In the history of the United States, there are few people who have done more to conserve our natural landscapes and wildlife than Theodore Roosevelt. According to the park’s service, while president, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves and 4 national game preserves (Both are today knowns as National Wildlife Refuges), 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments. Altogether he set aside 230 million acres of public land. It is fitting that our 26th president is the only one to have a National Park named after him. Even more fitting Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects the western North Dakota wildlife and landscape that he loved.
Location of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Units
Before we get started with the Top 10 must-see and do things in Theodore Roosevelt National Park you must understand the geography of this park. It is broken into three sections; the South, North, & Elkhorn Ranch Units. They do not actually connect to one another. The driving distance between the two main gates (North and South Units) is nearly 70 miles. If you also choose to visit Elk Park Ranch you are committing to at least an hours-long drive on rocky, potentially wash-boarded or washed-out, roads. For this reason, the list is not a countdown but is organized by the Park’s Units.
Top 10 Must-See and Do Things at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Painted Canyon Overlook
- Drive the South Scenic Loop
- Hike the Coal Vain Trail
- Take in the Little Missouri River
- Hike the Petrified Forest Loop
- Cruise the North Scenic Drive
- Hike the Caprock Coulee Loop
- Explore the Cannonball Concretions
- Camp in the Juniper Campground
- Explore the History of Elkhorn Ranch and/or the Maltese Cross Cabin
South Unit – Theodore Roosevelt National Park
1) Painted Canyon Overlook
The first place that any visitor to Theodore Roosevelt National Park must-see is the Painted Canyon. Located just off Interstate 94 the Painted Canyon (Exit 32) welcomes park visitors with not only a Visitor Center but one of the best vistas in the park. From this perch, the formations of the Badlands stretch out across the horizon.
Similar to Petrified Forest National Park and Badlands National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects the colorful eroded badlands and the wildlife that call them home. The term Badlands refers to any heavily eroded landscape deemed not useful for agricultural farming. However, this bad land like many others is beautifully ordained with a rainbow of hues that paint horizontal lines on the buttes. The Painted Canyon Overlook is an amazing spot to stand in awe of this natural artistic display.
2) Drive the South Scenic Loop
The majority of the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is best explored by driving the 36-mile scenic loop. While the Painted Canyon Overlook gives a birds-ey view of the colorful landscape the South Scenic Loop Drive cuts through it. It rolls over and through the terrain, climbing and descending several times as it allows visitors to the park full access to the eroded interior.
While on the drive, you will easily spot prairie dogs going about their daily activities in their mound-covered towns. It is also very like you will see a herd of bison as the south unit is home to around 300 of North America’s largest creatures. You might even catch a glimpse of feral wild horses, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and badgers all of which call the park home.
If you need to stretch your legs while slowly making your way around the 36-mile loop, we recommended the Boicourt Trail (0.3-mile hike) which provides another great areal vantage point of the badlands and is a good spot to look for bighorn sheep. Buck Hill (a 0.2-mile hike) is another nice overlook providing a different perspective of the Painted Canyon.
3) Hike the Coal Vain Trail
Water isn’t the only force that has shaped the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Amongst the many beautiful layers of exposed earth are a few black stripes. These layers are coal seams and it is not uncommon for them to catch fire. In 1951 a twelve-foot-thick seam caught fire and the ground in this area of the park smoldered for 26 years. The Coal Vain Trail (0.8-mile) is an informative hike where the forces of nature are on full display. Learn about the fire that burned here for a quarter of a century and the effects that it had on the landscape.
4) Take in the Little Missouri River (Wind Canyon Overlook)
The Little Missouri River winding through the badland terrain is what helped carve the unique beauty of this area of North Dakota. It is also the driving force for human settlement in this area as well, including Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch. One of the best vantage points from which to take in the life-giving river in the South Unit of the park is from atop the Wind Canyon Trail Loop (0.4-mile). This is not only the best spot to watch the slow flow of the river as it cuts through the badlands but also the best perch within the park to watch the sunset at the end of a long day of exploration.
5) Hike the Petrified Forest Loop
The last must-do hike in the south unit of the park is a bit more challenging than the short trails thus far. The Petrified Forest Loop is a 10.4-mile journey via the South and North Petrified Forest Trails and a small section of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. The forested sections are found in a valley located along both sides of the loop about a 1.5-miles from the parking lot. According to the park’s service, this is the 3rd largest concentration of petrified wood in the United States.
Getting to the Petrified Forest Loop Trailhead
The trailhead is located on the more rugged and less traveled north side of the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a 10-mile drive along fairly well-maintained gravel roads from I94 (exit 23) to the trailhead. Check at one of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s visitor centers for current road conditions before heading to the trailhead.
North Unit – Theodore Roosevelt National Park
In 2021 Theodore Roosevelt National Park set an all-time high record of 796,000 visitors. It typically doesn’t see more than 600,000 annually. While that may sound like a lot of people Great Smokey Mountain National Park received more than 14 million visitors in 2021. All that to say North Dakota’s only National Park gets relatively few visitors when compared to other National Parks. Add into this figure that a huge majority of visitors only bother to explore the South Unit and you can find yourself enjoying solitude in the North Unit even during the busiest parts of the summer.
6) Cruise the North Scenic Drive
One of the best ways to take in the solitude found in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is by taking a slow cruise along the 14-mile-long North Scenic Drive. With little traffic, you are all but guaranteed to see an assortment of wildlife including Bisen and it is much easier to slow down and gawk at them than in the busier western parks.
While the South Scenic Loop is beautiful the North Scenic Drive is arguably even better as it cuts through the badlands and rises into the prairies above before finding its terminus at the Oxbow Overlook. This viewpoint is perched above a bend in the Little Missouri River with stunning views of the rugged terrain. However, this is only the second most beautiful overlook to be found on this drive.
The River Bend Overlook
The River Bend Overlook is hands down our favorite in the entire park. While the view of the river cutting through the landscape nearly 1,000′ below is enough to make this an iconic viewpoint there is also a historic element adding to the grandeur of the spot. In 1937, 41 years prior to receiving National Park status and even 10 years prior to being set aside as a National Memorial, the Civil Conservation Corp built a gorgeous rock shelter atop the overlook. It is said that the River Bend Overlook alone was enough to justify the park’s existence.
7) Hike the 4.25-mile long Caprock Coulee Loop
Along with the best overlook, the North Unit is also home to the best hiking trail. The 4.25-mile-long Caprock Coulee Loop meanders through rugged terrain and explores many aspects of the badlands. With over 600′ of elevation gain, loose sometimes overgrown terrain, and cliffside traverses it can be a bit overwhelming but is a must for those wanting to fully explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Just make sure to carry enough water in this desert terrain.
Park at the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and hike the loop counterclockwise. Going this way allows you to learn about the badland terrain via a park brochure and signs posted on the 0.8-mile-long trail. After the short and informative hike, the trail continues around the loop. You’ll climbthrough the eroded terrain until it tops the caprock and crosses over a hilltop mesa. From here the trail meanders through the prairie grass before crossing the road to the River Bend Overlook. Continuing clockwise, the trail snakes along the cliff’s edge above the Little Missouri River providing more stunning views before finally descending back to the parking lot.
8) Explore the Cannonball Concretions
While the South Unit is home to an impressive petrified forest, the North Unit has something that Jennifer and I have only seen in one other place in the entire World. Concretions are created when water seeps through the porous ground, collecting minerals like calcium carbonate and depositing them around a less porous material, often a sea shell. As this process continues the concretion grows in size. While concretions themselves are not uncommon the size (2′ – 3′ in diameter) of these “Cannonballs” are only found in a few places around the world, including the Moeraki Boulders we found in New Zealand. It is odd to find these similar geologic formations in two vastly different environments. New Zealand’s concretions have rolled down from the cliffside and into the ocean surf and these are being eroded from the cliffside in a dry badland. We live in an amazing world!
9) Camp in the Juniper Campground (FCFS North)
The secluded and remote North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park also makes it an ideal spot to camp under the stars. There is very little light pollution so make sure you plan around the time of a new moon to take in a full starry night. The Juniper Campground is the only campground in the North Unit of the park. Ironically it is probably the busiest area in the North Unit with 50 first-come, first-served sites. However, most campsites are well-spaced allowing for some elbow room. The campground does typically fill up every summer night albeit towards the later afternoon. Plan to grab a spot around noon and you should be able to easily secure a campsite.
Elkhorn Ranch Unit – Theodore Roosevelt National Park
10) Explore the History of Elkhorn Ranch and/or the Maltese Cross Cabin
“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” “It was here that the romance of my life began.” – Theodore Roosevelt
In 1883 Theodore Roosevelt made a journey to the remote badlands of North Dakota on a Bison hunt. Before leaving he purchased a cattle ranch located about 7 miles south of the railroad stop in the town of Madora known locally as the Maltese Cross Ranch. A year later he began to construct a second ranch called the Elkhorn located 35 miles north of the town of Madora.
Roosevelt was raised as a well-to-do New Yorker. He was a sickly child who found relief in nature. The wilds of North Dakota enthralled his sense of adventure. His ranches weren’t the most successful ventures and by 1887 he began to liquidate his interest in them. However, these short 4 years changed his perspective on wildlife and environmental conservation and through his presidential influence changed the course of history.
Visiting the Ranches
Today, the Maltese Cross Cabin which was the main log home on Roosevelt’s first ranch has been moved to the entrance of the South Unit and is easily accessible to all who visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, Roosevelt spent very little time at the Maltese Cross Cabin. If you want to see the location of where Roosevelt lived and the environment that changed the course of a nation you will need to make the 46-mile drive from the town of Medora to the Elkhorn Ranch. The road can be rough so check with the park’s service on current conditions before setting off.
Little remains of the actual structures of the place Roosevelt referred to as his “home ranch.” Visitors to the Elkhorn Ranch will find stones marking the foundation and informative signs about the ranch and the floodplain. While all the structures have been removed the landscape has changed very little from when Roosevelt first arrived here and fell in love with this area perched on the edge of the Little Missouri River.
Bonuses – Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Bonus 1) Ride the Maah Daah Hey Trail
If you want to experience the North Dakota badlands, like Theodore Roosevelt would have, jump on a horse and set off on the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail. This epic trail not only connects the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park but also runs directly through Elk Horn Ranch and the town of Medora before continuing south for another 50 miles. This is without a doubt the best way to fully experience this amazing corner of North Dakota.
If you do not enjoy horseback riding you can also hike or mountain bike the Maah Daah Hey Trail. It has been classified as an EPIC trail by the International Mountain Biking Association which means it is one of the United States premiere biking trails.
Bonus 2) Medora Musical
Located on the edge of the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the town of Medora, North Dakota. Ultimately the fact that this town was a stop on the railroad is what brought Theodore Roosevelt to this area of North Dakota and set the wheels of history turning. The western town is an amazing place to explore. One of the best ways to get to know the history of this little town is through a country-western musical of all things. The Medora Musical is a quirky and unique variety show that tells the colorful story of Medora and the historical figures who helped it flourish.
Logistics for Exploring the Best of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Winters in North Dakota can be long and brutal. While this is an excellent time to visit the park for those seeking solitude most people will enjoy the short summer season immensely more. The park sees relatively few visitors when compared to the other National Parks so solitude can be found throughout the year. Summer also brings flowers to the park. Most of the animals typically calve in late Spring so visit in the early summer to see the cute baby bison and baby prairie dogs.
How Much Time
Because of the distances between the park’s units, it can be a challenge to see everything this park has to offer in a weekend much less a single day. If the weather is bad you will be hard-pressed to visit Elkhorn Ranch at all. For these reasons, we recommend a minimum of 2 days for your visit but if you want to do the entire Top 10 it would be best to buffer your itinerary with an extra day or two.
South Unit: Cottonwood Campground – For those wanting to stay in the park.
- Half Reservation, Half First-Come, First-Served
- Flush Toilets
- Potable Water (Seasonal)
- Dump Station
North Unit: Juniper Campground – For those looking to visit the North Unit.
- First-Come, First-Served
- Flush Toilets
- Potable Water (Seasonal)
- Dump Station
Elk Horn Ranch Unit: Elk Horn Campground – For those looking for solitude.
- First-Come, First-Served
- Vault Toilet
Sully Creek State Park (South of Medora) – For those looking for electric hookups and showers.
- First-Come, First-Served
- Vault Toilets
- Potable Water
- Electric Sites Available
- Dump Station
- Shower House (Available to all visitors who pay the park entrance fee)
Medora Campground (In Medora) – For those looking for full hookups and want to experience Medora.
- Flush Toilets
- Potable Water
- Dump Station
Scoria Pit Dispersed Camping (West of the South Unit) – For those looking for FREE!
- No Amenities
- No Official Sites
There isn’t much in the way of modern hotels near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The AmericInn by Wyndham is about the only chain to speak of. However, if you want a western experience, without camping out on the range, we suggest the Rough Riders Hotel. Both of these are in the town of Medora, North Dakota.
Watford City, North Dakota is closest to the North Unit of the park. While we still maintain a night under the stars in the Juniper Campground is the way to go if you need a room we suggest The Watford Hotel.
When looking for dining options in Medora look no further than Theodore’s Dining Room for a modern and upscale take on western cuisine. Make sure you save room for dessert and satisfy your sweet tooth at the Fudge & Ice Cream Depot.
When looking for food near the North Unit you will need to make the drive up to Watford City to partake of the Dakotan Restaurant for some simple but tasty Americana.
Top 10 Must-See and Do Things in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a must-visit for anyone who loves wildlife and beautiful eroded badlands. This is especially true for those who enjoy experiences that they don’t have to share with hoards of other visitors. I think we may have seen more prairie dogs and bison than people when we visited during the height of the summer season and that is the way we like to travel. Add in a little Roosevelt history and the corky atmosphere found in Madora, North Dakota, and you are left with a National Park experience that is unlike any other.