North Dakota's Cowboy Frontier | Midwest Living

North Dakota's Cowboy Frontier

Follow our 170-mile driving tour of the badlands and grasslands of far western North Dakota.
Click to enlarge.
+ enlarge

Follow our 170-mile driving tour of the badlands and grasslands of far western North Dakota, where a young Theodore Roosevelt came to ranch in the 1880s. It was love at first sight for him, and it may be for you, too.

"There are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling limitless prairies," Roosevelt wrote friends, "... or winding my way among the barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque deserts of the so-called Badlands."

"I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," he once remarked.

Fitting then, that the centerpiece of this landscape carries the name of the president who founded the national park service. Theodore Roosevelt National Park sweeps across 70,000 majestic acres. Nearby, you'll see Old West towns, frontier forts, national grasslands and Lake Sakakawea, one of the nation's largest.


In 1883, a young French nobleman smitten with the landscape and filled with dreams of creating a cattle empire in the frontier West founded Medora (24 miles east of the North Dakota/Montana state line). Time hasn't diminished the romantic allure of this little town, which generally has fewer than 200 residents during the winter.

Each summer, Medora fills with visitors from around the world. They come to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park (the visitors' center is at the edge of town) and to soak up the charm of Medora's 10 blocks of museums, restaurants and galleries.

You can tour the town in a horse-drawn buggy. Buffalo burgers are a favorite lunch at the rustic Rough Rider Hotel. Every summer night, the Burning Hills Amphitheatre on a bluff above town hosts the Medora Musical. Before the show, join the "pitchfork fondue" feed of steaks speared on pitchforks and seared in kettles of beef tallow.

East on I-94 to exit 27. West almost two miles to the Chateau de Mores access road.

Chateau de Mores

In 1883, Marquis de Mores, the French romantic/entrepreneur who founded Medora, built this 26-room mansion as his summer residence. By 1886, the Marquis's dreams and empire had collapsed.

Yet more than a century later, the two-story white frame home provides a glimpse of that era. The home, open for tours, still contains many original furnishings and family belongings. Downtown, all that remains of the Marquis's meat-packing plant is the towering brick chimney at "Chimney Park."

Backtrack to Medora.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit)

Spreading along the Little Missouri River north from I-94 and Medora, the park is divided into two big units (70 miles apart) and a smaller third unit encompassing the frontier Elkhorn Ranch. Buffalo graze and prairie dogs chatter beside roads that link one scenic turnout after another.

Hiking trails wind down hills, where spiny yuccas and groves of fragrant junipers emerge above a blue-green carpet of sagebrush. Roosevelt's log cabin from the Maltese Cross Ranch, which he partially owned and where he frequently stayed, sits behind the visitors' center.

A 36-mile paved loop winds among the grasslands and into the rugged river breaks. Along the way at Peaceful Valley Ranch, many visitors embark on guided horseback tours of the river valley. Nature trails crisscross the South Unit, and bicycles are welcome on roadways. Rangers give nightly talks about park history and wildlife at Cottonwood Campground.

Only foundation blocks remain of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch 20 miles north. To reach it, follow the dirt road through the Little Missouri National Grassland.

Back to I-94, then east to exit 42. North on US-85 about 50 miles to the park's north unit. Here you'll find several hiking trails and a 14-mile National Scenic Byway. Continue north on US-85 to Watford City.

Little Missouri National Grassland

For a self-guided tour of the grassland, pick up a map at the ranger office in Watford City. Covering more than 1 million acres, the nation's largest national grassland sprawls across prairie and badlands more than 50 miles to the north and to the south of I-94. Its boundaries encompass Medora and all three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

More than 3,000 miles of country roads, many of them primitive, traverse the big preserve. You don't have to travel far on any of them to see elk, deer and bighorn sheep. Several massive buttes punctuate the grasslands along the Little Missouri River, and you'll find a number of caves to peer into.

From Watford City, west and north on US-85 to Williston.


This high-plains community is the western gateway to massive Lake Sakakawea along the Missouri River. It's also a stop on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Trail. Each summer, the community hosts western art shows and welcomes guests at frontier rendezvous and encampments.

The Missouri River Valley surrounds Lake Sakakawea, and rolling prairie can be seen for miles along the shoreline. Wildlife abounds, and the lake is a birdwatcher's paradise. Other recreation includes boating, fishing, camping, sailing and hunting. You'll also find sites related to early Native American culture and trading in the area.

From Williston, southwest on County-1804.

Fort Union/Fort Buford

Within sight of Montana, these military posts played pivotal roles in the frontier West. The reconstructed log-walled 1828 stockade at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site rises above the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. The original fort here was built at a spot recommended by Lewis and Clark on their westward journey. For nearly 40 years, it served as a key post for trade with the Assiniboin, Crow and Sioux. Visitors gaze through small gun ports in the palisade walls, tour the living quarters and trade store and listen as rangers recount the post's colorful history.

A short drive southeast, three original buildings and the post cemetery remain at Fort Buford State Historic Site. Built in 1866 and abandoned in 1895, the post's most storied day came on July 29, 1881, when Sitting Bull and his followers surrendered here. They had lived as fugitives for five years after defeating the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A museum in one of the original military buildings tells the fort's story; a nearby military cemetery with reconstructed wooden headboards marking the graves, a stone powder magazine and interpretive exhibits also help tell the fort's story.

For more information:


Chateau de Mores

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Little Missouri National Grassland

Williston Convention & Visitors Bureau

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

Fort Buford State Historic Site


Add Your Comment