Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a vast landscape that offers unique geology, active wildlife, and a robust history. It is not surprising that our 26th president fell in love with this beautiful area. Located in the remoteness of Western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an underappreciated gem.
It is no secret that we love visiting areas where we can feel in tune with nature. This can be challenging at many of the major National Parks in the United States. Fighting through crowds and packed trails aren’t really our idea of a good time.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park gives more of a true wild west feel, and we enjoyed our time here immensely. We only had 3 days to visit the park, but we think a full week of camping and activities would also be realistic if you want to take your time. There are many short, easy trails and multiple overlooks.
We spent our time camping at the South Unit. Below is a jam-packed itinerary that will ensure you enjoy your time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, along with an overview of the park.
About Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The park is broken out into three units; South Unit, North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Outside of the visitor centers, services are few and far between in the park. The biggest draw in all three units is the wildlife you are sure to encounter around every corner. Bison, feral houses, elk, and prairie dogs are almost sure to be spotted along with many other animals. Below is a break down of the units in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
This park has the easiest access point, as it is located right off of Interstate 94. Camping is available in this unit at the Cottonwood Campground year-round. The unit is also very close to the quaint town of Medora, North Dakota. The unit showcases a 36 mile scenic drive through the area.
The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt park is a 14 mile scenic drive, but still offers plenty of hiking and trails to explore. The North Unit is about an hour north of Interstate 85, located off of ND Highway 85. The journey is well worth it to see a different perspective of the park. Primitive sites are located at the Juniper Campground.
Elkhorn Ranch Unit
This unit is the most remote in the park. The road is unpaved leading up to the area that houses the cabin site. Despite not having a Visitors Center, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit offers a unique insight into the history of the park and the reasons that Theodore Roosevelt found this area so enchanting.
Day 1 – South Unit
Get your hiking shoes on and your binoculars ready because day 1 is full of multiple hikes and stunning views. The trails and overlooks outlined below are the definite must-sees as you make your way around the Scent Loop Drive at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There are signs everywhere about not approaching the wildlife. Plan to be prepared to come across many animals as you make your way around the trails! There were many times we were on our own when we ventured the trails, so you definitely are on your own when it comes to the wildlife.
- South Unit Visitor Center – 1 Hour
- 36 Mile Scenic Loop Drive and Trails – 6 Hours including driving
- Boicourt Overlook – ½ Hour
- Buck Hill Trail – ½ Hour
- Cole Vein Trail – 1 Hour
- Old East Entrance Station – 1 Hour
- Badlands Overlook – ¼ Hour
- Skyline Vista Trail – ½ Hour
- SOUTH UNIT VISITOR CENTER Great stop to learn about the park and the preservation that is going on in the area. There is a video viewing room that shares the history of the park and the time that Roosevelt spent there. Surprisingly, it kept our 9-year old’s attention. It also shares the wildlife you can expect to see which made us very excited about the day ahead. There is a nice little gift shop, along with Roosevelts Maltese Cross Cabin. The architecture was pretty neat on the cabin!
- BOICOURT OVERLOOK My personal favorite trail of the entire trip. You walk across a strip of land that narrows to an astonishing overlook. As we made our way we saw bison running down the hill. The bison are not very graceful and it was quite a show to watch. When you get to the overlook it is a huge valley that gives you a bit of a Jurassic Park feel.
- BUCK HILL TRAIL Short trail offering more views of the landscape.
- COLE VEIN TRAIL The area was literally on fire at one point for years and the trail has signs of this. A great reminder of the power of nature. This trail was one of the more strenuous, but still manageable with good shoes and plenty of water. The trail markers weren’t super clear on this one so keep track of where you are going in case you go on a trail that is not so much a trail. We went down one that ended up being a steep drop off eventually.
- OLD EAST ENTRANCE STATION Completely level trail lined with hundreds of prairie dogs. They hilariously yell at you as you walk by. Some are brave and don’t hide, but most shy away as you get closer. The end of the trail is the old entrance to Roosevelt National Park, and just another cool bit of history to explore
- BADLANDS OVERLOOK Exactly what it sounds like. Another trail that is well worth the views. Super vibrant colors!
- SKYLINE VISTA TRAIL This tiny trail gives a nice view of the town of Medora, and is a fantastic place to watch the sunset. The colors play nicely off the landscape of the badlands.
Day 2 – Painted Canyon Visitors Center, North Unit, Town of Medora
- Painted Canyon Visitors Center – 1 Hour
- North Unit – 4 Hours including driving
- Buckhorn Trail (partial)
- River Bend Overlook
- Caprock Coulee Trail (partial)
- Oxbow Overlook
- Sperati Point
- Town of Medora – 1 Hour
PAINTED CANYON VISITOR CENTER The name gives it away, but this panorama of badlands can be viewed right from atop the visitor center or you can get a little more up close and personal by following the trails. I would recommend just viewing the overlook and not exploring the trails as you have a fun filled day ahead, and the trails here are not that spectacular. This visitors center is right off of Interstate 94 and makes it a convenient stop on your way to the North Unit.
NORTH UNIT The North Unit starts with a Visitors Center, and automatically you feel smaller in this part of the park. It felt like the South Unit had been amplified which made for a different experience. The trails in this part of the park are longer, but definitely start your way down some of them if you get a chance.
During the trails we came upon many “caves” and had fun exploring the nooks and crannies. The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National park also features cannonball concretions which are a neat geological formation.
At the end of the scenic drive, there is a nice overlook that makes for a great place to take lunch. After eating a quick lunch we had packed, we ended up going down the trail to Sperati Point. There were several bison that we had to walk carefully past. They were far away, but they definitely were checking us out the whole time. The wildflowers in this area were super pretty. Although one of the longer trails we went on, the trail to Sperati Point isn’t strenuous as the entire length is flat prairie.
MEDORA On the drive back to the South Unit to camp after a long day of hiking we wandered around the town of Medora. It has a cute touristy feel, but we liked how you could tell the locals really took pride in the town. They offer a musical that we were too tired to view, but we didn’t pass up the taffy shop and other little gems in the town’s shopping district.
Day 3 – Petrified Forest, Elkhorn Ranch Unit
- Petrified Forest Loop Trail – 3 Hours
- Elkhorn Ranch Unit – 2 Hours with driving
PETRIFIED FOREST LOOP TRAIL Classified as a Wilderness Trail, do not pass this up if you visit the area! The trail is a 10.2 mile loop trail, however we felt we got the full experience by making the 3 mile trek to the South Petrified Forest. The trail is a bit overgrown in some areas, and you need to be mindful of all the bison “waste.” It appears they use the trail more frequently than humans! If you haven’t seen petrified wood up close, this is a really neat way to experience it.
ELKHORN RANCH UNIT This unit is the area where Roosevelt spent time to grieve after the passing of his mother and wife. Although it takes a little more time to get here due to the unpaved roads, it is still a treat to visit. This area is a very peaceful stretch of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out our other adventure destinations while you’re at it!