Theodore Roosevelt National Park

About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

  • Established: 1978
  • Location: Medora, North Dakota
  • Annual visitors: 600,000

Fun fact:

Bison calves can walk within a few hours of being born and can run up to 35 miles per hour when fully grown. Herds of bison typically travel 10-15 miles per day at average speeds of 5-6 mph throughout both the North and South Units of the park. 

Planning your visit

All the logistical details you need to begin planning your trip along with our recommendations on where to stay, what to eat, and things to do both in and out of the park.

Best time to visit

July – September (September is optimal for hiking as it’s not too hot)

Warm weather (70-90°F) and mostly dry conditions (1-2″ of rain per month). The park is open year-round, but some areas of the park may be inaccessible during the winter months. 

Best hikes

If you’re physically able, do all or part of the Achenbach trail (18.2 miles). It’s incredible! We weren’t prepared to camp and only had one day in the North Unit of the park. We were able to park our car, hitch a ride, and hike a nice combination of a section of the Caprock Coulee trail and the North Achenbach trail from roughly the River Bend Overlook to the Oxbow Overlook (5.5 miles). 

Getting there

We flew into RAP (Rapid City, SD) primarily because we also wanted to visit 2 other national parks: Wind Cave National Park and the Badlands. It was about a 4-hour drive from RAP to TRNP. 

Alternate options might be MOT (Minot, ND) – around 3.5-hour drive OR DIK (Dickinson, ND) – less than 1-hour drive

Best sights and attractions

Bison-jams! Yes, they are a real thing. And you don’t need to go out of your way to find one.  

Don’t miss the prairie dog towns throughout the park! Usually, the bison are grazing with the prairie dogs and they are really adorable. 

If you’re a history buff, there are several historic sites from Teddy Roosevelt’s days as a rancher in the Dakotas. These include Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch Site & the Maltese Cross Cabin

where to stay

The small tourist town of Medora that sits just outside the South Unit visitor center is a popular choice due to its prime location. Instead, we stayed in the nearby town of Dickinson, which was about a 35-40 minute drive from the South Unit, because it was quieter and offered better hotel prices. 

We stayed here:  

Scenic drives 

Scenic Loop Drive – historically a 36 mile loop through the South Unit, but currently a 48-mile round trip due to road closures 

North Unit Scenic Drive – 28-mile round trip drive (14 miles out and back)

Note: the North and South Units are separated by a 68-mile drive, so it will take over an hour in travel each way between units. But, it’s worth driving to the North Unit – it was our favorite part of the park!

Where to eat

Maybe we missed out on something great, but we didn’t find anything remarkable in North Dakota. We stuck with the local chains for this leg of the trip. Let us know if there’s something we missed!

Other information

If you drive to the North Unit, be sure that you have plenty of gas before you go. The nearest gas station and services are 15 miles further north beyond the North Unit visitor center in Watford City. 

Getting around

Here’s a map of Theodore Roosevelt National Park with markers representing the visitor centers and some of our favorite points of interest.

South Unit

  • Painted Canyon Visitor Center
  • South Unit Visitor Center
  • Boicourt Overlook
  • Badlands Overlook
  • Buck Hill
  • Coal Vein Nature Trail
  • Old East Entrance Station

North Unit

  • North Unit Visitor Center
  • Oxbow Overlook
  • River Bend Overlook
  • Caprock Coulee Trailhead
  • Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch
  • Maltese Cross Cabin
  • Peaceful Valley Ranch

Trip report

Read more about what we loved, what we didn’t, and what we might recommend doing differently in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Following buffalo chips

September 2019

I procrastinated writing my first national park post because I couldn’t settle on which park to feature first. It felt like a monumental decision and I put arguably too much pressure on myself to make sure that my first post lived up to the vision I had for this blog. But, it’s important not to allow the fear of imperfection to keep us from starting something at all. 

As I’m writing this, Covid-19 has us under a Stay-Home order in Washington state. To fill the travel void while it is so important that we all stay home, I’ve set out on the very daunting task of documenting a multi-year backlog of trips. As of today, that’s at least 32 national parks to document, ignoring any other travel! 

While I was editing buffalo photos from our trip to the Dakotas last fall, I finally had some inspiration for my first NP feature.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park would make the perfect inaugural post as a tribute to one of the founders of the National Park Service. 

We spent 2 days visiting Teddy Roosevelt NP: 1 relaxed day in the South Unit and 1 active day in the North Unit. 

After the long late-night drive up from South Dakota, we needed an easy day, so we planned to do the Scenic Loop Drive and a few short hikes and outlooks in the South Unit. However, the Scenic Loop Drive wasn’t actually a loop drive and it hasn’t been for quite some time now. Due to road deterioration from landslides, a section of the road is indefinitely closed making the normally 36-mile loop a 48 mile round trip (24 miles in and 24 miles out). Our plan of attack was to drive to the road closure and then work our way backward. We found the road closed before reaching the Ridgeline Nature Trail.  

Grassy badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Our first hike for the day was a short unnamed hike through a prairie dog town to see the Old East Entrance Station  for the park (1.1 miles round trip).

This was the first time we had seen a prairie dog town and we immediately fell in love with these small creatures! They are so cute and it was fun to watch them pop up out of the grasslands and scurry around playing with one another.  

We enjoyed the nice, casual stroll through the colorful rolling hills of the badlands out to the old entrance post and it was a great introduction to the park. We didn’t encounter anyone else along this trail, so we got a real feel for the solitude that exists in the badlands early in our visit. 

Next, we proceeded to the Coal Vein Nature Trail (~1 mile round trip), which is a short interpretive trail through scorched earth showcasing many of the geological features from when coal vein fires burning below the earth’s surface burned the ground up above. 

We spent the rest of the day continuing along the Scenic Loop Drive and stopping at most of the major viewpoints along the way (Buck Hill, the Boicourt Overlook, the Prairie Dog Towns, the Skyline Vista, and the Medora Overlook). We skipped several of the historical sites, but the Peaceful Valley RanchRoosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin, and the Chateau DeMores State Historic Site are among some of the other popular destinations in the park. 

We considered touring the South Unit the way Roosevelt would have, by way of horseback, but ultimately we didn’t because we hadn’t researched this before arriving in North Dakota. If you’re looking for other activities to do around the park, I’d encourage you to look into this for yourself. 

Our second day in the North Unit was our favorite day in this park! Many people skip the North Unit entirely because it is quite remote, but we found the landscape to be even more diverse and picturesque and the wildlife to be just as abundant when compared to the South Unit. In our opinion, you definitely don’t want to miss the North Unit! In fact, if you are limited to spending only one day in TRNP, we might even recommend you skip the South Unit because we enjoyed our time in the North Unit so much. 

The hiking in the North Unit is superb! The full Achenbach Trail is highly regarded among backpackers (18.2 miles round trip). The Caprock Coulee Trail (3.8 miles round trip) is also very popular for day hikers. 

Prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
These little guys are SO cute!
Old entrance station for Theodore Roosevelt National Park
What remains of the Old Entrance Station of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Trail to Buck Hill in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Hiking along the Coal Vein Nature Trail
Grasslands in front of a bend in the Little Missouri River along the North Achenbach Trail
The view of the Little Missouri River along the North Achenbach trail

We weren’t prepared to camp on this trip, but we didn’t want to miss out on seeing at least a portion of the notable Achenbach Trail. So we set out early to try our luck hitchhiking so we could only hike one-way along the North Achenbach Trail.

We’ve had mixed results finding someone willing to shuttle us to our hiking destination before, so we weren’t sure what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it didn’t take very long to find a nice couple who was willing to give us a ride. We parked at the Oxbow Overlook and they dropped us off at the Caprock Coulee Trailhead. This allowed us to hike around 1 mile of the lower section of the Caprock Coulee Trail before continuing to the North Achenbach Trail and hiking back to our car.

I clocked our total hike at 6.8 miles, but we did need to take several bison detours. We saw lots  of bison on this trail. I think they were also using the trail because we kept finding fresh buffalo chips along the trail and we would find ourselves in a face-off with a bison a few minutes later nearly every time. We simply maintained a safe distance, tried not to appear threatening, and took care not to accidentally sneak up on them as we crested the hills. 

The North Achenbach Trail has easily made the list of our top hikes. I hope you’re able to enjoy it as well on your visit to TRNP. If you do, let us know what you thought! 

Had we had more time (and energy) I would have loved to hike the full Caprock Coulee Trail as well, but given the time constraints, I’m really happy we were able to spend a little time on this trail. 

Have you been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
Did we miss any great stops on our trip? If so, leave us a comment and let us know what you loved about this park. 

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