The Very Best Things To Do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A colorful sunset sky on the Painted Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota offers unique and beautiful scenery, smaller crowds, and the opportunity to have plenty of up close and personal wildlife encounters. This park surprised us in the best way! While it is not typically high on people’s bucket lists of places to visit, we believe it is a hidden gem! This is a complete guide to the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park to help you plan your next adventure!

Setting an intention for your visit prior to arrival is essential to leaving Theodore Roosevelt National Park feeling fulfilled. Think about what you hope to gain from this experience and how you can remain fully present while enjoying all that this park has to offer.

About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Majestic chestnut brown horse with a white face standing in long grass at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the perfect reason to not let North Dakota be your last state to visit. It is the least visited state in the U.S., but we think it deserves more love! Set among serene plains, prairies, and badlands scenery, this park offers an ecosystem teaming with life and fun hiking trails. If you love unique landscapes, sweeping views, mesmerizing sunsets, and learning about history, you will love Theodore Roosevelt National Park!

Quick Facts:

  • The park has over 70,000 acres of land split over 3 sections (North Unit, South Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch)
  • The park is home to a variety of wildlife including bison, wild horses, prairie dogs, coyotes, bighorn sheep, elk, and deer
  • Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the area inspired his conservation efforts when it came to the U.S.’s lands and resources and the park is a memorial to him

Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the most visited of the park’s three sections. Located in quaint Medora, it offers 2 visitor centers (Painted Canyon and South Unit Visitor Center, open 9am-4:30pm), a 48-mile scenic drive, camping, and plenty of wildlife and hiking trails. The South Unit is also home to the park’s band of wild horses, descendants of stock.

Herd of Bison encountered along the Big Plateau and Ekblom Loop hiking trail in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit

The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is 50 miles north of the more frequently visited South Unit. While a bit more remote, this section of the park offers more beautiful views of rugged and deep badlands, the winding Little Missouri River, and a variety of plants and wildlife. It offers hiking, camping, and a 14-mile scenic drive. It also has a temporary visitor center set up that is open 9am-4:30pm but is closed between November and June.

Female hiker standing in grass looking out over the badlands in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Elkhorn Ranch

Elkhorn Ranch is the site where Theodore Roosevelt had his home ranch. While no structures exist here any longer, you can see remnants of building foundations. We heard from locals that if you visit the North and South Units, you have mostly seen it all so we did not travel out to this section of the park, which is located an hour north of the South Unit and is remote, with the last few miles being unpaved road that can sometimes require 4WD, depending on conditions. If you are interested in historical sites and remote areas where you can soak in solitude and serenity, this might be a nice option to add to your itinerary.

The map above shows all 3 sections of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The South Unit sits right along I-94, North Unit farther north along ND Highway 85, and Elkhorn Ranch is more remote, requiring some navigation along unpaved roads.

Know Before You Go:

  • Looking to see specific wildlife? The South Unit Visitor Center keeps a board of where different species were spotted each day. Check that out before your hike to help you decide where to explore.
  • Keep nature wild. We know seeing wildlife is amazing, but refrain from feeding or approaching them. This helps protect them… and you. Those bison are big, powerful, and can be dangerous!
  • The Scenic Loop Road in the South Unit is currently and indefinitely closed (2022) to vehicles between mile markers 24 and 28 due to deterioration and a landslide in the area. You can still experience most of the loop if you continue on past the Peaceful Valley Ranch, turning around where the road is blocked off at mile 28 (Badlands Overlook).
  • Road closures can be expected between November and April due to snow and ice, with average winter temperatures being below freezing.
  • Hiking trails can be overgrown, with many trails being narrow single-track paths. Pants can be a good choice, even if it is hot.
  • Shade can also be hard to come by due to a lack of trees. The flat landscape also lends itself to very windy conditions, with not much to break the wind.
Hiker sitting on a rock walk basking in the golden glow of a sunset at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

When to Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is best visited during late spring, summer, and early fall. During our visit at the end of August and early September, we did encounter a heat wave and saw temperatures in the 90s, with one day even reaching 100. On average, summer temperatures fluctuate between 75 and 83 (Fahrenheit), with temperatures dropping dramatically come fall with average temperatures of 53 and below (Fahrenheit). Typically, average temperatures don’t start to get up above 60 (Fahrenheit) until around May.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Hiking

South Unit

Painted Canyon Nature Trail: 1.1 miles, 35-45 minutes

A great spot to see how the colors of the badlands change and become illuminated under a magnificent North Dakota sunset.

The Big Plateau and Ekblom Trail Loop: 5.2 miles, 2-3 hours

A great opportunity to see bison herds up close and personal and walk through a prairie dog town. Along this trail, we actually got caught in between two bison herds. Despite it being a bit nerve-wracking, it was a truly spectacular sight. Walking in between the canyons and up on top for multiple perspectives. The trailhead is also near the Peaceful Valley Ranch, which is where we saw the wild horses.

Herd of Bison encountered along the Big Plateau and Ekblom Loop hiking trail in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Lower Paddock Creek Trail: 7.2 miles, 2.5-3.5 hours

Potential to see deer, bison, prairie dogs, wildflowers, and horses along this trail through the valley. Gentle undulations and crossing through (what we found to be) mostly dry drainage areas in the Valley of Paddock Creek. We found this to be the perfect after-work hike and a great place to enjoy a sunset.

Couple hiking through the tall grass of the Lower Paddock Creek Trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Sunset over Theodore Roosevelt National Park along the Lower Paddock Creek hiking trail.

Petrified Forest Loop: 10.3 miles, 5-6 hours

Take a walk through what is considered the third largest petrified forest in the U.S. An opportunity to explore trees of the past preserved in stone through time.

Maah Daah Hey Trail: 14 miles, 6-8 hours

This trail runs through all 3 sections of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A nice option for a longer hike throughout the South Unit to experience more of what the park’s landscape has to offer.

North Unit

Layered formation of the badlands along a Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trail in the North Unit

Caprock Coulee Nature Trail: 1.5 miles, 45 mins-1 hour

A trail that winds through trees and shrubs, wildflowers, and interesting hoodoos and caprocks. Has some nice shaded areas along the trail.

Caprock Coulee Loop Trail: 4.4 miles, 2-3 hours

A trail that combines the Caprock Nature Trail, a walk up across a plateau with sweeping views of the badlands, and the famous River Bend Overlook.

Hoodoss and caprocks can be found all along the Caprock Coulee Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Looking for a longer adventure in the North Unit? Buckhorn and Achenbach Trails will get you out further into this remote landscape.

Buckhorn Trail: 11.4 miles, 6-8 hours. Experience prairie dog towns, canyons, and various types of vegetation.

Achenbach: 18 miles, 10-12 hours. Includes river crossings and some steep sections.

Elkhorn Ranch

A 0.7 mile path leads from the parking area to Theodore Roosevelt’s cabin site. This area also includes some exhibits with work by Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Wildlife Viewing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking offers ample opportunities for amazing wildlife encounters. Typically the best times to see wildlife will be early in the morning or in the evening in the hours before the sun sets. Some of the best trails we found for seeing wildlife included the Caprock Coulee Trail in the North Unit, the Big Plateau and Ekblom Trail Loop, and Lower Paddock Creek Trail in the South Unit. The wild horses will only be found in the South Unit! We saw them over by the Painted Canyon and near the Peaceful Valley Ranch.

Here are a few examples of wildlife we saw on the trails of Theodore Roosevelt National Park:

A large male bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is full of bison!
Wild horses grazing near Peaceful Valley Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
You can find wild horses grazing in Theodore Roosevelt’s South Unit
A gray wild horse in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
We saw horses grazing near Pleasant Valley Ranch
Prairie dog and bison seen along a Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trail
We found that Prairie Dog Towns were often great places to see herds of bison!
A small bunny in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The bunnies were always out and about around sunset!
Hawk soaring in the blue sky above Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Hawks frequently soar above the badlands of the park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Scenic Drives and Overlooks

South Unit

South Unit Scenic Loop: Currently 48 miles (24 miles out and back due to the road closure beyond the Badlands Overlook)

We loved the view from Buck Hill. A short drive up a rougher section of road leads to a beautiful prairie overlook and a short climb up a trail allows for sweeping views of the surrounding badlands:

Sun shining on the sprawling grasslands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
Endless badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Unit

North Unit Scenic Drive: 28 miles total (14 miles out and back)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Camping

Camping is a great way to travel more mindfully and get closer to nature. It can also be a really affordable way to experience new places!

National Park Campgrounds

All campgrounds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are primitive, meaning they offer no hookups and no showers. These remote campgrounds are also likely to not have much cell service. They also do not offer things like ice, firewood, or a camp store. This being said, if you are looking for a great way to unplug, be surrounded by nature and wildlife, and have great opportunities for easy access to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s hiking trails and dark sky viewing then they might just be perfect for you.

South Unit:

Cottonwood Campground: 76 sites, half by reservation and half first come first serve. Flush toilets and potable water are available seasonally; vault toilets are open year-round.

North Unit:

Juniper Campground: All sites are first come, first serve. Group site by reservation only. Seasonal dump station, potable water, and flush toilets. Vault toilets are available year-round.

Private Campgrounds

Medora North Dakota has 2 campgrounds offering more amenities and hookups if the primitive camping inside the National Park is not for you. They are close to the South Unit entrance for Theodore Roosevelt National Park and downtown Medora.

Medora Campground: Offers sites with or without hookups, open May 13- October 1. Also has cabins and covered wagons for a more unique glamping experience. Over 226 campsites.

Red Trail Campground: 100 RV and Tent sites. Open May 15- Sep 30. Amenities include showers, laundry facilities, wifi, cable, a camp store, and hookups.

Boondocking & Free Camping

Scoria Pit Dispersed Camping: Highly rated, easily accessible free camping spot 10 minutes (5 miles) outside the South Unit entrance. This is where we had planned to stay until the heat wave hit. Instead, we opted for a site with hookups to be able to run our A/C’s for a more comfortable work environment during the week. GPS Coordinates: 46.9454, -103.5886

Medora North Dakota Attractions

While you might be drawn to Medora North Dakota initially due to your desire to experience Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking, wildlife, and the badlands… taking some time to explore Medora itself is also worthwhile!

With a population of just over 100, it is a place with a storied history. We loved an evening walk around Medora, stopping for ice cream at the Medora Ice Cream and Fudge Depot, and strolling past historic buildings like the Rough Riders Hotel or the Joe Ferris General Store.

See where Theodore Roosevelt rented a room during his visits to the town, or check out the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. We even had a deer join us during our walk around, a reminder of the peaceful integration of this small city and the environment surrounding it.

Fudge and ice cream depot building in Medora North Dakota
Fudge & Ice Cream Depot in Medora
Street in downtown Medora North Dakota
Quaint streets of downtown Medora set along the badlands

The Medora Musical

One of the can’t-miss attractions in Medora is the nationally renowned Medora Musical. This was mentioned to us by several locals that we chatted with and we were lucky enough to catch the last show of the season the weekend after Labor Day.

The Medora Musical is a patriotic show that goes through the special history of Medora and the “Wild West” days of this area of North Dakota, as well as the ties Theodore Roosevelt has to the area. It includes singing and dancing, live horses on stage, one of the most beautiful backdrops among the badlands, and even fireworks. Make a night of it and opt for a steak dinner at Pitchfork Steak Fondue overlooking the beautiful scenery or enjoy a show after a stroll around Medora.

The Burning Hills Amphitheater hosts the Medora Musical in front of a stunning badlands backdrop in Medora North Dakota

Seats with the best views: The Medora Musical runs each summer at the beautiful open-air Burning Hills Amphitheater. If you want the best views of the magnificent badlands backdrop, we recommend the last couple of rows in the lower section or the first few rows of the upper section.

Bright kites in the air at the Medora Kite festival in North Dakota
Medora has other great events each year as well, like the kite festival held in the fall!

Fulfilling Travel Tips

Be Present. Be where your feet are.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is another great travel destination to connect with nature, slow down, unplug, and prioritize your well-being. It is a destination that can leave you better off than when you arrived if you let it. We found the glowing sunsets illuminating the badlands were the perfect opportunity for some mindful moments that allowed us to reflect and be present.

Taking time to express gratitude for our travels and the life we have built together, and to appreciate special places like National Parks that allow us to learn more about the amazing world in which we live and the spectacular species we share our home with helps us stay grounded. We are a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

Here are a couple of short gratitude prompts:

  • What is an example of kindness you experienced today?
  • What are 3 things you are grateful for today?
  • Turn to someone you are with (or perhaps make a call) and let them know why you are grateful for them

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Overall

Unassuming and underrated, but special nonetheless.

Before we started traveling across the country in our RV, we had no intention of visiting North Dakota. North Dakota is one of those states that doesn’t get as much love as it deserves. We hope this guide will inspire you to consider adding it to your travel bucket list.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers great hiking, sightseeing, and amazing wildlife set among a stunning landscape. In and around the park you can learn about the interesting history of the area and its presidential ties. You can see rolling plains of gold and green reaching as far as the eye can see. Get lost in the painted canyons of the badlands. And see the milky way or maybe even the northern lights.

Female hiker on a unique rock formation in North Dakota at Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit

PLAN YOUR FULFILLING GETAWAY TO NORTH DAKOTA’S THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK

Places To Stay Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Campgrounds & Camping Options:

Our favorite resources for finding great campgrounds and campsites include Campendium, RV Life, and iOverlander.

You can also check out HipCamp and TheDyrt for more unique camping experiences and accommodations.

RV Share: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!

You can explore all Medora area accommodations and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for unique stays at the best rates.

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