Just like 1885 –Building Teddy Roosevelt’s cabin

It’s 2016 and we are excited to see if we can romanticize and fantasize 1885. After a 30 mile gravel road drive from Interstate 94, we parked at a campsite and walked. We followed the slowly degrading road, from blacktop to gravel to a two-track trail. The grass was not mowed, the site was not lit with powerful overhead street lights.  There were no pop machines,  no shaded picnic benches.


The two-track trail that leads to the Elkhorn Ranch site.  This entire valley was once considered the Elkhorn Ranch.

We had heard Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch site was undeveloped, and that was fine with us.

Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskins as a Badlands rancher

About 20 years before he became the 26th U.S. President, Roosevelt lived the life of a wilderness rancher.

It meant we had a greater chance of seeing  his formative Badlands estate much like the way it was for him.  What was the magic here that took a broken man and transformed him in to a “man’s man,” a bold combat vet, a corruption-fighting politician and a U.S. President?

It takes a bit of imagination to get out of the digital noisy world of the 21st Century to feel, smell, hear and burrow in to the 19th Century.  You can do it at TR’s Elkhorn Ranch site.


“The whole country seems to be one tangle chaos of canyon-like valleys, winding gullies and washouts with abrupt, unbroken sides, isolated peaks of sandstone, marl, or ‘gumbo’ clay, which rain turns in to slippery glue, and hill chains the ridges of which always end in sheer cliffs.” — Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes that Roosevelt was very familiar with.

Roosevelt wrote of the region as having a “melancholy beauty.” “The lives of men in such places are strangely cut off from the outside world,” he wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. That is what healed him after losing his wife and his mother in the same day.  Its healing was so thorough and so strengthening he credited his Elkhorn Ranch days as giving him the fortitude to run for President of the United States.

“Nebraska and Dakota, east of the Missouri River, resemble Minnesota and Iowa and the states farther east, but Montana and the Dakota cow country show more kinship with Texas”Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

ranch elkhorn foundation blocks looking west

What?! No cabin?! Nope. It was here a century ago. Now the same quiet and separated country greeted us as we strolled through the healing slopes of Roosevelt’s ranch. The blocks mark the foundation of his Elkhorn Ranch cabin.


It’s that untamed spirit that prompted us to find our way from our primitive campsite, a mile up the road to the site of where Roosevelt wrote extensively.


“By mid-October Sewall and Dow had moved onto the site of the Elkhorn Ranch and were cutting and collecting cottonwood logs for the ranch house. Working through the winter, they completed the building by the spring of 1885. The house was 30 feet by 60 feet, with seven foot high walls, and contained eight rooms and a piazza (porch) along the east wall. Several other buildings were constructed on the site: a barn consisting of two 16 x 20 stables with a 12 foot roofed space connecting them; a cattle shed; chicken house; and a blacksmith shop.”

National Park Service details on TR's move to ND


In the October friends and family event, hosted by Dickinson State University and the Library/Museum staff, locals got to try their hands at using 1885 tools.

That’s the same sense of rawness that organizers of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library at Dickinson State University (DSU) are duplicating.  They are rebuilding the Elkhorn Ranch cabin exactly as it was — and in exactly the same methods of 1887 – by hand, not power tools.

In October, this year, organizers invited everyone to come in and try their hand at using 19th Century tools on the cottonwood logs that will become the Elkhorn Ranch cabin.   It’s not an easy task to find and handle the tools of 100 years ago.


On hand at the public demonstration, a blacksmith forged hand tools to be used on the building of the Elkhorn Ranch cabin replica.

Thanks to Roosevelt’s diary, work crews know exactly the step-by-step procedure he used to build his 1887 cabin.  dick-bickel
Not just any carpenter can do it, though. That’s why organizers are fortunate to find Dick Bickel. The South Dakota man and his work crew will cut and shape the logs for the walls.

They’ve gone so far as to use cottonwood trees that were cut from along the river and hauled to the work site — and they’re looking for more.  (Excuse their departure from original techniques as they used a modern semi-truck to haul in the logs.)tr-elkhorn-ranch-two-kids-sawing-logs-small

It’s a mighty humble start for what is expected to be a $100 million facility.

Architects propose a building that carries the sweeping curves and lines of the Badlands with the colors and appearance of the natural earth.


The architect’s vision of the Badlands-inspired design of the  presidential library and museum


Constructing the Elkhorn Ranch cabin is the first step in bringing the $100 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library closer to reality on the northwest side of the DSU campus. You don’t need to wait for the site to be completed. Even though it is 2016, and the completion date is years away, it is still possible to experience 1885 without the museum.

If you were given the choice, would you rather go to the original site, the planned museum, or both?

See more photos from the region here


learn more here:

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TR’s Elkhorn Ranch is easy, but not always.

Undeveloped historic site, the Elkhorn Ranch.

Teddy Roosevelt’s backyard at the Elkhorn Ranch. The house stood on the foundation blocks which are all that’s left of his ranch home

Off the beaten path – it’s exactly where Teddy Roosevelt wanted to be in 1883 – and so the Elkhorn ranch became his refuge. He’d just suffered a string of losses, including the deaths of his wife and his mother.  To get his life back on track he went where others have gone for more than 100 years – and you can go there too, if you’re willing to get off the beaten path.

Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskins as a  Badlands rancher

About 20 years before he became the 26th U.S. President, Roosevelt lived the life of a wilderness rancher.

To find the healing place TR called home for many years, you’ll travel more than 25 miles of gravel road through wilderness ranch area.  It’s a place of few people and many miles.  “The lives of such places were strangely cut off from the outside world,” TR wrote. “The whole region is one vast grazing country.”

To the ear, there is a great amount of peacefulness, but that does not mean quiet. Birds carry on loud conversations, particularly in the early morning and evening.  The wind itself is a sound that travels the musical octaves. In the evening, it’s the melody of the coyotes’ songs you’ll hear.

To the eye, distance and color become a stimulating visual entertainment.  When you think you can see no further in the distance, the next hill-top will unveil further horizons.  When you think you know what green looks like you’ll find more variations in the landscape – or in the autumn, brown takes on a rainbow of variations.

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch.  A thin red ribbon shows the road to his ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is a national treasure, undeveloped and barely marked. We needed a good map to find it; the U.S. Forest Service map is perfect for a search like this.  After a bit, we began to recognize the repeated Elkhorn sign posts directing us further down the road.

It's easy to get lost in the Badlands, if it were not for road signs like these, including the one to the TR ranch

The small sign with an Elkhorn icon indicates the way to the ranch.

The campground up the road from the Elkhorn Ranch site offers a bit of protection from the hot Badlands sun.  Tent camping is more than sufficient with the campground’s supply of water, firewood, and privacy.  Even though, we were in a public campground, it was still much like getting away from it all. In fact, one night, there were only two other campers in the campground.

To really get away from it all, a short hike up the hill to the north gave us a glimpse of the road we’d follow to get to the campground. The red scoria road winds down through the bottom ground trees to the clearing where Roosevelt set up his ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is undeveloped, so it will exercise your imagination skills to envision what it was like 150 years ago.

“Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant.  But a few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the (Little Missouri) river. … The shallow stream winds as if lost.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 



The Little Missouri River is a wilderness through-route today, just as it was for Roosevelt.  It is a challenge to canoe or kayak, and the spring seems to be the best time to attempt a float, but it’s always a beautiful walk through the Badlands where Roosevelt ranched.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

“The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms, first on one side and then on the other; and in an open glade among the thick-growing timer stands the long, low house of hewn logs.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

We have hiked, canoed and driven the Little Missouri River as it flows northward from Wyoming and Montana to the confluence near Williston, North Dakota.  It’s a pleasant and non-stressful hike to follow its river banks. It’s easy to see why Roosevelt wrote often and vividly of the river.  We recommend hiking the river trails near the ranch.  Hiking the hills, bluffs and buttes above the Elkhorn is a minimal challenge to anyone is good condition and who has hiked some of the rougher terrains further downstream.(See the post on hiking the Long X Trail along the Little Missouri River — http://wp.me/pOdPo-Gi ).

Elkhorn campground sgntre

The Elkhorn Ranch campground offers shade next to the trees — a rare luxury in the nearly tree-less Badlands. The white dot along the campground road is my pickup at our campsite.

While the riverbank hike is enjoyable and calming, it’s the views from top that exhilarate.  Not only are the views mind-numbingly expansive, but there’s a sense of accomplishment from having hiked to the top of what appears to be an unpassable slope.  The key is “switchbacks.” It’s wise to never get in a hurry when heading up to higher ground – don’t attempt to go straight up.  Follow gentle rises back and forth across the face of the hillside, pausing to not only catch your breath, but to scope out the next set of switchbacks to take you to the next level.

Once at the top, you can see why Roosevelt lived here. He built his stamina and his skill at strategic thinking.  You can get a sense of the challenges he faced as an Easterner turned rancher.  When picking a trail for his cattle, or just for himself to get to Medora or Dickinson, Roosevelt planned his route. It was not easy to get any where.  He wrote, “The course outlies across great grassy plateaus, along knife-like ridge crests, among winding valleys and ravines, and over acres of barren, sun-scorched buttes.”

The Elkhorn ranch area is undeveloped and perhaps that’s best. It gives a visitor a chance to see Roosevelt’s nature as it was when he was here, an experience that prompted him to establish conservation measures and advance the national park system. Thanks to his time in these valleys and hills, Theodore Roosevelt became “the conservation president,” and doubled the number of sites within the National Park system. As President from 1901 to 1909, he signed legislation establishing five new national parks.

For the day-visitor it’s a moment of spiritual rest, visual stimulation, and a sense of accomplishment when you climb a hill, turn, and look back at how far you’ve come – a good life lesson.

What would it take to make you want to check out the site — accessibility, directions, time?

Elkhorn hills

The Elkhorn ranch trip is part of the exploration of Beautiful Bakken.