The small town of Medora may only have a population of barely over 100 people, but the nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park attracts hundreds of thousands of curious visitors every year.
Whether you’re looking to get lost in the vast wilderness of North Dakota or just want to take a leisurely drive through the countryside, this National Park has something to offer all kinds of travelers.
Named after US President Theodore Roosevelt, this politician and well-known outdoorsman would come to North Dakota in his youth to hunt bison. Now a protected park, you can still see many iconic American bison roaming the plains and colorful hills.
Being one of the United States’ most famous places to visit, travelers might want a little extra guidance before plunging headfirst into the rustic beauty of the park.
That’s why we brought together all the things we wish we had known before exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Now, you’ll be well prepared to make the most out of your adventure to the gorgeous Dakota badlands.
Looking for more US National Park information? We suggest getting this amazing book: 100 Parks, 5,000 Ideas: Where to Go, When to Go, What to See, What to Do
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Planner
History of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
No single stretch of land quiet embodies the beauty of America like the Roosevelt National Park does. Native Americans have long been deeply connected to the region’s canyons and plains.
Local legends and stories are woven through the park, making visiting Roosevelt National Park more than just a walk in the woods; it’s also a cultural, historical, and spiritual experience.
As the Europeans began expanding westwards, they added a new chapter to the history of North Dakota, erecting ranches and bringing the iconic American cowboys along.
It’s easy to imagine wide-rimmed, hat donning horseback riders herding cattle amid this breathtaking landscape.
It wasn’t until 1883 that a young Theodore Roosevelt first visited the Dakota badlands. Throughout his life, Roosevelt would often take trips to the region, investing in local businesses.
After Roosevelt died in 1919, this section of the Dakota badlands was designated as a park. Today, the Painted Canyon and prairie dogs attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Best Things to do in Teddy Roosevelt National Park
1. Visit the North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is broken down into three sections, known as units. The first is the North Unit. This region typically attracts off the beaten path travelers looking to get lost in the Dakota wilderness and explore a side of America seldom seen by your average tourist.
Although located more than 50 miles away from the well-trodden Interstate 94, the Northern Unit immerses its visitors in the vastness of the Badlands.
For travelers looking to get a taste of the region’s wonders, there is a 14-mile drive perfect for highlighting all the best things the park has to offer.
Wanting to truly bask in awe of America’s natural beauty? There are miles upon miles of hikes that cut through the park’s canyons and plains.
Also, be sure to change your clocks while in the North Unit! While the South and Elkhorn Ranch units follow Mountain Time, the North Unit abides by Central Time.
2. Visit the South Unit
In contrast with the North Unit, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit is easily accessible from Interstate 94, and extremely close to many hotels, restaurants, and stores.
Although you won’t find such luxuries in the park itself, you will find them in the nearby towns of Medora and Belfield.
For first time guests to the park, the South Unit is a part of the experience you won’t want to miss. This is where you’ll find the visitor center and get more background on the region.
It’s also home to one of Dakota’s most famous landmarks, the Painted Canyon.
Throughout the South Unit, there are many short hikes where you can take in the park’s best sights; these are particularly recommended for families and seniors.
If you’re looking for some extra guidance, there are even ranger-led tours where travelers can truly get some insider insight into the park’s background.
Unlike the North Unit, you will find the South Unit sees the majority of visitors to the park. You will want to plan accordingly for parking and accommodation.
3. Visit the Historical Elkhorn Ranch Unit
Travelers can genuinely feel alone in the great outdoors at the Elkhorn Ranch. This is precisely what Theodore Roosevelt was searching for when he set up house and built his cabin on this plot of land.
Although the home was stripped after being sold in 1898, a new dude ranch was built on its foundations a few decades later. The cabin is now listed as a national historic site.
Other than the historical side of Elkhorn Ranch, this region also has its fair share of natural beauty.
With the Little Missouri River flowing by the house, and neighboring mountains reaching up to the heavens, one can easily imagine what it was like living on the new frontier over a century ago.
Elkhorn Ranch is the smallest of the three units, but the drive to and from the area is more than enough to have you pulling out your cameras and stopping to take pictures every few minutes.
4. Discover the Painted Canyon
Painted Canyon is arguably the most breathtaking place in all of North Dakota! With its unique mineral deposits, the rocks turn into a virtual rainbow.
Located right off I-94, travelers will have the option to hit the trails or simply pull over at the overlook and take in the spectacular view.
Even though you’ll be standing on the outskirts of the park, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find your car surrounded by herds of bison!
5. Climb Buck Hill
Well-known as one of the best places in Theodore Roosevelt National Park to catch the sunset, Buck Hill and the Buck Hill Trail is a must-do for all adventurers heading to North Dakota.
Even though the hill has the highest elevation in the park, it isn’t all that tall, standing at 2,680 feet. But the surrounding plains make it seem as if you’re standing on top of a mountain.
Like many of the sights around the national park, you can take in the view by car if you’re pressed on time or not wanting to rough it on the trail.
6. Drive the Scenic Loop
Are you looking for the best drives in Theodore Roosevelt National Park? Whether you’re heading to the North or South Unit, both have their very own scenic loop.
With 36 miles of road in the south, travelers can easily spend hours exploring all the beauty within the park. Be sure to bring a picnic, because some of the lookouts along your journey are just too gorgeous to pass up.
7. See the Wild Horses
Teddy Roosevelt National Park is one of only a few US National Parks that maintain a wild population of horses. This practice dates back to when the land was used for ranching.
When the park was fenced in 1954, 200 branded horses were removed from the park lands. A few small bands of horses eluded capture and went unclaimed during this event.
These horses continued to live free-range in the park and the National Park Service now manages these horses as a demonstration herd. It is possible to see some of these stallion led bands while exploring the park.
This is a really unique to Teddy experience, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled when you’re hiking and driving. If you’re on foot near the horses, be sure to maintain a safe distance of at least 25 yards.
8. Put your Boots on the Trail and Go Hiking
Buck Hill and the Painted Canyon top the list as some of the best hikes in the park, but the adventure doesn’t end with these two trails.
Some of the most amazing landscapes can be found during hikes along the Wild Canyon and the Maltese Cross Cabin Trails.
If you’re looking to discover something a little more ancient, to check out the Petrified Forest Trail, which showcases age-old trees frozen in time!
These drives, hikes, and adventures just scratch the surface of all the things Theodore Roosevelt National Park has to offer. With plenty of museums and places to explore, you can be sure that your adventure in North Dakota will never end.
When to Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Located truly in the middle of nowhere, the weather in North Dakota can be quite unpredictable.
With harsh, frigid winters and violent thunderstorms during the summer, when is the best time to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
If you’re looking for the best time of year to hit the trails and enjoy the great outdoors, be sure to visit the park either during spring or autumn.
With smaller crowds and cooler weather, there is no better time to check out all the things to do within the park.
Where to Stay to Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
When staying at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you need to be prepared to rough it to some degree. There is no lodging of any kind within the park.
If you’re the kind of traveler looking for a soft bed to rest your head, you’ll want to check out the hotels in Medora to the south or Watford City to the north.
If you’re keen to camp, you’re in luck! With plenty of campgrounds to choose from, you’ll have your pick of several sites throughout the park.
With Cottonwood, Roundup Group Horse Campgrounds in the south unit, and Juniper Campground in the north unit, there are so many ways to experience the park.
If you’re planning on a true adventure and want to sleep on the trail, be sure to pick up a Backcountry Camping Permit before you set out on your hike.
We strongly suggest booking your accommodation months in advance especially if you plan on visiting during the summer months.
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