Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is steeped in history of the 26th President of the United States. And although there are many beautiful natural wonders to explore in the park, no visit would be complete without learning some of this history. Visiting the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is a great place to walk in the footsteps of the man who was instrumental in establishing the National Park System.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three units across western North Dakota. It is comprised of the South Unit, which is the most popular. Its entrance is within the town of Medora. The North Unit is about an hour north, with its entrance off Highway 85, just north of the Little Missouri River.
Finding the Elkhorn Ranch Unit
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is a little harder to find. It’s about an hour north and west of the South Unit Visitor Center and includes several turns on dirt roads with no signage. The best way to find it is to stop by the visitor center at the South Unit and ask a park ranger for directors.
You can also use these GPS coordinates – N 47.23473° W 103.62775° – with whatever navigation device you use. But cell signal is weak or nonexistent, so you’ll want to be sure it’s loaded before you head out. Believe me, I did not do this and by the second intersection, I was lost. I just hoped I would get some signal back for the directions to load in my phone.
But if you like good old-fashion directions here they are. You want to get on I-94 heading west from Medora. Drive about 14 miles down the interstate and take Exit 10 toward Sentinel Butte. After 0.2 miles turn right onto County Road 11. You will then drive 8.7 miles before making another right on County Road 11 (yup, same road). After 6.5 miles, turn left onto Belle Lake Road. You will then drive 10 miles on Belle Lake Road. Here the Elkhorn Campground is on your left. But you will want to continue for about 2 more miles to find the trailhead to the Elkhorn Ranch Historic Site.
Exploring the Elkhorn Ranch Unit
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park allows you to imagine what life was like for Teddy Roosevelt in the late nineteenth century. Although only some fencing and a few cornerstones remain, it’s still neat to explore the area.
An 0.8 out-and-back trail takes you from the trailhead to the site of the ranch. About halfway to the cabin site, the trail splits. Here you can go to the left (or north) toward the cabin. You can also explore more of the grounds by going to the right or south.
The trail is flat and mowed. It takes you through woods and prairie. Just before you get to the cabin site, the trail takes you right to a steep embankment of the Little Missouri River for a beautiful view.
Roosevelt’s dream of ranching
Elkhorn Ranch was Roosevelt’s second ranch site in the area of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. After losing his mother and wife on the same day, he desired solitude and wanted to be further from Medora. Roosevelt hoped to make ranching a regular business. And with the help of two friends and hunting guides from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, he built the ranch.
The ranch didn’t remain in existence for too long. Sewall and Dow operated the ranch until the fall of 1886, two years after they started construction. Roosevelt abandoned the ranch in 1890 and ended up selling it in 1898 to those who were operating it.
Maltese Cross Cabin
Roosevelt’s first ranch was the Maltese Cross Ranch, south of Medora. Although the original site is not available to explore like the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is, the cabin from Maltese Cross has been relocated to the South Unit behind the visitor center.
Here you can explore and walk inside the structure where Roosevelt called home. Replica furnishings decorate the room to really give you a stepping-back-in-time feel. Combine this before or after you explore the Elkhorn Ranch Unit for a full historical tour.
Elkhorn Ranch Unit
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park might be off the beaten path, but it’s well worth the drive. I really enjoyed walking where Roosevelt once walked and envisioned a future. But I also really enjoyed driving through and exploring the dirt roads of the North Dakota prairies.