Horse Ride Teddy Roosevelt’s Trails in the American West

Explore the lands, ride the trails and gaze on same vistas President Theodore Roosevelt did as he fought to preserve the American West.

By Karen Braschayko

We know him as Teddy, though he greatly disliked the nickname, and he’s the reason the term “teddy bear” entered our common language. Politician Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, had an intersecting career as a naturalist who contributed significantly to the scientific discoveries of his era. Also famous for his exploits as a sportsman, Roosevelt’s time in nature spurred him to become highly influential in preserving ecosystems and creating the national parks we all enjoy today. 

President Theodore Roosevelt

 Outdoorsman and President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. He spent his career taking action for the conservation movement.

Roosevelt was born on October 27, 1858 into wealth and New York City life, but through his Western adventures he became the legendary cowboy we see in photos. By the time he headed out West in his early twenties, and as he had begun his political career, Roosevelt had studied biology at Harvard, become a respected historian, traveled through Europe, and established himself as a naturalist. Longing to see buffalo for himself before they become extinct, and out of competition with his fellow hunter and brother Elliot, Roosevelt began heading west, and he would return many times.

These journeys inspired his fight to preserve many locations in the American West. Having seen the mountains, wildlife, grasslands, streams, canyons and wonders for himself, Roosevelt debated tirelessly to protect them. While living in the Dakota Territory, he helped to found the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887, which still operates to conserve lands, protect wildlife and educate the public today.

During his presidency, Roosevelt doubled the number of national parks from five to 10, helped designate several national monuments, and greatly increased the amount of federally protected land to over 200 million acres. He realized that the United States was at a crucial period, because the population was shifting west and natural resources needed immediate protection. He informed Congress that careful land management was the key to future generations’ prosperity. Earning him the title “naturalist president” and as one biographer calls him, “Wilderness Warrior,” Roosevelt continued this determined work until his death in 1919.

The Badlands

The Badlands on a winter's night. Roosevelt credited his stay in North Dakota as a turning point in his life.

Roosevelt’s prolific effort helped to further the environmental movement of his era, and his leadership still influences how we perceive our impact on the land around us today. Thanks to his forward-thinking conservation plans, we can still enjoy the places that were important to him, so the majesty that changed his life can yet enrich ours. Through the decades, Roosevelt did much of his traveling on horses, and thanks to his advocacy, we can see these panoramas just as he did – from the back of a horse.

The Badlands

I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom,... and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling limitless prairies ,.. or winding my way among the barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque deserts of the so-called Bad Lands…

In 1884, young Theodore Roosevelt had just begun his career in politics and published his renowned first book when his wife Alice died two days after giving birth to their first child. His mother also died in the same house on the same day. Distraught from the tragedies, he decided to leave his daughter Alice in his sister’s care and head west to seek respite from his grief. He had bought a share in a cattle ranch while buffalo hunting on his first journey to the Dakota Territory, so he returned there and ended up purchasing a second property, called Elkhorn Ranch.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in North Dakota's Badlands. It incorporates his Elkhorn Ranch as well as many interesting geological sites.

Roosevelt spent his next years there recovering from the emotional weight, but he improved his physical health as well. Asthmatic and needing eyeglasses, many had considered him sickly as a child, and he was a very thin man when he left New York. His time ranching and hunting in the Badlands broadened him into the robust outdoorsman we see in photos. He remarked several times that he spent a lot of time showing cowboys who called him “four eyes” that his spectacles did not make him a dude. By proving that he could ride 100 miles a day and wear out five horses, he earned the respect of many frontiersmen.

North Dakota is also where Roosevelt learned how to relate to the working man and where he developed the skills that he would use to lead troops up Cuba’s San Juan Hill. When the Spanish American War started in 1898, Roosevelt helped to form and command the Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry regiment made up largely of cowboys from the West. 

Maltese Cabin at Teddy Roosevelt National park

Visitors to the park can see Roosevelt's cabin from Maltese Cross Ranch, with some of his possessions inside.

It was this time in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory that changed his life, Roosevelt said. He penned three of his over 40 books while there, and he wrote about his adventures for magazines, spreading knowledge of the West’s natural resources and beauty to many readers. As an investment, Roosevelt lost money by the time he sold his ranches, but what he gained would affect his health, his lifestyle, his political career and our lives today. While riding the sturdy Western horses for thousands of miles, rounding up cattle from ravines, and coping with severe blizzards and droughts, Roosevelt recognized how important conscientious land use is to the future. This perspective as a naturalist would guide his fierce leadership of the conservation movement.

feral horses at Teddy roosevelt national park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has herds of feral horses, and be prepared to stop for bison crossings.

We can now visit Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, including some original buildings, along with two other nearby protected areas as Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only national park established as a memorial park. By day, experience sunshine and endless rolling grasslands, and at night, the innumerable stars dot the unhindered sky. Riders can sneak up on prairie dogs and observe bison on the range just as Native American hunters did. On horseback, visitors can see coulees, dramatic geological features, prairie flowers, bighorn sheep and feral horse herds just as Teddy Roosevelt did.

How you can go: Many of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s trails are open for horse use. Bring your own mount or ride with the park’s outfitter. Certain campgrounds allow equines, and backcountry camping permits are available for overnight trekking. Plan ahead carefully, since there are no approved water sources in the backcountry.

Big Horn Mountains

It took sixteen days travelling before I reached the foot of the snow capped Bighorn range; we then left our wagon and went into the mountains with pack ponies… So I have had good sport, and enough excitement and fatigue to prevent over much thought; and moreover I have at last been able to sleep well at night. But unless I was bear hunting all the time I am afraid I should soon get as restless with this life as with the life at home.

Letter to sister Anna Roosevelt Cowles, September 20, 1884 

Paradise Guest Ranch in the Big Horn Mountains

Paradise Guest Ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming, takes riders across the Big Horn Mountains, just as Teddy Roosevelt rode.

During his recuperatory residence in the Badlands, Roosevelt made a hunting expedition to the Big Horn Mountains, located in what is now Montana and Wyoming. Back in New York, he had built a country home for his young family overlooking Oyster Bay on Long Island, eventually called Sagamore Hill. As a young naturalist who had already contributed animal collections to the Smithsonian, he aimed to decorate his rooms with the trophy heads and skins of indigenous game. His hunting trips would add many species to Sagamore Hill’s walls throughout the decades.

The hunting party was highly successful during their weeks in the wilderness, riding 20 to 30 miles a day. They traveled with no tent but survived wolves, coyotes, quicksand, floods, vicious storms and all weather, sometimes sleeping in the chuck wagon. Game was abundant, and they dined on deer, grouse, trout, prairie chickens, sage hens and ducks. Roosevelt shot several bears, and he wrote to his sister about three magnificent elk heads that would “look well” in his house. He had an excellent guide, he said, and being willing to get off their horses and track bears on foot increased their trophies.

Paradise Guest Ranch in Buffalo, Wyoming

Wyoming's Paradise Guest Ranch is set in the spectacular Big Horn Mountains, which offer many horse trekking opportunities.

Roosevelt also wrote that they’d encountered about a dozen other hunting parties, professionals and amateurs alike, many from England and states back East. The transcontinental railroad was just complete, opening the passage for Easterners like Roosevelt to more easily explore the land that Western fever had popularized. The West was active with settlers and visitors, and Roosevelt enjoyed learning about the diverse lifestyle and also seeing the reactions of people new to the sights. He trusted one letter to Anna to make it back to the postal service with a cowboy he’d just met. 

Colonel Teddy Roosevelt

Colonel Theodore Roosevelt commanded the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, also known as the Rough Riders, staffed by cowboys recruited from ranches in the West.

The Big Horn Mountains are still a popular place to explore on horseback, so you can discover the region just as Roosevelt did himself. This range, a spur of the Rocky Mountains, offers a diverse landscape of alpine meadows, clear lakes and rivers, rolling grasslands, sheer cliffs, chilly mountain passes, and valleys carved by glaciers. The Bighorn National Forest has protected this snowcapped mountain range since 1897, and much the wilderness is accessible only by foot or on horseback, just as it was during Teddy Roosevelt’s visit.

How you can go: Several outfitters in the region offer everything from short trail rides to extended backcountry pack trips. Bighorn National Forest permits horse riding and horse camping at numerous locations, and some trailheads have hitching posts and more. If a comfortable guest ranch is more your style, there are many in the area, such as The Lodge at Diamond Cross Ranch, New Haven Working Cattle & Guest Ranch, The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch, and Paradise Ranch, highlighted by Equitrekking’s Top 20 Ranches.

Yellowstone National Park

The Yellowstone Park is something absolutely unique in the world, so far as I know. Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the Park are scrupulously preserved… The creation and preservation of such a great natural playground in the interest of our people as a whole is a credit to the nation…

Speech at the laying of the cornerstone, Yellowstone National Park, Gardiner, Montana, April 24, 1903 

Teddy Roosevelt at Yellowstone National Park

President Roosevelt used his 1903 visit to Yellowstone National Park to observe and count the wildlife herds himself.

Teddy Roosevelt visited Yellowstone for the first time in 1890, leading a “grand holiday” during which he introduced his second wife Edith, sisters and friends to Elkhorn Ranch and the West. They spent weeks at Yellowstone that September, riding past the abundant wildlife, waterfalls, hot springs and mountain views that make the park unique and amazing.

As Easterners, most of the party had never experienced anything like that kind of rigorous Western travel, though Roosevelt would have preferred that they rough it even more. For meals they wanted trout from the rivers over the venison Roosevelt chose when available. Horse accidents peppered the trip, since the string of horses he had hired was not trained for sidesaddle riding. Edith was thrown from her horse when it spooked at an active geyser, though Teddy Roosevelt wrote to her mother that overall she and the others very much enjoyed the trip. 

Teddy Roosevelt at Yellowstone

Roosevelt visited Yellowstone to gather information about the place railroads should have at the park.

Roosevelt’s motivation for this journey was manifold. He wished to see for himself the national park that he was fighting to protect, and he wanted to gather more information for his debates about preserving big game there and the placement of railroads near the park. His goals also included expanding his knowledge as a naturalist, and he spent many months studying relevant scientific and explorers’ works before departure. While at Yellowstone, he took copious notes on the wildlife and spent many hours bird watching. Roosevelt also simply wanted his family to appreciate the West for the natural beauty and the pioneer lifestyle. He impressed them with his cowboy skills throughout the expedition. 

Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone National Park

The gateway to the park's north entrance is now called the Roosevelt Arch. He placed the cornerstone, and it memorializes how he championed the park's preservation.

Several aspects of Yellowstone National Park still mark Roosevelt’s presence there today. He returned in 1903 and laid the cornerstone for the Roosevelt Arch, at the north entrance. The gateway proclaims, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” and he would be proud that our generations can still ride past herds of wildlife, spectacular mountain vistas and geological wonders more than a century later.

How you can go: Yellowstone National Park allows private equestrian day use dependent on trail conditions, so check with park staff to find out which areas currently allow riding. After July 1, horses are allowed overnight at certain backcountry campgrounds. Outfitters offer various one-hour, two-hour and dinner-included trail rides, and some provide guided backcountry treks by horse or llama as well.

Grand Canyon

In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country - to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is… Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.

Speech at the Grand Canyon, Arizona, on May 6, 1903

After his presidential tenure was complete, Teddy Roosevelt continued exploring the world as an adventurer, naturalist and writer. On an extensive safari in Africa, he and his team collected over 11,400 specimens for the Smithsonian. In the Brazilian jungle, his expedition brought back scientific information and many discoveries. Among these adventures, he took his young son Quentin to the Grand Canyon in 1913 for his first mountain lion hunt.

Brighty of the Grand Canyon

Marguerite Henry's novel made the burro named Brighty famous, and he was even memorialized as a Breyer model.

Marguerite Henry fictionalized this trip in Brighty of the Grand Canyon, a story about a real-life burro who worked hauling water for Grand Canyon tourists and lived there from about 1892 to 1922. Brighty was named after Bright Angel Creek, which he followed to migrate north in the summer and south in the winter. Brighty helped the Roosevelt hunting party during their cougar hunt, which is just one of the tales from the burro’s famous life.

In addition to hunting for sport, Roosevelt wanted his son to appreciate this magnificent geological formation carved by the Colorado River. Roosevelt had fought for years to protect the Grand Canyon, and he sought to make this natural wonder into a national park. Valued by Native Americans since the 1200s, the Grand Canyon was noted by Spanish explorers in 1540, and by the end of the 1800s thousands of tourists were visiting each year. Miners, developers and settlers were making plans, so Roosevelt knew that directing this tourism would be the key to preserving the site for everyone to enjoy. While president, he had declared it a national monument with a speech on January 11, 1908. 

Teddy Roosevelt helped preserve the Grand Canyon

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon has many driveable lookout points, or take a mule ride down into the canyon to see this natural wonder from another perspective.

Nearly unchanged since Roosevelt was there, today over five million visitors come from around the world to visit and revisit this breathtakingly vast chasm. Most of the Grand Canyon’s viewers stay up above at the popular South Rim or the more remote North Rim, but with a well-planned hike or ride you can follow Brighty’s footsteps down into the canyon. Catching a sunrise or sunset is a must, because the light-enhanced colors of the rock walls and shifting shadows coordinate an incomparable beauty. Many people experience a humbling awe at the Grand Canyon that photos and words cannot express.

How you can go: Grand Canyon National Park and the adjacent Kaibab National Forest allow private horse, mule and burro use on designated trails such as the Bright Angel Trail, which have assigned ascent and descent times. Riders check in with the Backcountry Information Center each day. Overnight camping is allowed with a permit for a maximum party of six horses and six riders. Outfitters offer many one-hour, half-day and overnight rides with a stay at historic Phantom Ranch. Mule trips can be booked 13 months in advance and fill early, so plan ahead. South Rim rides are available all year, but North Rim trips run from May to October.

Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.