Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the least visited parks, but it’s really a hidden treasure. It’s a great place to visit if you want to avoid the crowds. But it also is one of the most beautiful parks. The park showcases green grasslands surrounding badlands buttes. It gives you a real sense of the Great Plains.
Divided into three units, Theodore Roosevelt National Park covers a wide area in western North Dakota. It is also a great place to spot bison, bighorn sheep, elk, and even some wild longhorns. You can also see some pretty large prairie dog towns.
To visit the park’s website, click here. I also used the Falcon Guide, “Explore! Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”
Mountain Time or Central Time
One thing to note is that the South Unit is in Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in Central Time Zone. Because there are no structures with opening and closing times, the park’s brochure says the Elk Horn Ranch Unit is “timeless.” (I see what you did there, Theodore Roosevelt National Park.)
Exploring the South Unit
The entrance and the visitor center for the South Unit are within the town of Medora. The visitor center at the South Unit has a museum. It is also where the Maltese Cross Cabin was relocated and is open for tours.
The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is a part of the South Unit as well, but the only way to connect to the rest of the park is through hiking. No roads connect to the rest of the park from the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. This visitor center is at Exit 32 on 1-94.
Here you get sweeping vistas of the park. You can hike the 0.9-mile Painted Canyon Nature Trail. But if you want to explore a little more, the Painted Canyon Trail (be careful not to confuse the two) goes into the canyon. This 4.2-mile roundtrip is one of my favorite in the entire park.
A 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive takes you around the South Unit at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Along this drive, several pull-outs and waysides show unique and beautiful aspects of the park.
Wind Canyon Trail
A short trail with great views is the Wind Canyon Trail. This 0.4-mile loop is a great place to watch the sunset. Start by hiking the trail counterclockwise. The trail showcases a beautiful deep and narrow canyon to your left at the beginning of the hike. It then opens up to sweeping views of the Little Missouri River and North Dakota Badlands. The trail continues along a cliff over the river before climbing to a summit with 360-degree views of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The petrified forest areas were among my favorite places to visit in the park. Two separate areas showcase the petrified trees. Both areas require hiking and area about a 3 mile out-and-back hike. Both trails begin by following the same trail but then split into the North Petrified Forest Trail and South Petrified Forest Trail. The only way to loop both areas is by hiking a 10.5-mile loop with the Maah Daah Hey Trail. This is what I did, and it is a great hike if you are up for long mileage.
If you don’t feel like two out-and-back hikes and want to choose between the north and south petrified forests, I found the north area to be my favorite. There I got more of a rock forest feel. I could see how it was once a swampy forest with cypress trees.
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.
Exploring the North Unit
There is about an hour’s drive between the North and the South Unit. When I visited the park, I stayed near the South Unit because it has more I wanted to do.
The Scenic Drive is a great way to explore the North Unit. The River Bend Overlook and the Oxbow Overlook were my two favorite stops on this 14-mile (one-way) scenic drive. The Cannonball Concretions Pullout showcases some really neat geological features of the park.
Look for the bighorn sheep
My guidebook said the bighorn sheep can be somewhat elusive. However, if you are patient and bring binoculars you just might see some. The best place to look is between the River Bend Overlook and Oxbow Overlooks along the Scenic Drive. This is where I spotted them. But it took binocular scanning by my brother.
Elk Horn Ranch Unit
The Elk Horn Ranch Unit is the site where Theodore Roosevelt’s second ranch once stood. It is about an hour’s drive from the South Unit Visitor Center, but it is worth the drive. There is a short trail that takes you to the site where the cabin once stood. For a more detailed blog post on this unit, click here.
Camping/where to stay at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park campgrounds
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has two campgrounds, Cottonwood and Juniper. Both campgrounds are suitable for tents and RVs, however, there are no hookups. Half of the campsites at Cottonwood Campground are reservable through Recreation.gov. Juniper Campground is completely first come, first serve.
Sully Creek State Park
When I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I chose to stay at Sully Creek State Park. At the time, Cottonwood Campground was undergoing maintenance construction and was not taking reservations. I wanted to be sure I had a place to stay, and I ended up really liking Sully Creek State Park.
They have sites for RVs with electricity and water hookups, as well as tent and equestrian sites. Although they do not have flush toilets, they have showers. It’s a very beautiful campground and closer to Medora than Cottonwood Campground in the park. Sully Creek State Park is about five minutes from the town area of Medora.
Within Medora, there are few private campgrounds. You can search for campgrounds on Campendium, here. If camping isn’t your thing, Medora also has several hotels and motels.
The town of Medora is quaint with lots of history. Stop by the Chateau De Mores State Historic Site and learn about how the town came to be. You can also enjoy lunch at the Chimney Park Picnic Area. Remnants of the Marquis de Mores’ meatpacking plant still remain.
On a rainy day, I toured the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. It’s packed full of history and a lot of interesting information.
There are numerous great places to eat in Medora. I enjoyed bison and elk burgers at Boots Bar & Grill. I also had a great breakfast at the Farmhouse Cafe.
If you enjoy variety shows, the Medora Musical is quite popular. The show is described as “the rootin’-tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the Midwest.”
Theodore Roosevelt National Park namesake history
Many people who love the National Park Service admire Theodore Roosevelt. The 26th president was a great conservationist and naturalist. He is quoted as saying, “I have always said I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”
In 1883, when Roosevelt was a young man he came to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison. The next year, his wife and his mother both died on the same day. Roosevelt returned to the Dakota Territory to grieve and lose himself in the vastness of the badlands.
In his time in the area he became a cattle rancher having two ranches and splitting his time between North Dakota and the East Coast.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park may be a lesser-known park, but it’s a hidden gem. It’s a wonderful place to explore the Great Plains and get lost in nature. It’s also a great place to view wildlife.