Insider's Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Sunset over Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Sunset over Theodore Roosevelt National Park. GoodFreePhotos
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A study in subtle nuances of color and unexpected, eye-pleasing formations, a journey through the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park gives the mind space to roam, much like the bison that call it home. The striated, eroding hills create a visual counterpoint to the valleys that lay between them and the surrounding, sometimes verdant, grasslands. Whether driving, hiking or floating down the river, the sweeping vistas and abundant wildlife (including feral horses, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs) will captivate visitors.  

The “badlands” that are the highlight of the park are largely the result of two basic geologic processes: deposition and erosion. Streams and rivers carried sediments from the Black Hills building the rock layers we see today and once those waters got diverted, years of erosion by the elements have been eating them away at the surprising rate of about an inch per year. This erosion created the canyons, ravines, gullies, buttes, mesas, and hoodoos that make it a photographer’s paradise. Evidence suggests that they will erode completely away in another 500,000 years, giving them a life span of just one million years—a mere blip in geological time.

The park was originally established in the 1920’s as a memorial to the man whose name it bears, Theodore Roosevelt, whose experiences in North Dakota were influential in his conservation efforts as President of the United States. Controversy reigned for many years as local ranchers and others thought the land was too valuable to be “just” a public park. It wasn’t until 1978 that advocates were able to get the area officially added to the National Park System, the first and only in North Dakota.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a strip of 70,447 acres that runs down into South Dakota and Badlands National Park. Located on the western edge of the state and divided into three units: Elkhorn Ranch, North and South. It’s open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Even when entrance stations and visitor centers are closed, the park remains open.

Classic Adventures

Mounds in the park.
Mounds in the park. GoodFreePhotos

The most common way to experience TRNP is by driving one of the two scenic drives through the North and South units. If you have only one day, take the Scenic Loop Drive in the South Unit accessed through the historic town of Medora. Allow yourself time for the visitor center and museum as well as nature trails and hikes. A second day can be devoted to the Scenic Drive in the North Unit, 70 miles away, accessible from U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City. A visit to the undeveloped site of of the third Unit, Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch, is only accessible via a 30-mile gravel road.

Come at sunset and bring along a camera to the South Unit’s Boicourt Overlook Trail, an easy 15-minute walk along a ridge of a small mountain with a slight grade, 0.2 miles in length. Another great choice is the Wind Canyon Trail, with spectacular vistas of the canyon and a bit of the Missouri River; it's a ranger recommendation for sunsets as well.  

Painted Canyon Nature Trail in the South Unit is a moderate, mile-long hike that winds down into and around the various rock layers, junipers, and other formations. Remember, every step down means a step back up on the return.

If adventure is the game, Achenbach is the trail. This North Unit trail offers rigorous climbs, descents, and two river crossings that lead deep into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness. Cross the Little Missouri River at dawn and climb the buttes to greet the rising sun. Plan for a big 10 - 12 hour day to complete this 18 mile-epic.

For snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the Little Missouri Badlands receive about 30 inches of snow per year. Snow can arrive in October and stay until April. There are no formally groomed trails and users are allowed to blaze their own. In fact, trying to use the established trails can be somewhat difficult as they are narrow and many cross creek bottoms, which are like little canyons.The best places to ski are on the frozen Little Missouri River and on closed park roads.

Secrets of the Park

The Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. GoodFreePhotos

The wild horse population is a known draw of the park, but few people know that they have all been identified and named. Play a game of “I-spy” while winding the way along the road with a downloaded copy of the the Field Guide to the Wild Horses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park which has photos, identifying marks, and hangouts of all the feral horses in the park as of November, 2015.

A paddling trip down the Little Missouri River is an ideal way to experience the allure of the North Dakota Badlands as they may have felt 50 or 100 hundred years ago. Take four or five days to canoe the 107 miles between Medora near the South Unit and Long X Bridge on U.S. Highway 85, near the park's North Unit. Two days are needed to continue from Long X Bridge to Lost Bridge on State Highway 22 (Little Missouri Bay on Lake Sakakawea). Summer thunderstorms and resulting floods may cause water levels to increase with little or no warning, transforming the quiet river into a raging torrent, be prepared. Camping on public land along the river is possible and the river vantage of buttes and plateaus rising against the horizon won’t soon be forgotten.

Immerse Yourself

Sunset in the park.
Sunset in the park. GoodFreePhotos

In addition to the park trails, the Maah Daah Hey Trail offers 96 miles of non‐motorized single track through the Badlands. The route is a bonafide mountain bike adventure, a physical, mental, and navigational feat with its endless desert hills, wash-outs, and a rutted track that persists, often vaguely, through terrain few people will ever see. While the trail is not overly technical, there is a lot of exposure to prepare for and sunscreen is a must. However the chance to experience true “wide open spaces” and to roam with the buffalo make it worth the effort. There are campsites every 20 miles that include camping, potable water, hitching rails, picnic tables, fire rings, and accessible toilets. The section between Bully Pulpit and Plumly is highly regarded and riding from Medora up the Buffalo Gap can be a sweet out and back if the whole trail isn’t on the agenda.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

  • Get out your camera and participate in the annual "Picture Yourself in Theodore Roosevelt National Park" photo contest for a chance to be featured on the Park pass and calendar.  

  • Although this is an all-year park, portions of the park road may close in winter, and services are quite limited from October to May. Summer is the most popular time to visit; the days are very long.

  • Try not to miss the Cannonball Concretions Pullout in the North Unit - these unusual geological formations are definitely worth a stop.

  • Juniper Campground is first come/first served with 41 RV/tent sites. Bathrooms have flush toilets, cold-water sinks, soap, paper towels, and mirrors, but no showers. Most sites have at least partial shade. Well water is safe but, but if a little funky taste is a bother, pack in supplies.

  • For an truly unique take on Western cuisine, check out the Pitchfork Steak Fondue in Medora. Cowboys plunge pitchforks loaded with steaks into sizzling oil until perfect.

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