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It was here that the romance of my life began.”
-Theodore Roosevelt, on the North Dakota Badlands that are now Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an underrated gem of the National Park Service. It stretches alongside the Little Missouri River, in the rugged Badlands of Western North Dakota. Often just a pit stop for folks on their way to more famous parks (ahem, Yellowstone and Glacier) in neighboring Montana, TRNP tends to fly under the tourist radar as far as National Parks go. This is a good thing! It means the crowds are much more manageable than in other parks, and you can still find campsites or have hiking trails to yourself.
Why are these “insider tips”? I used to work here! And at time of writing, I still live here with my boyfriend who is a year-round Ranger. Most National Parks hire for the summers only, so being a Park Ranger is an awesome gig for those who want to make money to travel (and live in a freakin’ National Park while doing so). I’ll try to compile all the insider tips I can think of for this post, in the hopes of giving you your best TRNP experience ever!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: The Basics
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only National Park named after a person. This is because Roosevelt was known as the Conservationist President; setting aside public lands for conservation and preservation was deeply important to his Presidency. It’s also because Roosevelt loved the Dakota Territories. In between being a fancy New York politician and, ya know, the President, he came to these Badlands to ranch and connect with nature. He loved them so much he even came here to recover from the deaths of his wife and mother. Though TRNP wasn’t technically established as a National Park until after Roosevelt died, you could say this is the National Park that inspired the Conservationist President to do more for National Parks than any President since. Pretty big deal.
I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”
Getting to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
There are no major airports near this park. Period. If you want to fly in or out of the area, your best bet is Bismarck, Williston, or Minot. There is a tiny airport in nearby Dickinson, but flights here tend to be real spendy. You’ll need to rent a car from whichever airport you fly into, as North Dakota has no public transportation.
Therefore, I recommend driving. Theodore Roosevelt National Park fits nicely into a road trip combining Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, and Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota. And yes, it is a day’s drive from both Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks if you wanted to combine all of these! If hitting all 50 states is on your bucket list, it’s frankly the most worthwhile thing to see/do in North Dakota.
Anyway, you’ll need a vehicle to get between the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: the South Unit (off I-94), the North Unit (off Hwy 85), and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit (off I-94, wayyyy in the Little Missouri National Grasslands)…
The South Unit
The South Unit is the busiest and biggest unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is about 48,000 acres and contains a 36 mile scenic loop road. You access the South Unit in the adorable, if tourist-y, town of Medora. There are tons of activities here besides the park, like kids fun parks, nightly musicals, and historical reenactments. Park HQ is in Medora, so the South Unit has a massive visitor center with a museum, gift shop, and theater. The South Unit tends to have more Ranger programs during the summer season, including tours of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranching cabin! The cabin sits just behind the visitor center itself.
Pro-tip: Junior Ranger activity books are for visitors of all ages! They’re a ton of fun. I think I’ve don’t TRNP’s a solid three times! Get one at any visitor center for fun park activities and, once you’re finished, a badge!
Because the other two Units of the park are about an hour from the South Unit in opposite directions, it’s a good home base if you want to see everything. There’s even a small convenience store in town for supplies (though Dickinson is the closest place for a major grocery store).
Despite its crowds, I tend to find the South Unit better for wildlife viewing. This is because its loop drive passes through several prairie dog towns, which are gathering places for carnivores and herbivores alike. It’s also home to several majestic herds of feral horses, descendents of either homesteaders’ horses or Native Americans’ horses, who have roamed these Badlands for generations. Some wildlife you may see in the South Unit: bison, feral horses, prairie dogs, coyotes, elk, pronghorn, rattlesnakes, eagles, mule and whitetail deer, badger.
The North Unit
Located 70 miles North up Highway 85 lies Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s rebellious little sister. The North Unit is about half the size of the South Unit and significantly more remote. The Badlands here are a bit more dramatic, with a more spectacular mountainous feel to them as you reach the two famous overlooks, Riverbend and Oxbow. Unlike the loop drive in the South Unit, the North Unit has a 28 mile round-trip out-and-back drive.
The North Unit visitor center is currently under construction, and the estimated date for a permanent larger visitor center keeps getting pushed back (at time of writing, I’ve heard 2020). There are a welcome booth and small trailer where you can talk to Rangers, though! Other than this little building, there’s pretty much nothing until you reach the town of Watford City ~25 minutes North, where there are stores and restaurants.
The North Unit is no slouch in the wildlife department. The bison viewing is amazing here. Plus, only in this Unit can you spot bighorn sheep or moose, if you’re quite lucky. Some wildlife you may see in the North Unit: bison, prairie dogs, coyote, eagles, mule and whitetail deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, moose.
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit
I have three words for you: middle of nowhere. If you really want to connect with the big man himself, Theodore Roosevelt, there’s no better way to do that than visiting the remaining foundation stones of his old Elkhorn Ranch. Walking in the actual footsteps of the Conservationist President, in the very place that taught him to love nature, is kinda like walking on sacred ground. The official Park Ranger recommendation: you can only access the Elkhorn Ranch Unit with 4WD vehicle. This is because the road is extremely rough and infrequently tended to or patrolled. Hiding in the National Grassland smack dab in between the North and South Units, the Elkhorn is teeny tiny and hard to get to. I highly recommend grabbing a map at the visitor center with step-by-step driving directions, because the bumpy roads are also poorly marked. It may seem underwhelming once you get there, but having a picnic in the exact spot Theodore Roosevelt used to ranch, listening to the same Little Missouri river and rustling of prairie grasses he knew and loved, is a powerful experience. Plus, the Elkhorn’s inaccessibility likely means you’ll have it mostly to yourself.
Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
There is a little something for everyone when it comes to hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The South Unit tends to be slightly more user-friendly, with generally well-marked trails and some shorter family-friendly options as well as several long-distance backcountry trails. The best short hikes include:
- Boicourt Trail, 0.2 miles, at Boicourt Trailhead. This one is barely a trail, but it does follow a beautiful ridge out into the Badlands for its short distance. Easy.
- Wind Canyon Trail; 0.3 miles, at Wind Canyon Trailhead. Easy.
- Ridgeline Trail: 0.6 miles, leaves from Ridgeline Trailhead. Easy.
- Coal Vein Trail: 0.6 miles or 0.8 miles, depending on the loop you choose, both leave from the Coal Vein Trailhead. Easy.
- Painted Canyon Nature Trail, 0.9 mile loop, at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center on I-94 East of Medora. Easy-to-moderate. Definitely more moderate on a hot day, as there’s a steep climb involved.
Some longer trails in the South Unit are listed below. I included one in the Petrified Forest, which requires you leaving the South Unit and heading back West on I-94 for a bit (detailed driving directions are in the visitor guide). The South Unit trails aren’t as totally easy to get lost on as the North Unit, and it has two loops that can be day hikes, which is nice. Most folks prefer loop trails so they don’t have to double back.
- Petrified Forest Loop, 10.3 miles, somewhat poorly marked. The best way to see Theodore Roosevelt’s Petrified Forest–the 3rd largest in the USA! Moderate.
- Jones/Talkington/Paddock Loop, 11.4 miles, combines several popular trails in the heart of the South Unit. You never leave the interior of the scenic drive so even if you get lost, there’s a sense of security. Moderate.
- Upper Paddock/Talkington Loop, 15.4 miles (or 19.4 miles if you leave from Painted Canyon, which I don’t super recommend because I don’t feel this adds anything to your hike). This is the most poorly marked South Unit trail, I have to say, and a topo map and compass would be ideal. Strenuous.
The North Unit has fewer short trails, though the ones it does have are wonderful and probably less crowded than the South Unit’s. Some short trails include:
- Little Mo Nature Trail: 1 mile loop, very easy, leaves from Juniper campground
- Caprock Coulee Nature Trail: 1.5 mile round trip, easy-to-moderate, leaves from Caprock Coulee parking lot
- Sperati Point: 1.5 mile round trip, easy-to-moderate, leaves from Oxbow Overlook
- Prairie Dog Town: 1.5 mile round trip, easy-to-moderate, leaves from Caprock Coulee parking lot (follows the Buckhorn trail)
Once you start getting into any hike longer than a couple miles, though, you may want to invest in a NatGeo topographical map. My boyfriend and I were both Rangers here at one point, and we never went on the Achenbach, North Achenbach, or Buckhorn without one. And we still got lost. Some moderate-to-challenging hikes in the North Unit:
- Caprock Coulee Loop: 4.3 miles, the only loop in the NU that’s doable as a day hike as well as the best-marked longer North Unit hike (the park map is sufficient, IMHO)
- Buckhorn Trail: 11.4 mile loop or if you have two vehicles you can break it up into about half that, parking at the two trail heads that’ll criss-cross the scenic drive, somewhat poorly marked in parts due to game trails and fallen trail posts. Moderate-to-challenging.
- North Achenbach Trail: ~5 miles (we’ve gotten a bit lost on this one, so sometimes it’s 5 miles and sometimes closer to 6), you need two vehicles or a ride for this one since it starts at Riverbend Overlook and ends at Oxbow. If you wanted to combine it with the Achenbach you could make it a loop, as a multi-day backcountry camping trip. Strenuous.
- Achenbach Trail: the Achenbach is the beast of the North Unit, and TRNP in general. It includes climbing up and down steep buttes and a river crossing. There are many game trails that are better marked than the trail itself, making getting lost suuuuper easy. It’s also quite poorly marked. A topo map will be strongly recommended to you by any Ranger. The Achenbach is best for a backcountry camping trip, though can be an out-and-back day hike for the daring! Please bring your map, water, and compass… we do more search and rescues on this trail than the rest combined. Very strenuous.
I have a lot more to say on hiking trails, so keep an eye out for a post that focuses just on hiking!
Camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
There are three camping options in the park, including backcountry camping.
Cottonwood Campground, South Unit
The Cottonwood Campground is the only camping option that accepts reservations. It is open year-round. Half of its sites are reservable on the official NPS campground reservation site, while the other half are first-come first-served. Cottonwood is a primitive campground. No hookups, though running water (flush toilets, sinks, and spigots) is available in the summer.
Cottonwood is gonna be the busiest campground in TRNP. It’s also the only one that will have incredible Ranger Programs every single night in the summer season! It’s an ideal campground for birders, tucked in the Cottonwood trees along the Little Missouri river. Almost every site has enough shade to provide relief during those hot summer months, and it’s all fair game to the herds of bison that regularly wander through the campground. There are no fire pits, but there are raised grates.
Juniper Campground, North Unit
Also open year-round (though like Cottonwood, running water is off in the winter season), Juniper is entirely first-come first-served. It never hurts to arrive as early as possible to have your pick of the sites (especially if you have a large RV, which obviously limits the number of sites you’ll fit into). Still Juniper rarely fills, and is overall quieter than the bustling Cottonwood. In fact, there may be more bison hanging out in the campground than people! There are typically only Ranger Programs on the weekends, but this may change in the future. No hookups. Juniper does have a dump station! There are no fire pits, but there are raised grates you can use!
Backcountry Camping, Anywhere
You can backcountry camp anywhere in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Backcountry camping involves hiking out into the backcountry (duh) and setting up camp out of sight of the trail. You pack in all your stuff, and take it all out with you: pack in, pack out! You must obtain a backcountry permit with a Park Ranger at any of the visitor centers. More specific regulations can be found here. It is also highly recommended–or practically required, depending on the trail you plan to hike and Ranger you speak to–that you purchase a topographical map. The park map is insufficient for many of the backcountry trails. You can purchase those at the visitor center or online here.
There are often fire restrictions in the dry Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National park, which are always strictest for backcountry campers. Check with a Ranger before planning to use your camp stove in the backcountry!
Pro-Tip: If you’re not about that camping life (I still love you), there are hotels in Medora and Watford City. The ones in Medora are a lot nicer and geared towards tourists. The best by far (though by no means budget accommodation) is the old West style Rough Rider Hotel, whose historic rooms hosted Roosevelt himself over 100 years ago.
There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.”
Well, that’s the gist! There is so much to know about this awesome park, but if you are going to take one thing away from this post: Theodore Roosevelt National Park really has something to offer everyone. It’s poignant connection to on of history’s staunchest conservationists makes it a must-see for any lover of the National Parks. They’re America’s Best Idea, but also wouldn’t be what they were today without Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas. Which he wouldn’t have formed at all without his time along the Little Missouri River in these windy, lonely Badlands.
P.S. Because I realized this post was turning suuuuuper long, I’m going to write a couple separate ones on camping and hiking. Stay tuned!
*This post includes affiliate links, meaning if you choose to use them I receive a commission. But don’t worry, I never recommend stuff I don’t swear by!
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