From a remote cattle ranch in the North Dakota Badlands that helped to form Theodore Roosevelt’s land conservation ideals to an arid West Texas outpost where an enterprising family created an agricultural oasis, ranching history is rich and varied in the U.S. National Parks.
It turns out that the same spectacular vistas that now draw millions of visitors to the parks once attracted people who were intent on making a life on the land. While many of the historic ranches on national parklands are long gone and mostly forgotten, some have been preserved as a part of the parks and are easy to visit.
I am always captivated when I find ranch sites in the national parks — not only for the remainder of the ingenuity and grit needed by those early residents but also for the hopes and dreams that are on poignant display.
Based on my travels to national parks around the U.S., here are 5 fascinating historic ranch sites that visitors can still visit.
1. Elkhorn Ranch Unit, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
In a lonely spot along the Little Missouri River, a 25-year-old Theodore Roosevelt retreated to a rigorous life of cattle ranching in the mid-1880s in an attempt to put a tragic personal loss behind him.
Today, visitors can visit that spot in the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park where the future U.S. President went to grieve after losing both his wife and his mother on the same day.
While only the ranch cabin’s foundation still remains, the national park’s website says, “Beneath rustling cottonwood trees, visitors can sense the peace and solace Roosevelt found at this special place in the Badlands.”
And Roosevelt had plenty of need for solace at that point in his life. On Valentine’s Day 1884, while serving as a New York state legislator, Roosevelt’s wife and his mother died just four hours apart — his mother from typhoid fever and his wife from a severe kidney ailment, two days after giving birth to the couple’s daughter Alice.
The loss led Roosevelt to temporarily abandon politics and return to the spot in the Dakota Territories where he had gone to hunt buffalo a few months before. He had invested in two ranches — the Maltese Cross located seven miles south of the Northern Pacific railroad tracks, and the Elkhorn, 35 miles north.
According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, “He threw himself into badlands life — stopping stampedes, participating in month-long roundups, arresting thieves, punching out a drunken gunslinger in a bar, and helping to organize the region’s first stockmen’s association.”
Roosevelt himself wrote fondly about the Elkhorn Ranch, his “home ranch,” in letters to friends and family. “My home ranch house stands on the river brink,” he wrote. “From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cottonwoods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus.”
After disastrous winter blizzards wiped out much of his cattle herd in 1886-87, Roosevelt returned to New York and ultimately relinquished his ranch holdings. Still, throughout his life, he would often return to the North Dakota Badlands, the place where he said, “the romance of my life began.”
Later, Roosevelt became known as the “conservationist president,” helping to establish 230 million acres of public lands. His time ranching in the Badlands is believed to have set the groundwork for his later preservation efforts.
Roosevelt’s legacy looms large in his namesake national park, with interpretive signs telling stories of his escapades. The former president is also a star feature of the nearby national park gateway town of Medora.
Pro Tip: Although the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is open to visitors, getting there requires a drive over somewhat rough terrain. The national park’s website cautions that the trip involves traveling in a very remote area on unpaved roads, and the last three miles sometimes require a four-wheel-drive and/or high-clearance vehicle. Directions on getting to the Elkhorn Ranch are available here.
2. Frijole Ranch, Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Considering that there are five springs located within two miles of the Frijole Ranch, it is hardly surprising that native people, and later ranching settlers, gravitated to the little oasis at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains of arid West Texas.
The Guadalupe Mountains National Park website reports that artifacts like mescal pits and petroglyphs reveal that the area was a popular place for settlement for centuries. The location of the Pine, Juniper, Smith, Manzanita, and Frijole springs made the area a natural draw for inhabitants.
Today, visitors to the national park can wander through the shady ranch house yard, with sounds of trickling spring water in the background. The stone house now serves as the headquarters for the Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum, which displays the human history of the area, from the Native Americans to the early ranching community to the establishment of the national park.
The museum is open seasonally, but the grounds are always open, with picnic tables under the large shade trees in the courtyard. The ranch site also is the trailhead for walks to nearby springs, including the Manzanita and Smith Spring trails.
Frijole Ranch is located a mile and a half from the national park’s main Pine Springs Visitor Center and is very easy to access.
Pro Tip: For other things to do in the region, see 12 Amazing Experiences At Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
3. Sam Nail Ranch, Big Bend National Park
Crumbling adobe walls, a lonely windmill, and a grove of leafy green trees are all that remain of the decades-long efforts of Sam and Nena Nail to build a life in the remote terrain near the Rio Grande in southwest Texas.
Today, the ranch site can be reached via a half-mile walk along a stretch of Big Bend National Park’s beautiful Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The ranch, built by Sam Nail and his brother Jim in 1916, and later joined by Sam’s wife Nena, is a lovely spot lush with cottonwood, pecan, and fruit trees. Water, pumped to the surface by a windmill, creates a desert oasis that attracts birds and other wildlife.
A sign at the site tells visitors of the Nails’ efforts to create their own oasis in the desert. “In this green shade it is easier to understand how Sam and Nena Nail could adapt to life in the desert,” it says, adding, “The Nail family has left the Big Bend, but the well they dug still pumps, keeping their trees and shrubs alive. Listen for the birdsong, and rustlings in the grass. Life continues to thrive at the oasis.”
Pro Tip: The easy hike to the Sam Nail Ranch is among the 11 Best Hikes In Big Bend National Park.
4. Keys Ranch, Joshua Tree National Park
Known as a ranch frozen in time, the Keys Ranch at Joshua Tree National Park offers perhaps the clearest glimpse into ranch life in the early 1900s of any of the preserved national park ranches. The Keys Ranch has been preserved much as the family left it after ranch founder Bill Keys died in 1969.
And after spending half a century forging a life among the distinctive rock formations and twisted Joshua trees in southeastern California, the Keys family had much to leave behind. The ranch features everything from troughs of rusty nails and bolts to rows of vintage tractors and wagons to the plot where Florence Keys grew a massive garden.
In the middle of it all is the cobbled-together ranch house where the Keys raised five children throughout the early 20th century.
Pro Tip: The Keys Ranch is accessible only through tours that are available from October to May. The tours can be booked, with a small fee, through Recreation.gov. Tours tend to fill up fast, so early booking is recommended. Tickets can be booked up to 60 days in advance.
5. Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon National Park
Although built as a spot for tourism lodging and not as an actual ranching operation, Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon still offers a fascinating look at early agriculture in a remote location. Phantom Ranch was built in 1922 to offer accommodations for the hikers who ventured into the Inner Canyon, as well as a barn for the mules that carried visitors there.
Today, the nearly 100-year-old ranch consists of rustic cabins and a main lodge built of wood and native stone. The ranch is a 5-mile hike from Indian Garden, a shady spot about four and a half miles below the South Rim, which for centuries had been the site of gardens and farming for the native people who had long called the canyon home.
Located at the bottom of the canyon, Phantom Ranch is accessible only by a strenuous round-trip hike of 14 miles (via the South Kaibab Trail) to 18 miles (via the Bright Angel Trail), a mule ride, or via a Colorado River rafting trip.
Pro Tip: All hikes into the Grand Canyon are rated as strenuous. For information on venturing into the canyon, see 10 Tips For Hiking The Grand Canyon and 11 Things To Know Before Hiking Rim-To-Rim In The Grand Canyon.