Hiking the Petrified Forest Loop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a great way to see all the beautiful aspects of the park in one hike. Now, it’s one long hike, but except for a few very short and steep bits, the length is what makes it strenuous. In fact, nearly 5.5 miles in the middle of the loop are flat and easy walking.
The Petrified Forest Loop showcases the prairie, the badlands, wildlife, and of course the petrified forest, all of which make Theodore Roosevelt National Park so beautiful and interesting. The park in western North Dakota boasts the third-highest concentration of petrified wood in the United States. And a fellow hiker I passed on the trail told me it was the best petrified forest he had ever seen. Now, he did not say where else he had been, but I found it to be pretty amazing too.
One aspect of this petrified forest I loved is that the fossils are not scattered here and there. They are easy to spot. And looking over the area, you can easily see the forest that once stood.
Finding the trailhead
The trailhead for the petrified forests is off the beaten path and outside the main entrance of the park. To find the trailhead, head west on I-94 for one mile. At Exit 23 head north on Forest Service Road 730 for 2.7 miles. Then turn left to stay on Forest Service Road 730 and drive 2.5 miles. You will pass a “Private Road” sign, but traveling to the trailhead is permitted. Turn right on Forest Service Road 730-2 and take the first left. At the next “Y” veer left and continue for 0.6 miles to the parking area.
Trailhead to loop
The trail begins to the right of the information sign. You will walk down a little way and go through a gate. By the way, the gate swings up to open. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to figure this out. I guess it keeps bison out as well.
The Petrified Forest Loop climbs up and through some packed dirt that makes up the badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It can be pretty slick and greasy when wet – the kind of mud that sticks to your boots and doesn’t come off.
There is one final push up to the top of the plateau and around mile 0.5 you come to the loop portion of this lollipop loop.
Split to Petrified Forest North
Here you can go right or left. I chose to go left. But it does matter, you will end up back at this point. I chose left because you get a little bit more of the elevation gain out of the way toward the beginning of the hike.
You hike along the plateau and can take in sights of the prairie before coming to a steep decline, dropping down into the valley of the north petrified forest. Around mile 1.25, you come to the north petrified forest.
Petrified Forest North to Maah Daah Hey Trail
The trail climbs up a little bit out of the petrified forest. From here the trail is level for a little way with amazing views of the North Dakota prairie. You also have beautiful views of the eroded hills that make up the badlands.
Around mile 2.6 the Petrified Forest Loop drops sharply down into one of the gullies that make Theodore Roosevelt National Park so beautiful. However, what goes down must come back up, it seems. And the trail climbs out of the valley just as sharply as it goes down.
Once out of the valley the Petrified Forest Loop intersects with the Maah Daah Hey Trail at mile 3.4 with beautiful views of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Maah Daah Hey Trail to Petrified Forest South
Once on the prairie again, you have a long way of flat walking. Along the Maah Daah Hey Trail, you have amazing views of the park and the Little Missouri River Valley below.
As you hike along this portion of the trail, keep your eyes out for wildlife. There are several small valleys with trees tucked into them. While hiking here, I saw bison and pronghorns in the distance. Around mile 5.5, the trail passes right beside a prairie dog town. The trail continues nearly straight toward the southeast along the Big Plateau. At mile 6.2 the Mike Auney Trail intersects and leaves the Maah Daah Hey Trail to the left.
Petrified Forest South to Trailhead
Around mile 6.55 the Petrified Forest South Trail intersects and you leave the Maah Daah Hey Trail to the right to finish the loop. The trail makes a sharp “v” so you nearly start walking back the way you came. But at this point along the Petrified Forest Loop, you have wonderful views of the west side of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
The trail continues northwest along the Big Plateau and around mile 7.6 the Lone Tree Trail goes to the right. But you’ll want to continue straight at the intersection. This part of the trail is also easy walking and flat.
Around mile 8.75 the trail passes by the south petrified forest, it has a little bit of up and down. But it’s not too bad. The south petrified forest is interesting and beautiful.
The trail climbs out the eroded valley to the prairie. And at mile 9.9 the trail comes back to the “stick” of the lollipop loop. From here you retrace your steps back to the trailhead. And don’t worry, it’s all down from here.
Petrified Forest Loop Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Hiking the Petrified Forest Loop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a great trail to experience all the park has to offer. It showcases the neat geology, badlands, prairie, and wildlife. It also gives you sweeping views of the Little Missouri River and the valley that makes up the park.
- 10.4 miles lollipop loop
- Elevation gain and loss 858 feet
- Dogs not allowed
- Camping allowed, check with the visitor center for permit