New visitor centers may replace 'embarrassing' facilities at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
A range of options being studied for the park include new and improved visitor centers in both the north and south units as well as at the Painted Canyon overlook.
MEDORA — Heavy traffic clogging the main entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park can cause long delays during the peak summer visiting season. Closets in the administrative building have been converted to cramped offices and non-air-conditioned server rooms.
Worst of all, the visitor orientation center and public restrooms in the north unit, which closed about a decade ago because of erosion and landslides, remain housed in temporary buildings.
Officials at the park have outlined ambitious concepts for bringing the park, established in 1947, up to current standards and enhancing the visitor experience. Many park facilities date back six decades to the 1960s.
The planning effort, now in its early stages, is given added impetus by the approaching 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, to be built on a bluff on the southwest edge of Medora, is expected to draw 10s of thousands of additional visitors to the national park and Medora, which together comprise North Dakota’s pinnacle tourist attraction.
The plan addresses needs at five facilities for the next 30 to 50 years: the south unit visitor center and administrative offices, Peaceful Valley Ranch, north unit visitor center, Painted Canyon visitor center and Elkhorn Ranch.
The planning for park enhancements is part of a broader study of needs in the Medora area as preparations are made for the increased volume of visitors expected once the presidential library, which will operate year-round, opens.
“That does have an impact on us,” especially if the library succeeds in attracting visitors in all seasons, said park Superintendent Angie Richman. “That is a game-changer for all of us.”
Maintenance garages and shops built in the 1960s are no longer adequate because equipment has become much larger and more powerful.
For instance, the garage is so small that it doesn’t have room for a truck with a snowplow attached, Richman said. “Things were just a lot smaller then,” she added.
As a result, the plow must be removed to park inside, or the truck with plow attached must remain outside, sometimes in subzero cold.
“It’s just kind of a hassle,” Richman said.
In her view, the most urgent need is a new visitor center in the north unit.
“It’s really embarrassing,” she said of the “temporary” buildings. “It’s really a sad example of what a visitor center should be. For me, I really feel that’s our most critical need.”
Options being studied also include an expanded park entrance in Medora to accommodate a higher volume of visitors, increased parking and improved traffic circulation, and an upgraded visitor discovery and orientation center with protection of Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Ranch cabin.
"Revitalized and modernized” visitor and administrative facilities would “support the future of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy and complement the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library,” according to a park planning document.
Another concept calls for utility upgrades at the south unit’s Peaceful Valley Ranch, once a working ranch that later served as the original park headquarters and the site of horse trail rides in the park.
Peaceful Valley Ranch recently was “stabilized and rehabilitated” to serve as an environmental learning center. The park will soon add furnishings for the learning center.
Park officials also are considering a major upgrade of the Painted Canyon visitor center. Located on Interstate 94, the visitor center is an important gateway not only for the park, but for other western national parks and for attractions in Medora, 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, state of North Dakota, National Park Foundation and Trust for Historic Preservation and tribal nations.
“We are lucky to have so many great partners in the area,” she said.
Gov. Doug Burgum, through a spokesman, expressed support for an improved Painted Canyon visitor center.
"The state is very supportive of the Park Service discussions on expanding and enhancing the visitor experience at Painted Canyon," spokesman Mike Kennedy said. "This location is a unique asset that could serve as a visitor center for not only North Dakota but also for Medora, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the future Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.
"Upgrades to these facilities would drive tourism in North Dakota and serve as gateway to all Western National Parks."
Ed O’Keefe, chief executive officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, said an improved Painted Canyon visitor center is a “critical part” of a broader, multiparty planning effort called the Medora Area Planning Initiative under way for Medora and surrounding areas.
“Obviously, our primary focus at TRPLF is building the T.R. Library — but we are supportive of the plans that envision Painted Canyon as a gateway to the western parks, North Dakota welcome center and a strategic opportunity to draw visitors to Medora,” he said.
A multi-agency fire response center could be adjacent to an improved Painted Canyon visitor center, housing firefighting equipment for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and state of North Dakota.
Park officials have collected public comments and came up with a range of options, running from what Richman called the “bare minimum” to more ambitious possibilities. The 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 high end.”
Planning is expected to conclude in late September or October and be followed by a National Environmental Policy Act review, which will examine the proposed projects’ environmental impacts.
Even if approved, improvements will be made over time, with the highest priorities addressed first.
“I can’t do all of it at once,” Richman said.
Scenic loop road repairs to begin this fall
Work is expected to begin this fall to repair almost six miles of the scenic loop road through the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The six-mile section of road has been closed since it collapsed from erosion in 2019. Design work and planning is almost complete, and the project is expected to go out for bids in late August or September, Superintendent Angie Richman said.
“We are hoping to have a contractor out in October,” with completion of the project in late summer or fall of 2024, she said.
The project includes reconstruction of 5.8 miles of road, wall construction and culvert replacement.
“This is the first time we’re doing a complete rework of a road,” Richman said. The reconstructed section of road also will include expanded parking lots and additional pullouts.
Collapse of a section of road prompted the closure the road from the scenic loop junction near Peaceful Valley Ranch to the Old East Entrance Station parking area, an area that includes the Scoria Point and Badlands overlooks.