When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that Theodore Roosevelt experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.
You can explore the park day and night, any time of year. Visitor center hours vary by season. In winter, there are occasional road closures for snow and ice. Campgrounds are open year-round.
My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 51 of our 62 National Parks — and Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers three distinct units to explore! So if this is your first time to the park, or you're returning after many years, here are some of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park!
Conveniently located along Interstate 94, the South Unit is the park's most visited area. Two visitor centers, a scenic drive, hiking trails, and plenty of watchable wildlife entice visitors to stay a while. The South Unit's small but bustling gateway town, Medora, is an attraction in its own right.
36 Mile Scenic Drive
Plan at least 1.5 hours to make it around the South Unit's stunning scenic loop drive. The road winds across the rolling, jumbled badlands with fantastic scenery in all directions. Along the way are numerous scenic overlooks and trailheads. The two-way paved loop is open to motor vehicles and cyclists.
View from the Wind Canyon Trail. Photo: Robert B. Decker (and yes, that's me!)
Hiking trails in the South Unit include two self-guided nature trails, Ridgeline Nature Trail (0.6 mile) and Coal Vein Trail (0.8 mile) and Wind Canyon Trail (0.4 mile).
View from Buck Hill. Photo: Robert B. Decker
Other favorite short trails include Buck Hill (0.1 mile), and history buffs may enjoy a 0.8 mile round-trip hike to the park's old East Entrance Station. Longer backcountry trails span the entire South Unit and are suitable for day or overnight hikes.
View from Cottonwood Campground. Photo: Robert B. Decker
Half the sites in the South Unit's Cottonwood Campground are by reservation, the other half are on a first come, first served basis. Cottonwood is a primitive campground (no RV hookups) and is open year-round. It fills to capacity every night in summer. Roundup Group Horse Campground (reservation only) is a separate campground open to groups camping with horses. Backcountry camping requires a free permit.
Bison, South Unit. Photo: Robert B. Decker
Bison, mule deer, prairie dogs, and wild horses are readily visible along the South Unit's scenic drive. Driving is often the best way to view wildlife, as you can cover more ground this way than on foot.
Prairie Dog Town, South Unit. Photo: Robert B. Decker
Also be on the lookout for coyotes, pronghorn, bald and golden eagles, white-tailed deer, turkeys, and elk. Remember to keep a safe distance from all animals you encounter.
South Unit Visitor Center
Located in the town of Medora at the beginning of the scenic drive, the South Unit Visitor Center is a good place to stop before embarking on your adventure. Rangers are available to help with trip planning and answer questions. A 17-minute park film can help you get acquainted with the park and its history. The museum and Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin are open during visitor center operating hours.
Painted Canyon Visitor Center
Painted Canyon. Photo: Robert B. Decker
For travelers on Interstate 94, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and rest area is their first (and sometimes only) glimpse into the park. Just out back, a sidewalk traces the rim of the badlands with fantastic views of the South Unit all along the way. A nature trail and picnic pavilion offer travelers a break from the highway. Keep a safe distance from bison, which are frequent visitors to this part of the park. Note that Painted Canyon is not a park entrance. The South Unit's Scenic Drive begins 7 miles west in Medora.
The North Unit is a bit off the beaten-path alongside ND Highway 85. Its ruggedness and beauty, and the solitude you'll find in this less-visited unit of the park are well worth the 50 mile drive from Interstate 94.
14 Mile Scenic Drive
River Bend Overlook. Photo: Robert B. Decker
Plan at least 1 hour and 15 minutes for the North Unit's out-and-back Scenic Drive (28 miles roundtrip). The first half of the road traces the bottom of the badlands. Midway through, it crawls up out of the canyon to the North Unit's most iconic view, River Bend Overlook. From there, it's an easy drive along the rim of the badlands to Oxbow Overlook at the road's end. The road is almost entirely paved with only one stretch of gravel and is open to motor vehicles and cyclists.
Cannon Ball Concretion, North Unit. Photo: Robert B. Decker
Nature Trails in the North Unit are perfect for casual hikers and nature enthusiasts, but the backcountry trails really steal the show! The Buckhorn, Caprock Coulee, and famed Achenbach Trails traverse the park's vast wilderness areas. Be sure to pick up a backcountry permit for overnight hiking.
Bison are often visible from the scenic drive at all hours of the day, while mule deer usually make appearances around dawn and dusk. Careful observers may spot bighorn sheep on or near steep cliff edges. Driving is often the best way to view wildlife, as you can cover more ground this way than on foot. However, to see prairie dogs in the North Unit, you'll have to take a hike! Remember to keep a safe distance from all wildlife you encounter.
Sites in the North Unit's Juniper Campground are on a first come, first served basis, except for the group campsite which is by reservation only. Juniper only occasionally fills to capacity on weekends in summer. Sites are primitive (no RV hookups). Camping in the backcountry requires a free permit.
Elkhorn Ranch Unit
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the place Roosevelt selected to be his "home ranch" after the deaths of his wife and mother. This unit of the park has a special, solemn character. There are no visitor centers, facilities, or scenic roads, but driving to the unit is quite scenic!
A 0.7 mile mowed pathway leads from the parking area to the cabin site. Exhibits feature passages written by Roosevelt about his experiences at the ranch. Only the cabin's foundation stones remain, but there, beneath rustling cottonwood leaves, visitors can sense the peace and solace Roosevelt found at this special place in the badlands.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!