MEDORA – Heavy traffic clogging the main entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can cause long delays during peak summer visiting season. Closets in the administration building have been converted into cramped offices and unair-conditioned server rooms.
Worse still, the visitor orientation center and public restrooms in the north unit, which closed a decade ago due to erosion and landslides, remain housed in temporary buildings.
Park officials presented ambitious concepts to bring the park, established in 1947, up to current standards and improve the visitor experience. Many of the park’s facilities date back six decades to the 1960s.
The planning effort, now in its infancy, is given an added boost with the impending debut of the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in 2026, with a grand opening on July 4, coinciding with the 250th anniversary of the United States.
The Presidential Library, which will be built on a bluff at the southwest end of Medora, is expected to draw tens of thousands more visitors to the national park and Medora, which together are North Dakota’s top tourist attraction.
The plan addresses the needs of five facilities for the next 30 to 50 years: South Unit Visitor Center and Administrative Offices, Peaceful Valley Ranch, North Unit Visitor Center , the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and the Elkhorn Ranch.
Planning for park improvements is part of a larger study of needs in the Medora area as preparations are made for the increased visitor volume expected once the Presidential Library, which will operate year-round, will open.
“It impacts us,” especially if the library is successful in attracting visitors in all seasons, said park superintendent Angie Richman. “It’s a game-changer for all of us.”
Garages and maintenance workshops built in the 1960s are no longer sufficient as equipment has become much larger and more powerful.
For example, the garage is so small there’s no room for a truck with a snow plow attached, Richman said. “Things were just a lot smaller back then,” she added.
As a result, the plow has to be pulled out to park inside, or the truck with the plow attached has to stay outside, sometimes in freezing cold.
“It’s just kind of a hassle,” Richman said.
In his opinion, the most urgent need is a new reception center in the north unit.
“It’s really embarrassing,” she says of the “temporary” buildings. “It really is a sad example of what a reception center should be. For me, I really think that’s our most critical need.
Options under consideration also include an expanded park entrance to Medora to accommodate more visitors, increased parking and better traffic flow, and an improved visitor discovery and orientation center with protection from Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch cabin.
According to a park planning document, “revitalized and modernized administrative and visitor facilities” would “support the future of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy and complement the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.”
Another concept calls for utility upgrades to the South Unit’s Peaceful Valley Ranch, once a working ranch that later served as the original park headquarters and site of horseback riding in the park.
Peaceful Valley Ranch has recently been “stabilized and rehabilitated” to serve as an environmental learning center. The park will soon be adding furniture for the learning center.
Park officials are also considering a major upgrade to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. Located off Interstate 94, the Visitor Center is an important gateway not only to the park, but also to other western national parks and to Medora attractions, including the new Presidential Library. .
“We could be a gateway to North Dakota,” Richman said.
The National Park Service would welcome partners in the improvements, including the U.S. Forest Service, the state of North Dakota, the National Park Foundation and Trust for Historic Preservation, and tribal nations.
“We are lucky to have so many great partners in the region,” she said.
Governor Doug Burgum, through a spokesperson, expressed support for improving the Painted Canyon Visitor Center.
“The state is very supportive of Park Service discussions about expanding and improving the visitor experience at Painted Canyon,” spokesman Mike Kennedy said. “This location is a unique asset that could serve as a visitor center not only for North Dakota, but also for Medora, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the future Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.
“Upgrading these facilities would boost tourism in North Dakota and serve as a gateway to all national parks in the West.”
Ed O’Keefe, chief executive of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, said an improved visitor center for Painted Canyon is an “essential part” of a larger multi-stakeholder planning effort called Medora Area Planning. Ongoing initiative for Medora and its surroundings.
“Obviously, our primary focus at TRPLF is to build the TR Library – but we support plans that envision Painted Canyon as a gateway to the western parks, North Dakota Visitor Center and a strategic opportunity to attract visitors to Medora,” he said. .
A multi-agency fire response center could be adjacent to an upgraded Painted Canyon visitor center, housing firefighting equipment for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and the State of North Dakota.
Park officials gathered public input and offered a range of options, from what Richman called the “bare minimum” to more ambitious possibilities. Options will be reviewed by regional and then national park officials.
“It’s not just a wish, it’s really a need,” she said. “Honestly, if you look at what we need, we really need the top end.”
Planning is expected to wrap up in late September or October and be followed by a review of the National Environmental Policy Act, which will examine the environmental impacts of proposed projects.
Even if approved, improvements will be made over time, with the highest priorities being addressed first.
“I can’t do it all at once,” Richman said.
Repairs to the scenic loop road will begin this fall
Work is slated to begin this fall to repair nearly six miles of the Loop Scenic Drive through the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The six-mile stretch of road has been closed since collapsing due to erosion in 2019. Design and planning work is nearing completion, and the project is expected to be appealed bids in late August or September, Superintendent Angie Richman said.
“We hope to have a contractor in October,” with project completion in late summer or fall 2024, she said.
The project includes the reconstruction of 5.8 miles of road, the construction of walls and the replacement of culverts.
“This is the first time we’ve done a complete overhaul of a road,” Richman said. The rebuilt section of the road will also include expanded parking lots and additional exits.
A section of road collapse has resulted in the closure of the road from the scenic loop junction near Peaceful Valley Ranch to the Old East Entrance Station parking area, an area that includes the Point Scoria and the Badlands.