Theodore Roosevelt National Park Guide: America’s Most Neglected Park

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THE INTERSTATE SECTION FROM Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the heart of North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you love grain silos and livestock. Otherwise, no one will mistake a drive on I-94 for one of the most scenic roads in America.

Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border—and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo—Earth peeks out from under the highway. Where endless grass once stretched to the horizon, steep, tree-studded canyons line the road. Petrified forests and rivers stretch between them, and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere.

That’s how you’ll know you’ve reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, an often-forgotten plains paradise in the world of glaciers and the Yellowstones. The three-unit park not only surprises with its grandeur, but also with its very existence in a condition few know beyond accents and outdated movie references.

But if there’s a reason to drive I-94 through North Dakota, it’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park is divided into three different units: North, South and Elkhorn Ranch. The latter is home to Roosevelt’s historic former ranch house and little else (though history buffs will find each other. But the south and north units combine for one of the most unexpected experiences in the Midwest.

The Best Time to Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Essentially, visit in any season other than winter, when the weather gets notoriously brutal. (In fact, some — aka us — would say that North Dakota experiences worse winters than anywhere else in the United States.) Heavy snow, wind, ice, and road closures will likely prevent you from visiting not only the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the fucking state.

Summer in the park tends to be better, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s, but the occasional thunderstorm can upend your plans as quickly as a blizzard. For ideal conditions, visit in late spring or early fall (or late April through September) when temperatures are pleasant, roads are open, and bad weather won’t ruin your stay in the badlands.

American bison (buffalo) cross the road in front of visitors to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit, North Dakota
Make some friends along the way. | John Coletti/Getty Images

Take a scenic drive through the bison-filled South Unit

The best way to see the popular south park unit is along its 36-mile loop, which begins just past the Visitor Center in the western city of Medora (come for the fork fried steak, stay for the musical!) and continues through most of the park. You’ll ride through fields dotted with prairie dogs, under knolls towering over blue skies, and along ridges overlooking jagged badlands.

The best place to take photos along the 90-minute ride is at Boicourt Belvedere, where a short walk on an easy trail will take you to stunning views of the park. If you’re up for a little rock climbing, stopped at Buck’s Hill for a half mile hike to the highest point of the South Unit. There’s a higher than average chance of your ride being delayed by a herd of bison, but remember that the loop ride is the whole trip, and sitting in traffic behind slow-moving bison is an experience you probably won’t see you again.

The best place to take photos along the 90-minute ride is at Boicourt Belvedere, where a short walk on an easy trail will take you to stunning views of the park. If you’re up for a little rock climbing, stopped at Buck’s Hill for a half mile hike to the highest point of the South Unit. There’s a higher than average chance of your ride being delayed by a herd of bison, but remember that the loop ride is the whole trip, and sitting in traffic behind slow-moving bison is an experience you probably won’t see you again.

When you’re ready to get out there and stretch your legs, the The south unit offers the most trails of any part of the park. For something otherworldly, head to the Coal seam trail, where you will pass steaming patches of dark rock marking large coal reserves. It’s perfectly safe because the charcoal doesn’t burn, but if you hit the trail again after a thunderstorm, steam still rises from the ground. Think of it as a little slice of Iceland on the prairie.

For multicolored views of the park’s iconic Painted Canyon, descend into the Painted Canyon Trail. The one-mile hike allows you to dive into the rugged, desert landscape and only takes about half an hour. Although you can access it from Loop Road via a few other trails, it’s still best visited by driving about 10 minutes east on I-94 from Medora and starting at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center.

If you’re feeling strong and want to see some of the park’s most unusual offerings, drive 25 minutes from Medora to the Petrified Forest Loop start of the trail. The 10 mile loop takes you through some of the best scenery in the South Unit, traversing fallen petrified trees, along grassy meadows, over badlands and uphill to the bottom of towering canyons.

Rolling, striped hills of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Some sights move you to tears; others push you to create the whole NPS. | Dennis Macdonald/RF Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

See the views that inspired the creation of the National Parks Service

The north unit is smaller than the south unit, but much more spectacular. About 45 minutes north, the Little Missouri River meanders through deep green canyons, past golden cliffs, and into gentle, scenic mountains.

The north unit has fewer trails and can be hiked in a long day. the Caprock Casting Nature Track is the park’s signature hike, a 4.3-mile ride that technically starts just off the main park road, but do yourself a favor and go a bit past the official trailhead to the Overlooking River Bend, where you’ll see the sights that inspired the Bull Moose to preserve the land in the first place. Starting the trail here saves the best for last and makes hiking an experience that just gets better the further you go.

The Caprock Coulee begins at the top of the Little Missouri River and takes you through the foothills of the North Unit, inside a canyon and into the mountains overlooking the badlands and the river valley. Each climb takes you to a more breathtaking viewpoint than the last, so much so that you’ll hardly notice that the walk takes you nearly three hours. No trail in either unit comes close to the scenery you’ll see along Caprock Coulee, so plan to hike it early before the crowds hit you.

unusual rocks in the shape of a circle on the side of a mountain
The weird side of Mother Nature has struck again. | DC_Colombia/iStock/Getty Images

Along the main park road, stop and see the Cannonball concretions a few kilometers away. The mysterious spherical rocks almost seem to have been thrown into the side of the mound and offer a questioning look at the geology of the area. They also sit right next to a field of prairie dogs, making this the best road stop in the north unit.

To discover the entire North Unit on foot, go to the Buckhorn Trail. You can take the 18.4 mile loop just past the visitor center and hike it through all the scenery that makes the north unit so cool. The views aren’t quite what they are around Caprock Coulee, but if you’re looking for a day hike, this is your best bet.

Stargaze, kayak and cross-country ski through the badlands

Besides hiking and driving past traveling buffalo fields, Theodore Roosevelt State Park also offers other worthwhile outdoor entertainment, from cycling and casual fishing in the Little Missouri River at horseback riding through the badlands. When the weather is clear, the park also has fairly solid dark skies, which locals celebrate in September. Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival with weekend star parties, educational talks, and more. And if you do deign to visit during the winter, prepare accordingly: the park receives an average of 30 inches of snow per year, creating ideal conditions for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Remember that there are no designated trails for either, so it’s best to only embark on these trips if you’re a seasoned cold weather professional.

Small town in the Badlands of Medora, the gateway to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
The town of Medora and its famous musical is just outside the park. | John Coletti/Getty Images

Where to stay near Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Whether you’re passing through on a long road trip or coming from Bismark, home to the nearest airport, you’ll probably notice one thing about Theodore Roosevelt National Park: there’s not much to see. other here. So it’s happening in North Dakota! As far as accommodation is concerned, the best thing is either to book a campsite, there is only three inside the park—or head to the above town of Medora, which is a few minutes from the entrance to the south unit. You will find there a some Airbnba few affordable hotels and motels and an upscale lodge Spirit of the Badlandswith intimate suites and spectacular landscape views.

Apart from a single campsite, Jupiter, there’s not much to stay near the north unit, as it doesn’t have a fun western-themed town outside its gates like its southern sibling. But you can take a full-day trip up north and then end it with a hearty steak and a cool sunset in Medora. Whatever you do, be sure to book well in advance lest you get lost in the badlands for the night.

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Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist.

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