Theodore Roosevelt National Park: The Complete Guide

View of the rugged badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Peter Unger / Getty Images

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota, USA
Phone +1 701-623-4466

In western North Dakota sits one of the most spectacular and underrated national parks in America: Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The badlands and the Great Plains provide rich ecosystems for bison, elk, prairie dogs, birds of prey, and other wildlife. Known for popular attractions such as the South Unit's multi-hued Painted Canyon, the Maltese Cross Cabin (the former stomping grounds of President Roosevelt), and the scenic Loop Drive, this national park is a slice of the golden countryside that's worth a deeper look.

You'll learn about the area's cultural history by visiting here, dating back thousands of years. Wars between the U.S. Army and the Sioux were fought, cattle ranches thrived, and President Roosevelt developed a passion for conservation while spending time in this area. Take a drive in either the North or South Units, marvel at abundant wildlife, hike on some of the nature trails—for many miles or a quick leg-stretching session outside of the car—and camp alongside the Little Missouri River. Many outdoor activities are available for travelers here, including nighttime stargazing, ranger-led programs, and fishing.

Most likely, though, you'll want just to enjoy the peace and solitude that nature offers while wandering through this beautiful land, where more than 400 different species of plants have been identified.

Things To Do

One of the best things to do inside the park is to drive throughout the units, looking for wildlife. Besides the bigger mammals that roam around the area, the park is home to an array of birds, turtles, lizards, and snakes, though reptile species diversity is low.

The South Unit’s loop encompasses 48 picturesque miles beginning and ending in the town of Medora, North Dakota. Located along Interstate 94, this is the most visited area of the park. You’ll want to stop at several places along the way to take photographs, hike, or enjoy the scenery within the Little Missouri Badlands.

Along Highway 85, 50 miles from Interstate 94, you’ll find the off-the-beaten-path of the North Unit. The 14-mile out and back scenic route takes you to River Bend Overlook and culminates at Oxbow Overlook. The hiking, wildlife viewing, and backcountry camping are the real draw for this park section.

Visit the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, where President Theodore Roosevelt lived after the deaths of his wife and mother. Situated along the Little Missouri River, you can see why this rugged location was important to Roosevelt. You'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to safely access this area as some of it is located on a gravel road.

Three visitor centers (North Unit Visitor Center, South Unit Visitor Center, and Painted Canyon Visitor Center), with rangers and plenty of useful information, will guide your adventure. Bookstores, operated by the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association, are located in all three visitor centers.

Best Hikes & Trails

Whether you’re day hiking or backpacking in either of the units, you’re sure to have an amazing outdoor adventure with plenty of wildlife sightings. Try the Skyline Vista Trail, Boicourt Overlook Trail, Little Mo Trail, Buck Hill Trail, and the Wind Canyon Trail for an easy, beginner hike. More advanced hikers can start on the Ridgeline Trail, Coal Vein Trail, Painted Canyon Nature Trail, Caprock Coulee Nature Trail, Prairie Dog Town, and Sperati Point. Those looking for a challenge will find it on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, Lone Tree Loop, Petrified Forest Loop, Buckhorn Trail, Lower Paddock Loop, Talkington Loop, and Achenbach Trail. Be sure to bring plenty of water, food, and sun protection while hiking. The visitor centers all have maps and resources for those who need them. Good sturdy boots are a good idea as well.

  • Skyline Vista Trail: This is a great trail to get your bearings in the South Unit. This 0.1-mile path is accessible and flat, making it perfect for all to explore and enjoy the vista.
  • Boicourt Overlook Trail: This easy 0.2-mile trail is located in the South Unit. Rangers continually name this one as their favorite spots for viewing the sunset over the Badlands.
  • Little Mo Trail: Hike on the paved inner loop for 0.7 miles or the 1.1-mile unpaved outer loop to explore the habitat along the river bottom. Look for little critters along the way.
  • Ridgeline Trail: This 0.6-mile trail in the South Unit has stairs and a steep grade. You’ll love the views and nature immersion on this path.
  • Painted Canyon Nature Trail: Seeing the canyon from the rim is amazing, but what’s also spectacular is hiking down into it. This 0.9-mile trail is strenuous but well worth the effort.
  • Prairie Dog Town: Prairie dogs are the cutest, fluffiest animals, and you’ll see plenty of them, as well as a predator or two, on this 1.5-mile hike on the Buckthorn Trail in the North Unit.
  • Caprock Coulee: You won't want to miss this 4.3-mile hike. The first three-fourths of a mile on this path is on the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail, and then it climbs to the top of a grass-studded butte. You’ll enjoy ridgeline views before heading back down.
  • Maah Daah Hey: As with many of the trails in the park, this one too connects to other trails, making it a total of 96 miles through all three park units. You don't have to hike the whole thing, of course—there's a 7-mile portion that cuts through the South Unit. Expect beautiful views, wildlife sightings, and plenty of flora to keep you engaged.
  • Buckhorn: In the North Unit, this enticing trail wanders 11.4 miles through various ecosystems necessary for the survival of wildlife. See prairie dog towns, canyons, delicate sagebrush, and a plethora of flora and fauna.
  • Upper Paddock/Talkington Loop: Intrepid hikers will love this 19.4-mile hike, combining part of the Lower Talkington Trail with the Upper Talkington and Upper Paddock Creek Trails. You'll want to be prepared with everything you might need for survival, including food, water, and shelter. Begin at Painted Canyon to complete the experience.
  • Achenbach: This strenuous trail is ideal for those who love a big adventure. You’ll have water crossings, steep climbs, and stunning views on this 18-mile trail in the North Unit. Experienced hikers will have the best time, enjoying the wide-open spaces and quiet solitude.

Wildlife Viewing

A wide variety of animals—big and small, in the air and on the ground—call the park home year-round due to the park's diverse habitats and microclimates. Visitors can see more than 185 different bird species throughout the year, including eagles, turkeys, and great-horned owls. The American bison herd, mule deer, and towns of prairie dogs are fun and easy to spot in the North and South Units. Look for predators like the American badgers near the prairie dog towns in the South Unit. Elk herds can also be seen in the South Unit if you’re patient, search during specific times of day (dusk and dawn are ideal), and know where to look (the park rangers can help you in this regard, as the animal locations change seasonally). Feral horses may even be seen in the South Unit. Beavers frequent the North Unit’s Squaw Creek and along the Little Missouri River.

Where to Camp

  • Cottonwood Campground: This campground is located in the South Unit and is equipped for tents and RVs, although there are no hookups. The grounds reach capacity almost every afternoon in the summer months, so reserve a spot early.
  • Roundup Group Horse Campground: If you're traveling on horseback, this is your campground. It's only reserved for one group at a time, so make sure you book your spot in advance.
  • Juniper Campground: Like Cottonwood Campground, Juniper Campground is open to tents and RVs. It is the North Unit's only campground.

Where to Stay Nearby

  • Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham: Complimentary airport shuttles to the regional airport, an indoor swimming pool, and an included breakfast are just a few reasons why this hotel, located near the park, is a good choice. Hawthorn Suites is affordable and has a variety of room categories to meet your needs.
  • AmericInn by Wyndham: Another Wyndham property, this one is well-located off I-94, near the park, and offers a complimentary breakfast, a fitness center, an indoor swimming pool, and free Wi-Fi.
  • Badlands Motel: Located in Medora, this western-themed motel is affordable and located right in the downtown area, close to restaurants. There’s also a large outdoor swimming pool.

How to Get There

This national park includes three distinct areas for entry. The South Unit, located 133 miles west of Bismarck in Medora, is just off Interstate 94 at exits 24 and 27. The North Unit is located off U.S. Highway 85, 14 miles south of Watford City. From I-94, you’ll need to take U.S. Highway 85 north and then take Exit 42 in Belfield. The North and South Units are 70 minutes apart by car. Finally, the remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit is located off a gravel road within the park.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Borrow a free Family Fun Pack at either visitor center to keep your kids engaged while visiting the park.
  • When you see wildlife, keep a safe distance of 25 yards or more.
  • Pets, bicycles, and motorized equipment are not allowed on the trails or backcountry.
  • Be prepared for backcountry hiking and camping with maps and navigation tools, proper shelter, food and water, a headlamp, warm clothing layers, and a first-aid kit.
  • Bring along a pair of binoculars to see wildlife like bison or coyote. Spot over 185 different bird species.
  • Backcountry camping requires a permit.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park: The Complete Guide