The Painted Canyon Trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is my favorite trail at the park. It is a short 4.3-mile out-and-back. But the Painted Canyon Trail is packed with what makes the landscape of TRNP so special and beautiful.
It starts with sweeping vistas of the canyon before dropping down into the canyon. As you drop below the rim you are enveloped in the maze of colorful buttes. The Painted Canyon Trail then opens up to beautiful meadow bottoms. From these meadows, you can see the rim of the canyon from where you just descended.
Trailhead for Painted Canyon Trail, TRNP
The trailhead for the Pained Canyon Trail is at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center at TRNP, which is Exit 32 on I-94. To find the trailhead, go to the right from the parking lot. The trail begins by following the canyon rim east from the parking lot. This part is flat and straight, and very easy walking.
Around mile 0.25 there’s a spur trail (very short) to the edge of the canyon for a great view. Although there is a trail marker here, this is not where the trail descends. Retrace your steps back to the main trail, and continue straight.
Around mile 0.5 the Painted Canyon Trail turns sharply to the left and begins to descend into the Painted Canyon and backcountry of TRNP.
Canyon rim to prairie bottoms
The trail is steep as it drops into the canyon. I found that TRNP does not really do switchbacks, so in some places, it seems to go straight down. Some of those places have loose gravel, so you will want to be sure and watch your footing.
It’s not steep for very long, and around mile 0.8 it mostly levels out with up and downs. I thought it was interesting to get in the trenches – literally – of the North Dakota badlands. The narrow-cut valleys are much deeper than they seem when looking at them from afar.
Theodore Roosevelt described one place while on his adventures in North Dakota as not having water fit for man or horse. While snaking around in the fissures of Painted Canyon, my brother pointed out one mudhole saying that he had found one of those water sources.
The further you hike the more you leave the fissures behind and come into the prairie.
Prairie Bottoms to Upper Paddock Creek Trail
Around mile 1.3 the Painted Canyon Trail showcases the lush prairies that make TRNP different from the badlands of South Dakota. A couple of buttes stand alone around you, but it’s more open than just below the rim of the canyon. The buttes are barren and this part reminded me of Utah a little.
Around mile 1.85 you cross over the valley for Paddock Creek. I did not see any water but that is where it is marked on the map. You have one more slight uphill climb before dropping back down. At mile 2.1, the Painted Canyon Trail ends at the intersection with the Upper Paddock Creek Trail.
From this point, you simply retrace your steps and hike back to the trailhead. I dreaded the climb out of the canyon at the end, but it really wasn’t that bad. It was steep, but only for a short way.
Painted Canyon Trail at TRNP
The Painted Canyon Trail at TRNP is a great trail to get a sampling of the park. Hiking this trail gives you views from atop the buttes as well as views from the bottom. I also loved seeing the different color stripes on the buttes all around me.
- 4.2 miles out-and-back
- Elevation gain and loss 421 feet
- Dogs not allowed
- Camping allowed check with the visitor center