Explore the badlands and watch the bison roam the prairies of North Dakota in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This trip was sponsored by the North Dakota Tourism Board.
We recently took a road trip through western North Dakota including a few days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and were surprised by the beauty and diversity of the landscape. When we usually think of the most beautiful places in America, we default to the most popular national parks, like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. These places are incredible, but sometimes we feel like we lose some of the magic when we’re surrounded by the crowds.
For those seeking out a little solitude in nature, the somewhat out of the way location of Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be a blessing in disguise. While many national parks are battling traffic congestion and parking problems during the peak summer season, we saw more bison than people during our time at this amazing national park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers stunning vistas and incredible wildlife; it’s easy to see why Teddy Roosevelt fell in love with this land. His time in North Dakota is what made him realize the importance of protect and preserving our most precious natural resources – the land and the wildlife. Read this complete guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park for what to bring, see and do, plus a bit of history about the area.
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When to Visit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open 24 hours a day all year round. Summer is the busiest time at the park, though by national park standards, it’s still not very busy. The benefit of being out of the way is that you’ll likely come across more wildlife than people. Summer also brings the warmest weather, with high temperatures averaging in the 80s, and sometimes into the 90s. We visited at the end of July, and while it was hot for hiking in the middle of the day, morning and evening felt pretty pleasant.
Winters are brutally cold with blizzards and average lows in the single digits. Late spring and early autumn can be a great time to visit with mild temperatures.
One quick thing to note, the North Unit operates on Central time, while the South Unit operates on Mountain time. While we were in the North Unit, the time on our phones flipped a few times, so I’m not sure if the time zone line is actually located within the park or our phones were just confused.
Entrance into the park is $30 for a 7-day pass, or purchase the America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 for an annual pass that covers entrance into all 62 national parks and hundreds more national forests and monuments. You can purchase it at the entrance of most national parks, or order it online and have it shipped to your home.
How to Get to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the badlands of western North Dakota. The closest airport is the Williston Basin International Airport (XWA), which is 1 hour north of the North Unit, and about 2 hours north of the entrance to the South Unit.
The two units of the park don’t connect, and are located 68 miles and one-hour drive apart.
The entrance of the North Unit of the park is located off Highway 85, about 15 miles south of Watford City, North Dakota.
The entrance of the South Unit of the park is off of Interstate 94, just a few minutes from downtown Medora.
What to bring
Sun protection – including sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses
Water – Carry a few extra gallons in the car, especially in summer. We bring a water reservoir or reusable water bottles to refill, like these Nalgene ones or an insulated water bottle for when it’s hot outside.
Good hiking shoes or sandals – during warmer summer months, I prefer hiking in these lightweight hiking sandals. Bulky hiking boots are a pain to travel with, so I recommend more minimalist options like these ones here (these Lems shoes are my favorite).
A hiking backpack – I use this Lowepro camera bag that fits my camera, plus has a pouch for water and snacks. Aaron really loves this Fjällräven backpack that he says just keeps getting better with age (it’s water resistant too). For kids, we love this backpack from REI.
As cheesy as it sounds, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints. Read the seven Leave No Trace principles to understand why they are so important to preserving our national parks for the generations to come.
Camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Juniper Campground (North Unit) – Campground with 48 sites open year-round. All sites are first-come first-served. Rates are $14 in peak season (May through September) and $7 in the off season (October through April).
Juniper Campground also has one group campsite that accommodates between 7 and 60 people. The rate is $30 a night and it can be reserved in advance.
Summit Campground (near North Unit in Grassy Butte) – This campground has two walk-in tent sites with picnic tables and fire grates. It is located about 10 minutes from the north entrance.
Cottonwood Campground (South Unit) – Campground with 72 sites open year-round. Half the sites are available for reservation in the peak season. Rates are $14 in peak season (May through September) and $7 in the off season (October through April).
Backcountry Camping Theodore Roosevelt National Park – If you’re planning an overnight excursion, or just want to spend a night off the grid, get a free backcountry camping permit for the park by calling (701)623-4730 ext. 1422. You can camp anywhere within the park as long as you’re more than a quarter of a mile away from roads and trailheads and more than 200 feet from any water source. You can read the complete list of rules for backcountry camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park here.
Hotels near Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Unit – Watford City
Watford city is closest town to the North Unit. We enjoyed our stay at the Roosevelt Inn, which has comfortable rooms, an indoor pool and jacuzzi, and a good breakfast.
South Unit – Medora
Medora borders the south unit, and downtown Medora is right next to the entrance. There are several options for accommodations in town, including the Badlands Motel, a western-themed motor motel, the Rough Riders Hotel, and the AmericInn by Wyndham Medora.
For a larger rental with a kitchen, there are several options available on Airbnb in Medora.
Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Unit
Take the Scenic Drive
There is one road that winds through the north unit; it’s a 28-mile out and back scenic drive. You’ll pass by all the overlooks, hiking trails, and likely see at least a few bison off the road or walking straight down the middle of it (we had a wait a few times for some bison that decided to just hang out in the road).
Watch for Wildlife
The North Unit was my favorite section of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; I thought the views were spectacular and we saw so much wildlife. Not just bison, but bighorn sheep and deer.
Bison can be dangerous, so be sure to give them plenty of space. They’re incredibly agile, can jump up to 6 ft and run 35 mph. Hike at a distance and don’t try to get up close to pet them or for a photo.
See the Cannonball Concretions
These concretions look like massive cannonballs, perfectly round and sometimes as big as five feet across. Concretions are formed when the mineral calcite cements sand and clay particles together. These concretions grow over time as more and more sediment cements together. These formations are harder than the surrounding dirt, so their unique forms are revealed after hundreds of years of erosion. There’s a small pull out where you can hop out of your car and see these.
River Bend Overlook
It’s a short walk down some stairs to reach the stone ramada built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 and enjoy the view over the Little Missouri River.
This is another overlook at the end of the scenic drive with stunning views, looking out over the oxbow curve in the river.
Earn a Junior Ranger Badge
Kids can do this in either the north or south unit, or work on it while visiting both parts of the park. Just stop by the visitor center to pick up a booklet, and turn it in once you child finishes all the activities associated with their age group. We love the junior ranger program, and even we as parents learn a lot by helping our son complete the activities in the workbook. And what kids don’t love to earn a cool badge!?
Stay for sunset
We saw the most animals once golden hour hit, and you can’t miss watching the colors change over the badlands. Once of the best spots for sunset is River Bend Overlook.
Hikes in the North Unit
Caprock Coulee Trail – This is a 4.3-mile loop hike with a 583-foot elevation gain. This trail is through the badlands, and leads to a wooded area in the park. Most of the trail has no shade, so start early or go later in the afternoon on a hot and sunny day.
Little Mo Trail – This paved loop is either 0.7 miles or 1.1 miles along the river, depending on whether you take the inner or outer loop.
Sperati Point via the Achenbach Trail – This hike starts at the Oxbow Overlook and leads to (what I think) is a better view of the Oxbow in the Little Missouri River. It’s 1.5 miles roundtrip.
Achenbach Trail – This 18-mile hike is often done as an overnighter. The trail descends from the prairies down to the river and includes two river crossings.
Check the NPS website for a complete list of hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
This was Theodore Roosevelt’s home ranch during his time in North Dakota, which he owned from 1884 to 1898. Elkhorn Ranch is part of the national park, and located in between the north and south units. Roosevelt’s ventures in cattle ranching weren’t very successful, especially after he lost over half of his cattle during the winter of 1886-87. There aren’t any buildings left, but you can see remainders of bricks and foundations for where the structures once stood.
Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit
Take the Scenic Drive
The scenic drive through the south unit is a 36-mile loop; however, part of the road is closed as of 2020, so you can’t complete the loop. We saw several herds of bison, hundreds of prairie dogs, coyotes, a wild horse, and pronghorn antelope.
Watch for the Wild Horses
One of the things I was most looking forward to in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National park was seeing the herds of wild horses that roam the area (they’re only in the south unit). While it’s pretty easy to spot the bison because there are so many of them, the wild horses can be a bit more elusive.
We got out early for a better chance of finding them, but unfortunately only spotted one that was making its way across the road (but she was beautiful!). From a bit of research and talking to a park ranger, the best chances to spot them are down by the Little Missouri River near the Cottonwood Campground, Jules Creek, and on the prairies at the beginning of the scenic drive (there are a lot of spots marked on the map as prairie dog towns).
Drive by the Prairie Dog Towns
Just a few minutes after entering the park, you’ll be passing prairies with hundreds and hundreds of little mounds. Watch for a few minutes to see the prairie dogs popping out and looking around.
Bike part of the Maah Daah Hey Trail
This 144 -mile trail starts just outside of Watford City and crosses many miles of National Grassland before going through the south unit of the park. You can do the whole trail, or opt for the portion within the south unit of the park. Many bikers just stay along the road too, which is still challenging and has amazing views. Learn more about the Maah Daah Hey trail system here.
Go Horseback Riding
Explore the badlands on horseback with over 80 miles of marked horse trails, or head out into the backcountry. Riders are permitted to roam the park, except for nature trails, campgrounds and picnic areas. You can book trail rides in the summer (June through mid-August) with the Medora Riding Stables.
Explore the Hoodoos
These hoodoos are some of the most interesting rock formations we find while exploring the park.
Painted Canyon Visitor Center, Overlook and Nature Trail
To get to Painted Canyon, exit the south unit and drive about 8 miles east on the 94. Stop by the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, enjoy the overlook, or explore deeper by taking the Painted Canyon Nature Trail down into the canyon. It’s a 1.1-mile loop trail that descends 259 feet.
Watch the sunset
Head to one of the overlooks for sunset, like Wind Canyon Trail at golden hour, or watch the colors change over Painted Canyon, Buck Hill, or Boicourt Overlook.
Kayak or Canoe the Little Missouri River
Explore the badlands from the water by paddling along the Little Missouri River. You can travel from the south unit up to the north unit, or just pick a portion of the river to paddle around for a few hours. May and June are usually the best months for floating along the river; by the time we visited in late July the water levels were very low in many spots, so you’d likely be dragging your boat more often than paddling.
Hikes in the South Unit
Boicourt Overlook – There are a few quick walks in the park that lead to amazing overlooks. This trail is only 0.2 miles, but it leads to one of the best views in the park!
Buck Hill – Another 0.2-mile trail that ends at one of the highest points in the park with 360-degree views of the badlands.
Wind Canyon Trail – 0.4-mile loop with an amazing view over the Little Missouri River.
Coal Vein Trail – This trail is a great place to learn about the geology of the badlands, including the coal vein layer that runs through. This is a 0.8-mile loop with some stairs.
Petrified Forest Loop – 10.3-mile loop through petrified forests and badlands. You don’t have to do the full trail to see the petrified forest.
See the NPS website for a complete list of hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Check out the town of Medora
While many national parks are located hours away from any towns or modern conveniences, the small town of Medora borders the edges of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The C-store is a great place to stop for grab-n-go breakfast and sub sandwiches. The town is also building out a large park that currently includes a western-themed playground, mini golf and a zip line. A lazy river is in the works for the future.
Just outside of town and nestled in the badlands you’ll find the 18-hole Bully Pulpit golf course, ranked one of America’s Top 100 Public Golf Courses. One of the most popular activities in Medora is dinner at the Pitchfork Steak Fondue followed by an evening under the stars at the Medora Musical.
Map of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
History of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Teddy Roosevelt’s Legacy
“I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt originally went to North Dakota in 1883 to hunt bison. But after arriving, he fell in love with the Badlands and the Little Missouri River. He saw that the lands were being over grazed and the animals were being killed to near extinction. This experience made him realize the land and wildlife needed protection and preservation.
After both his wife and mother tragically passed away on the same day, he left New York and returned to the wide-open spaces of North Dakota to recoup. He purchased two ranches, both in the present-day boundaries of the park.
During his time as the 26th president from 1901 to 1909, Theodore Roosevelt established the US Forest Service, created five national parks, and 150 national forests in the efforts of preservation.
He passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 which gave him the power as president to “declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic and scientific interests” as national monuments without waiting for the approval of Congress. Through this act, Roosevelt helped protect over 230 million acres within the United States. A number of the areas he protected as national monuments later became national parks, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established in 1947 as a tribute to Roosevelt’s extensive preservation efforts, and to protect the badlands that served as his inspiration. The park now receives about 750k visitors every year.
We enjoyed both the beauty and history of this unique area, and hope you do to. Please let us know if you have any questions about visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.