, either!

  22. Really too bad about the poor Ranger talks. Many parks are utilizing volunteers who unfortunately don't know much. But the landscape is absolutely gorgeous there. How come I never went to TR. Lots of mixed feelings about ole Theo.

  23. I forget what I read about TR but it described his natural history collection from childhood that he donated to the Smithsonian http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/profiles/TR_profile.html He was an avid naturalist from a young age, and in those times hunting was different than now. We owe him so much, he's my favorite president!

  24. Love the bergamot- so pretty! Coneflowers are one of my favorites- I have some planted in my little rock garden. The only thing is that they start out bright pink and then seem to fade.The bunting is very pretty. And the scenery- absolutely breath taking! I want to go t o North Dakota! xxxooo


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