The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The road curves sharply to the right, emerging from a copse of trees to reveal shrub-pimpled badlands. You'd be remiss to keep driving, thinking there was nothing to see among the sloping stacks of monochromatic color. Halfway up the hill, there's movement. Two dappled gray horses perch on an outcropping, the wind whipping their smoke-colored manes. The wild creatures are unfazed, standing like stoic guardians of the canyon. A flick of one's head seems to say "You're welcome here."
It's quite an entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a 70,000-acre park in western North Dakota. While land was set aside for a memorial and park in the 1930s, it didn't receive national park status until 1978. Today, TRNP consists of three units: the popular North and South units, and a harder-to-get-to third unit (Elkhorn Ranch) that was the location of President Roosevelt's ranch. An avid hunter and hiker, Roosevelt was struck by the state's natural beauty. He found solace here after the deaths of his wife and mother in 1884, and established a ranch outside of Medora that he called Elkhorn. He often wrote of spending time on his veranda, lolling in a rocking chair enjoying a cool breeze on a summer eve. Today's visitors will find the same peace and serenity that captivated Roosevelt.
Linked by the Little Missouri River, Theodore Roosevelt National Park's three units each have their own characteristics. The South Unit's badlands, deep-cut canyons and sandy hoodoos allow modern explorers to see the allure of a wild North Dakota. In the North Unit, the landscape becomes greener, the views a bit more dramatic. Towering buttes shoot out of waving prairie grasses. Peculiar cannonball formations in an otherworldly landscape make you question if you've been transported to Mars. At Elkhorn Ranch, the foundation of Roosevelt's cabin lies peacefully under tall cottonwoods. As sunrays puncture the clouds, shining down on Elkhorn, the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt seems to live on here.
PLAN As with most national parks, the busiest time for TRNP is summer, but shoulder seasons are often more pleasant. In May/June or September/October, temperatures are cooler but still manageable, and crowds are significantly less. Plus, you may see baby bison in spring. Brave souls who come in winter can snowshoe or cross-country ski the park's trails.
PACK Despite its latitude, North Dakota's summer can have a bit of an attitude. Prepare for heat and dry, dusty conditions. Pack clothes that you don't mind getting a bit dirty. The park is largely exposed (not a lot of shade), so you'll want sunscreen, a good water bottle or CamelBak and a hat. Consider one with a chin strap—the unfettered wind can be fierce. Though most trails are fairly easy in TRNP, hiking boots protect better (especially when trails are slippery after a rain) than sneakers or Chacos. Spring and fall evenings can be chilly, so bring a windbreaker or sweater. And don't forget the binoculars—you'll want them for spotting far-away wildlife.
DRIVE Well-maintained, paved roads wind through the North and South units, but for visiting Elkhorn Ranch, you might prefer a car with four-wheel drive or one that sits high. Driving to the less-visited third unit requires an hour on dirt and gravel roads that can quickly turn treacherous after rain.
FLY Most people fly into Bismarck Airport, a two-hour drive to the park's South Unit. It's small, but offers the most flight options. Williston Basin International Airport is closer to the park's North Unit—and is one of the newest airports in the U.S.—but only has a few flights a day.
BUCK HILL Short but sweet and steep describes this 0.4 mile out-and-back trail—but steep is relative; the elevation gain for this hike is only 55 feet (though it is concentrated in one spot). The overlook is the highest point in the South Unit, and on a clear day you can see for miles.
SPERATI POINT This moderate but slightly longer trail begins at Oxbow Overlook, the farthest point on the North Unit's road. A 1.5-mile out-and-back takes you down from the buttes to the valley floor, where you'll walk through the prairie to an overlook point. (You might encounter bison on the trail!)
PETRIFIED FOREST LOOP Just west of the South Unit lies the third-largest concentration of petrified wood in the country. Technically considered a backcountry trail, hikers have the option to customize it. The trail splits at a wide prairie to two sections of wood, both about 1.5 miles from the parking lot. You can turn around after that or continue to do the full 10.3-mile loop.
ELKHORN RANCH In the park's third unit, a 0.7-mile pathway leads from the parking lot to the site of Teddy Roosevelt's ranch home. Though only the foundation remains, visitors can see why he chose this spot among the cottonwoods, overlooking buttes and the Little Missouri River. (Keep in mind there are no visitor facilities here.)
PAINTED CANYON OVERLOOK If you're driving from Bismarck, this pullout along I-94 will be your first stop in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Take in a dramatic, colorful canyon and keep an eye out for feral horses.
PRAIRIE DOG TOWN Soon after entering the South Unit, you'll see a pullout with a sign about prairie dogs. This is the park's main prairie dog "town," a network of underground tunnels where the adorably skittish creatures live.
WIND CANYON OVERLOOK This South Unit overlook is the best place to watch the sun set. A short walk from the parking lot will lead you to views of the Little Missouri River and badlands. You can also hike between hoodoos here.
RIVER BEND OVERLOOK A bend in the Little Missouri River gives this overlook its name, which also flaunts breathtaking, panoramic views of the North Unit's badlands. A historic stone shelter, built in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, perches on the edge of a butte.
CANNONBALL CONCRETIONS Perfectly round rock formations in the North Unit baffled scientists for years. Today, you can climb among the Martian-like landscape the boulders have settled in.
CHECK IN At Rough Riders Hotel, established in 1884, ask for one of the eight historic rooms; it's rumored President Roosevelt delivered a speech from one of the balconies. The hotel is located in downtown Medora, and is walkable to restaurants, shops and family-friendly activities.
CAMP OUT The park has two primitive (no hookups) campsites—one in each of the two main units. Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit has 76 sites, half of which are reservable in advance. The North Unit's Juniper Campground offers 50 sites, all first come, first served. (It also has a nice day-use picnic area.) RVs are permitted, with the exception of some walk-in sites that are only for tents. In peak season, campgrounds fill up by afternoon, so check in early if you don't have a reservation.
NORTH DAKOTA COWBOY HALL OF FAME Learn about North Dakota's history of rodeos and ranching; see prizewinners' saddles; and visit a gallery of bronze sculptures depicting longhorns, horses and cowboys.
MEDORA MUSICAL Set against a mountain backdrop, the nearly 60-year-old Medora Musical tells the story of the town and the many adventure-seekers it has captivated.
MAAH DAAH HEY TRAIL The 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail is a bucket-list ride for mountain bikers. Dakota Cyclery is the area's only full-service bike shop and can outfit beginners and experts. The shop offers shuttle service, guided day tours and equipment rentals.
CHATEAU DE MORES The 26-room chateau was the summer home of the French Marquis de Mores and his family. He named the town Medora after his wife. Tour the 1883 building and grounds.
POINT TO POINT PARK Soar on the zipline, play minigolf or float the lazy river at this new downtown Medora park.
BULLY PULPIT GOLF COURSE Tee off in an oasis of green. Signature Badlands Holes 14–16 take you through a rugged fairway gorge.