Going hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and looking for the best trails including the Painted Canyon hike? Explore the best Theodore Roosevelt National Park hikes for all difficulty levels in this detailed guide to hiking trails in North Dakota’s only national park. You may also like our post 21 Best Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is famous for its rugged badlands rock formations and stunning, dramatic landscapes. The park is spread over 70,446 acres and encompasses a vast stretch of the Little Missouri River grasslands and badlands.
The park is divided into three units: the popular South Unit, the smaller Elkhorn Unit, and the remote North Unit. A majority of the hiking trails are located in the south & north unit while the 144-mile long Maah Daah Hey Trail connects all three units and is excellent for backpacking.
Hiking, after the scenic drives, was definitely one of our favorite ways to explore the national park. During our visit, we went on many small family-friendly hikes as well as on some more strenuous ones and enjoyed all of them. Here is a detailed guide to hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park for all types of visitors:
Best Hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit
The south unit of the park is definitely the more accessible and popular one. Here you will find a wide assortment of short, family-friendly day hikes that lead to beautiful panoramas. On the hikes, you can see the feral horses or bison or other wildlife that the park is famous for. Here are some of the essential day hikes in the south unit:
Painted Canyon Nature Trail
The Painted Canyon Hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is famous for many reasons. The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is easily accessible from I-94 and is a non-fee area of the park, hence it is visited by many hikers and travelers.
The Painted Canyon Nature Trail takes you deep into the canyon on a short 0.9 miles out and back hike. While the canyon looks picturesque from the Painted Canyon Overlook located on the rim, the trail allows hikers to experience the many eroded layers and colors of the canyon up close.
There is an elevation gain of 250′ on the trail and it is considered moderate but we did not find it that difficult of a hike. On the way, you can see wildlife and natural vegetation of the area. We hiked the trail around sunset and the colors of the canyon were even more pronounced.
Wind Canyon Trail
If you can hike just one trail in the park, hike the Wind Canyon Trail. This half a mile-long loop trail has some of the best views in the park. You will be walking along the wind-eroded canyon for the better part of the trail.
From the top, you can see the Little Missouri River flowing peacefully beneath you. The view is absolutely breathtaking with the wilderness surrounding the river going on for miles and miles. The trail itself is flat, easy but rugged enough to feel like an adventure. It is kid-friendly and good for the entire family.
This trail is a favorite with photographers for the magnificent vistas that it offers. The best time to hike the Wind Canyon Trail is at sunset when the landscape and the river are shining in the glow of the setting sun.
Boicourt Overlook Trail
Boicourt Overlook Trail rivals Wind Canyon Loop for the park’s best views! The trail itself is an easy 0.4 miles long nature walk and it leads to a stunning overlook. The trail also crosses a river which adds to the fun.
The view of the rolling prairies and the badlands is pretty iconic. Often, you can see the bison herd grazing across the landscape, making their way through the unique rock formations. You can also see the wild horses in the valley below.
While the signposted trail is only 0.2 miles, we recommend you keep going till the very last overlook at around 0.4 miles. The views only get better as you go further ahead. Definitely add this to your list of hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota!
When it comes to views, Buck hill comes in close after Wind Canyon Trail and Boicourt Trail. To access Buck Hill, you will need to take a short detour from the scenic drive. Follow the road to the end of the parking lot, from where a short but steep 0.2 miles trail will take you to the top of Buck Hill. Buck Hill, at an altitude of 2855 feet, is the highest point in the park.
The views from here are just majestic. You can have a 360-degree panorama of the badlands and even see the feral horses or bison grazing in the distance. You can even see the difference in vegetation on the south and north-facing slopes.
The dry south slope is covered with stunted grasses and shrubs while trees grow abundantly on the north slope which receives more rainfall. The trail also has beautiful wildflowers in the summer. It can get really windy at the top, so we recommend bringing along a jacket.
Skyline Vista Trail
Skyline Vista is the first trailhead that you will encounter on driving the scenic drive in the south unit. This very short hike can be completed in under 10 minutes and is just 0.1 miles long. The trail is flat and paved and perfect for all ages.
The trail leads you to the top of Johnson’s Plateau. From several vantage points on the trail, you can have a beautiful view of the Missouri River Valley spread before you. The trail provides a great introduction to the park and the benches at the end of the trail make it even more worthwhile.
Old East Entrance Station Trail
The Old East Entrance Station Trail is a 0.9 mile long out and back trail that goes to the now-abandoned entrance of the park. The easy trail goes over flat prairie grasses and is great for all difficulty levels. In the summer, the trail has wildflowers too.
Our kids enjoyed hiking the trail and saw many prairie dogs, a bison, a couple of wild horses, and even a hare on the trail. The trail leads to the entrance station building built in an early style of architecture. The building is a charming set amongst the backdrop of the badlands formations and green grasses and is a unique part of the part history.
Petrified Forest Loop Trail
Once you hike this trail, it will be a guaranteed favorite. Located in the remote section of the southern unit, the Petrified Forest Loop Trail will take you through an entire forest of petrified trees. The trees are located right on the trail. You will also see stunning canyon views. Bison sightings are also frequent on the trail.
While the entire hike is strenuous at 10.3 miles, you can also hike it partway and return depending on your physical capability. However, the views get more spectacular the further you go. To reach the trail, you will need to skip Google maps and use NPS posted signs instead to drive along W River Rd. The best way is to ask for directions at the south unit visitor center.
Hiking the entire trail easily takes 4 to 5 hours. The trail is flat and there’s hardly any shade, so bring along a hat, sunscreen, and plenty of water. The trail is very well-marked. Towards the northern unit, the trail gets into the badlands and you will be walking through the rocky valley.
Coal Vein Trail
Coal Vein Trail is, hands down, one of the most interesting hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This 0.6-mile loop trail leads to a 12 feet thick coal vein that burned due to an underground fire. The fire caused the collapse of a large area above the vein and the terrain surrounding it is significantly altered.
The trail is also excellent to spot several rock layers and geological formations such as caprocks. The trail also has several overlooks from where you can see the badlands and river valley spread before you. To understand the different features that you will be able to see, pick up a trail guide at the trailhead.
Jones Creek Trail
To reach the heart of the badlands and experience the striking rock formations from a unique perspective, consider hiking the Jones Creek Trail. The trail follows the Jones creek and you will be walking over uneven terrain. At 6.9 miles out and back, the trail is of moderate difficulty.
On the trail, you can see wildlife including bison and wildflowers during the summer. The trail also has great views of the river and the surrounding area. The trail crosses the creek twice but it often runs dry in the summer.
Ridgeline Trail is an easy 0.6 miles long nature trail. On the trail, you can see the badlands flora including juniper trees, sagebrush, prairie wild rose, and more. The trail also has beautiful views of the badlands formations and unique landforms including caprocks, gullies, and buttes. You can also see a view of the I-94 and the surrounding landscape.
Maah Daah Hey Trail in South Unit
While the entire Maah Daah Hey Trail stretches over 96 miles and connects all 3 units of the park, the section of the trail in the south unit is 7.1 miles long. Most of the trail is flat and over the prairies and without any shade. This trail is iconic to North Dakota and should be on your bucket list when you visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit
The hikes in the north unit are longer and more remote. They go deeper into the badlands and you can get up close with stunning rock formations like the cannonball concretions and caprocks. Here are the best hikes in the north unit:
Little Mo Trail
This is one of the easiest hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park north unit. It is 0.7 miles long and follows the river bottom. You can explore the river habitat. The walk is paved but there is also an unpaved outer loop which is a mile long.
Trail brochures are placed along the trailhead which is useful to understand nature, flora and fauna, and formations. The trail is mostly through the woods and you can see panoramic vistas of the river along the trail. It is pretty kid-friendly.
Caprock Coulee Nature Trail
Caprock Coulee Nature Trail is a 0.8 miles long one-way trail in the northern unit. It is a part of the longer 4.1 miles long Caprock Coulee Trail. The nature trail highlights the nature, wildlife, native plants, geological features of the badlands.
Easily one of the best trails in the north unit, the trail is excellent to understand the diversity and life adaptations in the badlands. The trail is named after coulees which are steep narrow valleys formed due to erosion by water flows.
Other things you can observe on the trail are different erosion patterns, native grasses like green needlegrass and wheatgrass, flowering cacti caprocks, coal veins, and petrified wood. The trail is easy and fun for the whole family plus the learning opportunities make it cool for the kids.
At 11 mile sling, Buckhorn Trail is one of the longest trails in the park. It easily needs an entire day to complete and you need to carry enough water, sunscreen, trail snacks, and a hat to complete the hike.
On the trail, you will be hiking through prairies and via deep canyons. You can observe the diversity of plant and animal life in the badlands and even observe wildlife tracks. Some of the tracks seen often include those of bison and deer. You can also spot cannonball concretions on the trail.
If you are looking for a shorter hike, you can also go as far as the Prairie Dog Town along the Buckhorn Trail’s western end. At 1.5 miles, this part of the trail is just an hour-long and of moderate difficulty level. You can watch the playful rodents bark and jump over their burrows and return to the trailhead.
The Achenbach Trail
To experience the majestic wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, hike the 18 miles long Achenbach Trail in the northern unit. This hike is recommended only for experienced hikers due to its length.
Hikers need at least 10 to 12 hours to finish the backpacking trail and carry all supplies with them. This trail encompasses the beauty and diversity of the national park and is an excellent way to see its highlights on a single hike without crowds.
You will see lots of wildlife on the trail including bison, prairie dogs, coyotes, pheasants, and even an occasional rattlesnake. The trail has excellent views of the Little Missouri River. You can also walk partway along the trail. Sperati Point located about an hour in is an excellent turning point for those who want a shorter hike.
We hope you liked our guide to hiking in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. We have tried to cover the most popular trails in the park in this guide if we missed out on any scenic and interesting hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park then let us know in the comments.