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Best of 2012: Where the road ends in North Dakota

Published December 25, 2012

The Scenic Drive through the badlands of North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a gem.

The narrow road dips and twists past sandstone hills transformed into sculpture by harsh winds and occasional torrential rains, and along dry, sagebrush-covered valleys that practically demand to be traversed on horseback. Buffalo once again roam freely here, and at one point, a huge bull stood guard as several smaller males, females and calves ambled across the rough pavement.

My partner Denise and I were there as part of a road trip to Calgary that combined sightseeing, a family visit and an 8,000-kilometre test of a Prius v hybrid.

The park is divided into south and north zones. We were in the north, happy to be absorbed by the vistas and sheltered from the intense August sun.

About 10 kilometres in, though, a bright orange barrier barred the way. A sign revealed the road beyond had collapsed and the route was closed indefinitely: nothing to do but U-turn. Except that, to the left, a hiking trail led into scrub trees and up a steep rock incline.

So, we grabbed hats and water bottles and began walking, roasting in the dry heat but more exhilarated with every step that took us higher into this dusty, bleached country.

We had been warned to be on the lookout for bison anywhere in the park, as well as venomous snakes and black widow spiders (usually found in finger-diameter holes in the soft rock). None of them put in an appearance: Like most other sensible creatures, they were sheltering from the harsh mid day, leaving the trail to us mad dogs.

After gingerly crossing a crumbling ledge, we reached the breezy summit, and a breathtaking view of a wide valley carved by the slow, meandering Little Missouri River — a country like we’d never seen, seemingly barren and desolate, but in reality, rich with life.

A landscape that also, despite its apparent invincibility, is fragile in the face of shale oil development surrounding the park.

Had the road been intact, we would have missed this beauty. Sometimes bad luck is good luck.

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