Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in western North Dakota and comprised of three separate units- North Unit, South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit with the lovely Little Missouri River connecting the three. The Park has over 70,000 acres of flowing prairies and stunning buttes and is home to so much wildlife- longhorn steer, bison, wild horses, elk, and deer just to name a few! On this trip, we were heading home from Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and needed a place to stop on our way back to the Midwest. I had not heard much about this park, so I was unsure what to expect but from the second we pulled up, to say I was impressed with all the spectacular beauty of the North Dakota Badlands is an understatement. Trust me, this is not a park to miss!
Entrance Fee: The entrance fee to all three units is $30 per vehicle for 7 consecutive days.
Lodging: There are two campgrounds- Cottonwood (South) and Juniper (North), and one Roundup Group Horse Camp. All the sites are primitive camping, and all reservations can be made at Recreation.gov
Dining: There are no food options other than vending machines onsite, but the South Unit is just steps away from the town of Medora which has many wonderful dining options. The North Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit are more isolated so I would plan on bringing your own food to either of those.
Must Know Before You Go:
We spent two days at this park, one day at the South Unit, the other at the North Unit. I think one more day would have been ideal to allow time to explore the Petrified Forest area and Elkhorn Ranch unit. This will be a 2-day itinerary but would recommend you spend a third day exploring those areas if time allows😊
Cell Service: We had cell service in the South Unit, but once you are past the North Unit Visitor Center we did not have service.
Day 1(South Unit- Mountain Time)
Painted Canyon Visitor Center- This was our first stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a great place to pick up maps for the rest of your trip and the views around the visitor center are spectacular. This area also has restrooms, vending machines and a picnic area.
Painted Canyon Nature Trail- This trail was one of our favorites! The trail starts on the west side of the visitor center at the top of the canyon (on the east side starts the Painted Canyon Trail, which is also a lovely trail but much longer). This 1-mile loop trail is moderate in difficulty and takes you down into the colorful canyon and then back up again. The last part of this hike is all uphill but is still doable for all ages with a gradual incline on the way up. There are several small branch offs on this trail to overlooks, which make this trail sometimes difficult to follow, and would then extend this to a little over a mile. If you want to just follow the trail, keep a lookout for the very thin posts that say Painted Canyon on them. This trail, like almost every other trail at this park, led to plenty of bison sightings as well😊 Once back to your car, you will head west on 10/94 toward Medora (exit 27) for the South Unit Visitor Center.
South Unit Visitor Center- The South Unit Visitor Center has a bookstore, museum and park film that are all worth exploring. My kids LOVED the museum exhibit, in particular. This is also a great place to use the restroom before heading out on the Scenic Loop Drive.
Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin- The Maltese Cross Cabin is located just behind the South Unit Visitor Center and is open for both ranger-led and self-guided tours. After watching the park film in the visitor center, we headed out the back doors to explore and learn more of the history of Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin on a self-guided tour.
Scenic Loop Drive- The next 5 trails are all right off the Scenic Loop Drive and while there are quite a few listed, most are very short, easy walks! The Scenic Drive is a 36-mile loop that will be done clockwise in this itinerary and take you through the beautiful badlands of North Dakota.
Skyline Vista Trail- This 0.2-mile easy, paved trail takes you out to a beautiful vista and is perfect for all ages. There are little trails that branch out from the end that we did let our kiddos climb down and explore as well before heading back to the car.
Wind Canyon Trail- This easy 0.5-mile loop trail has great views of the river and we even saw a large bison herd in the distance! If you hike this trail clockwise there is a drop off right at the top of the first hill that you may need to watch your kiddos around.
Boicourt Trail- This trail is 0.3-mile roundtrip and is also paved, making it perfect for all ages. There is an unpaved section that takes you out to a second overlook that we explored as well. But both are short, easy walks and you are truly surrounded by stunning views the whole walk out!
Buck Hill Trail- This trail was easily one of our favorites on the loop drive! The views were so gorgeous and this 0.4-mile roundtrip trail will give you 360 views the whole way. It does start with a steep incline but then is an easy walk the rest of the way out and back!
Ridgeline Nature Trail- This 0.6-mile trail is a self-guided trail with a brochure available online and at the trailhead. This trail is moderate in difficulty with elevation changes and stairs. My oldest loves trails with learning points along the way so this trail was one of his favorites😊 We also saw wild horses on this trail!
Medora- A great way to end your day would be exploring Medora, having dinner in town and maybe even stopping for a treat at the Fudge and Ice Cream Depot (highly recommend)! We stayed in Dickinson for this trip, but Medora would have also been an excellent place to stay as well.
Day 2(North Unit- Central Time)
The very best advice I can give you about this entire park is do not skip the North Unit! I know the South Unit is more popular and certainly it is a drive between the two, but the North Unit was our favorite and you will not want to miss it, I promise! A few things to note about the North Unit. There were only two restroom locations in the entire North Unit. One at the entrance (near the visitor center) and one at the very end at Oxbow Overlook, so you may want to stop at the Visitor Center before you start the scenic drive. From both Dickinson, ND and Medora, ND it is 70 miles to the North Unit which should take just over an hour. And there is one campground in this unit- Juniper.
Scenic Drive- The North Unit scenic drive is 28 miles roundtrip (14 miles each way). This drive was full of wildlife (lots of bison and steer), stunning views of the massive buttes of the badlands and incredible overlooks of the Little Missouri River as you wind along the canyon rim toward Oxbow Bend Overlook. It will also get you to everything else on the itinerary for the day😊
Little Mo Nature Trail (long loop)- This easy 1.4-mile loop is great for all ages. Half of the loop is paved, and the other half is not but both are easy walks that will get you to great views of the river.
River Bend Overlook- This overlook is about 8 miles into your scenic drive. Once parked, it is a short walk out to the stone structure built on the edge of the butte in 1937 that gives a phenomenal view of the Little Missouri River below.
Caprock Coulee Trail- There is a trailhead and parking lot for this trail earlier in the drive, but this was a last minute find for us when we were stopped at the River Bend Overlook, so that is where we started and ended this 4.5-mile loop trail. You can pick this trail up on either end of the River Bend Overlook parking lot. The trail is moderate in difficulty with some steep elevation changes. Also, as with most hikes at this park, I would definitely keep a look out for bison- we saw many and you want to give them plenty of room! This trail was amazing and one of my favorites because it takes you through so many different terrains- plains, buttes, forests- all in one trail! I would make sure you have a map and if you have the AllTrails app that would be extremely helpful as well because several areas of this trail are a bit overgrown or more difficult to follow.
Oxbow Overlook- This scenic vista is at the very end of the scenic drive- your turn around point. It has phenomenal panoramic views of the colorful canyon and the oxbow of the Little Missouri River. It is quite a sight!
Sperati Point- This was our last hike of the day, and it did not disappoint! This out and back 2.4 miles round trip trail was moderate in difficulty. The walk is through a beautiful prairie to a stunning view of the North Unit. There is not any shade, so it is probably quite hot in the middle of the day, but we went in the evening and the weather was perfect! Again, we saw several large bison near this trail so there is a chance you will have to wait them out or detour around them to give them plenty of space. After the hike, we started our 14-mile drive back out of the park to end our trip here!
Hope you have a wonderful adventure!