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Theodore Roosevelt National Park is in North Dakota and is made up of 3 different sections of land. We went to both the North and South Units, which are 68 miles (110km) apart from each other. These are the areas that feature most of the scenic drives, wildlife sighting and great hiking. There is also a third section of land which is the Elkhorn Ranch Unit that preserves President Roosevelt’s ‘home ranch’ and is located along the Little Missouri River in between the North and South Units. In this way the Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the United States’ national parks in that it honours the president who was instrumental in the National Park System while preserving the amazing landscape.
There are many reasons to visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Even though it lacks the dramatic mountain scenery of beautiful Glacier National Park, or the wild coastal sights of the Pacific Northwest, it’s spare, simple beauty is truly unique and worth a visit. Here are 6 of the best reasons to spend time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
1. Scenic Drive
The South Unit has a scenic loop road that is 36 miles long and a great introduction to the park. Along the drive there are impressive overlooks where you will see sweeping badland vistas and a prairie dog town. There are also a variety of short hikes off the road that can be done by the whole family that give a quick glimpse into the variety of terrain that the park offers.
2. Short Trails with Amazing Views
These are a few of the short hikes near the South Unit’s scenic loop. You can get a map from the Visitor Centre with their locations.
Wind Canyon Trail – We started our visit to the South Unit with a short hike to a viewpoint on the Wind Canyon Trail. This trail is only .4 miles so can be done by most people and leads along a canyon looking down onto a river. There is a great viewpoint overlooking the turn of the river which has quite a drop off so its not for the faint of heart. This viewpoint is particularly beautiful in the early or late light.
Boicourt Overlook Trail – another short out and back trail that only has a slight grade and takes around 15 minutes. It ends at an overlook over the badlands and is best at sunset.
Buck Hill – Farther along the road and up a short offshoot is another quick hike to the highest point in the park. The trail is short (.2 miles) but quite steep. The view of the badlands from the top are worth it, though.
3. Lack of Crowds
While doing the scenic loops in either the South or North Unit that you will truly appreciate the lack of crowds in this park. Unlike drives in busier parks (i.e. Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park) you won’t be competing for space in the pullouts and parking spots. On the trails and at the viewpoints you won’t have to worry about being blocked by people frantically trying to get their wildlife photos.
There are many Prairie Dog towns in the park, including a large one just off the South Unit scenic drive. You will need to stop and get out of the car to see these cuties when they pop up out of the ground to survey the terrain. You can often see a variety of other wildlife while driving through the park, as well, such as bison, big-horn sheep, deer, and birds. While hiking and backcountry camping we also saw a couple snakes and heard owls and wolves. Never try to sneak up on wildlife for pictures or feed them.
5. Backcountry Camping
To really experience what the Theodore Roosevelt Park has to offer you need to get out into the backcountry and spend at least a night or two (check out this guide to choosing the best tent). We hiked the Achenbach Trail in the North Unit as a 2-day hike with backcountry camping for one night that really gets you into the wilderness of the park. The trail covers a significant portion of the North Unit and is 18 miles in total. This will likely take about 10-12 hours to complete as it is not fast hiking over varied terrain. It has some steep climbs and descents up and down the buttes as well as a couple of river crossings that came up to our knees but can be as high as your waist. There were also tall-grass pastures and intriguing badland formations.
You have to get a free backcountry camping permit from the Visitor Centre and all Leave No Trace rules need to be obeyed. The trail is not always easy to follow as the trail markers are often covered by sage bushes and other growth and can be knocked over by the buffalo. We got lost a couple times but always managed to find our way back to the trail. It is a good idea to download the trail from AllTrails or Wikiloc before leaving for the hike to help keep you on the right trail. The Little Missouri river can be used as a water source but can often be silty and the Achenbach spring may be dry. We recommend carrying all the water you will need just to be sure. We didn’t stop and set up camp until it was almost dark but found a great sandy spot at the bottom of some hoodoos.
Also, if you’re like me and love mountain biking but often find steep mountain trails a bit overwhelming, Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a good variety of impressive bike trails from short jaunts to long, multi-day excursions.
6. Park Programs
There are also guided hikes, geology talks, tours of Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin, and nightly talks offered.
There are no hotels or restaurants in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park has two campgrounds that have no hookups or showers (Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit and Juniper Campground in the North Unit). Half are available by reservation and the other half are first-come, first-served. The closest hotels and restaurants to the South Unit are in Medora while the closest town to the North Unit is Watford City. Many people also combine a visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park with some time in the amazing Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
Summer is the best time to visit the park with average high temperatures in the 70s and 80s°F. It is quite common to have windy days and there is a chance of sudden violent summer storms.
Public transportation is extremely limited in this area of North Dakota to it is best to have your own transportation.
Remember to give bison the right of way!