Updated: Oct 18, 2021
While it may not get the attention of Yellowstone or Yosemite, Theodore Roosevelt National Park may just be one of America’s most underrated National Parks. With scenic badlands, rugged wilderness, and wildlife at every turn, a visit to North Dakota’s lone national park is one you’ll want to add to your bucket list.
The park is divided into three units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch. The South Unit is located just off I-94, in the town of Medora, North Dakota. It is the easiest to access, and thus is the most crowded. The North Unit is located 50 miles to the north. Elkhorn Ranch is located between the two, but is only accessible by gravel roads and sometimes requires four-wheel drive. Take a look at the park maps for more info.
Read on for our guide of the top things to do during your visit!
1. Stop by the South Unit Visitor Center & Museum
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has three visitor centers: the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, the South Unit Visitor Center, and the North Unit Visitor Center.
Stop by the South Unit Visitor Center on your way into the park to get maps, watch a 17 minute film about the park, and spend some time at the museum on Theodore Roosevelt's presidency and time in North Dakota's badlands.
The park rangers can help you discuss activities to do while in the park, and provide tours of Maltese Cross Cabin during the summers. They also can tell you where and when you are most likely to see wildlife, based on recent sightings.
2. Take in the view on the Scenic Loop Drive
The South Unit's Scenic Loop Drive is the best and most convenient way to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park. At 36 miles, it takes you through all of the park's signature vistas.
The drive takes 1.5 hours, but plan to take even longer - there are dozens of overlooks and nature trails that you’ll want to pull over and enjoy, not to mention wildlife-induced traffic jams! We recommend allowing for at least 4 hours.
Stop along the way to take photos, explore the nature trails, and see the wildlife.
3. See the wildlife
Theodore Roosevelt National Park provides plenty of opportunities to view wildlife in its natural habitat.
Several prairie dog towns line the South Unit’s scenic drive. The Prairie Dog Town Overlook allows you to see a town from just a few feet away, and has roadside exhibits about the animals.
Watch the prairie dogs interact, and listen for their high pitched bark!
Buffalo sightings are almost guaranteed! Keep an eye out during your drive, and you're almost sure to spot a herd of grazing bison.
We saw well over 100 bison during our trip, and were caught in multiple "bison jams". We were even able to watch massive adults and bison calves crossing the road just a few feet away from our car!
Some lucky visitors will catch sightings of wild horses, elk, pronghorns, and coyotes. Ask the park rangers about the best times and locations to see these animals.
Remember to keep an appropriate distance from all wildlife, and be sure to bring a pair of binoculars on your trip!
4. Go on a hike
While plenty of longer hikes are available, the nature trails really shine in the South Unit. The Wind Canyon Nature Trail is a fun, short climb to a sweeping vista of the badlands on the outer edge of the park, with the Little Missouri River below. The Boicourt Overlook is a short path that provides incredible views of the badlands below, which many of the park's longer hikes will take you through.
In the North Unit, the Buckhorn (10.8 miles) and Caprock Coulee (4.4 miles) Trails are great options for anyone looking to take a longer hike. These trails will guide you into the wilderness, through canyons, and across rivers, all within the park's boundaries.
Always remember to carry plenty of water and snacks on your hikes, as the North Dakota badlands can get hot in the summer and offer minimal shade.
Bonus: the town of Medora offers trail rides via horseback, providing a fun and unique way to explore the park’s trails.
5. Ride a bike
Each of the scenic drives makes for an incredible road biking experience.
The South Unit's Scenic Loop Drive is 36 miles, with 2,500 feet of elevation gain. There are no shoulders, but plenty of turnouts to let traffic pass and enjoy the views.
The North Unit's Scenic Road is 14 miles one-way. A 28 mile out-and-back ride would have 1,350 feet of elevation gain. Riding from Oxbow Overlook to the North Unit Visitor Center provides an easy downhill ride, and was one of the highlights of the trip.
For those willing to venture off of the pavement, the Maah Daah Hey Trail is frequently rated as one of the best bike trails in the nation - and deservedly so!
The Maah Daah Hey Trail consists of 150 miles of singletrack, allowing you to traverse through badlands, prairies, rivers, and more on two wheels. We did a 10 mile out-and-back ride and had a blast!
The folks at Dakota Cyclery are wonderful, and can help you rent a bike, stock up on supplies, and map out a route. They even provide shuttle services for multi-day bike trips!
Opportunities for shade or water are slim-to-none, so prepare accordingly.
The peace and quiet of camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is as good as it gets. The night sky is perfect for stargazing, and the quiet is unparalleled.
Occasionally, the Northern Lights will make an appearance, lighting up the night sky in streaks of green, purple, and blue. Visit between late Fall and early Spring for the best chances to see.
Getting a campsite at the Medora Campground just outside of the park was easy to reserve, even last minute on Labor Day weekend. First-come first-serve campsites at Cottonwood Campground within the park were available when we arrived as well. Check out the National Park Service website for information on campsites.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, the MyPlace hotel in Dickinson was the perfect stop for us the night before arriving - the rooms were clean, available last-minute, and only a 30 minute drive from the park.
7. Explore the town of Medora
No list on Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be complete without mentioning the town of Medora, North Dakota. Medora is the gateway town into the park’s South Unit, and has several themed events and attractions throughout the week to keep visitors entertained.
After exploring the park, stop by Sheriff Bear's to get some ice cream and listen to live music on the patio. Visit the Cowboy Hall of Fame, get tickets to the Teddy Roosevelt Show, and go to the Pitchfork Steak Fondue dinner!
The Medora Musical and the Little Bully Pulpit mini-golf are also great options for those traveling with children.
8. Visit the North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit is the more remote of the two units. In the North Unit, you can find bighorn sheep, as well as the park's unique cannonball concretions.
The North Unit's scenic road is 14 miles long, or 28 miles round-trip, and takes approximately an hour and 15 minutes to drive. The North Unit’s scenic road is more dramatic, winding through canyons and climbing its way out onto the plateau above. It is well worth the journey, and provides fantastic hiking opportunities.
Are you planning a trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!