Planning a trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and looking for things to do on your visit? Read our Theodore Roosevelt National Park travel guide to see the highlights in a day including Chateau de Mores Historic Site, Painted Canyon, Prairie Dog Town, and Oxbow Overlook.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has long been on our bucket list because of its rugged Badlands formations and abundant wildlife. Located in western North Dakota, the park has a stunning landscape of eroded geological landforms.
Named after US President Theodore Roosevelt, the national park shares a special connection with him. Roosevelt spent several years as a rancher in the park’s wilderness and considered the experience as instrumental to becoming the 26th President of the USA. His time in North Dakota is also said to have influenced his conservationist policies. The park preserves his legacy and visitors can learn a lot about him at the Visitor Center museum.
Fun Fact: Did you know that the badlands in western North Dakota are often referred to as the ‘other badlands’? The most popular badlands in the world are located inside the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The park is divided into 3 units: the South Unit, North Unit, and the Elkhorn Unit. The South Unit is the most popular one due to its accessibility from I-94 and its proximity to Medora, a charming small town that makes a perfect place to stay and explore the park.
The North Unit is about an hour and a half away from Dickinson while the Elkhorn Unit is halfway between both the units. Another less-visited area is the Petrified Forest trail in the south unit.
If you have just one day to explore the park, we would recommend visiting the south unit but if you have more time be sure to check out the more wild and less crowded north unit as well – it’s totally worth the trip!
Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
North Dakota’s only national park not only has 3 units but also covers over 70,446 acres. Needless to say, the park has plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. Inside the park, visitors will find miles of hiking and biking trails, equestrian trails, rock climbing, camping, and photography opportunities.
Here are some of our favorite things to do in the national park; we have tried to cover the attractions in all three units so it will help in your trip planning.
See the myriad of colors from Painted Canyon Overlook
The park’s Painted Canyon Visitor Center is one of the most accessible areas of the park. Located right on the I-94, this non-fee area is the best place to experience the badlands in as little as one to two hours.
The Painted Canyon abounds with stunning geological beauty. This unique region was created due to continuous erosion by the wind and the water, similar to the other areas in the park. But here, you can spot multiple layers of red, brown, orange, and white rock formations. From the Painted Canyon Overlook, you can see the incredible view spread over miles and miles of badlands.
Hike the mile-long Painted Canyon Nature Trail to see the layers from up close. The trail has steps that take you down into the canyon. The trail is kid-friendly and a great way to experience the landscape in less time. While you are there, stop inside the Visitor Center to see interesting exhibits about the park and its geology.
Get maps & more at the Visitor Center
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has three visitor centers and all of them are excellent places to start your trip. The Visitor Centers include Painted Canyon Visitor Center, South Unit Visitor Center, and the North Unit Visitor Center. The south unit also has a museum on Teddy Roosevelt.
The visitor centers are good to stock on souvenirs, see exhibits, pick up Junior Ranger books for the kids, and ask the rangers any questions. The Visitor Centers also have family fun packs that you can borrow. Our included activities, magnifying lenses, and binoculars. The kids loved the activities and field guides in the bag.
Tour the historic Maltese Cross Cabin Ranch
The Maltese Cross Cabin Ranch is located right beside the south unit visitor center. This was President Theodore Roosevelt’s first cabin in North Dakota. He lived here from 1883 – 1884 when he came to the state to hunt bison before he became President in 1901.
Since then, the cabin has been removed from the state several times and taken to the World’s Fair in St. Louis and the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland. It was returned to the park in 1959 and since then has been carefully restored and opened to the public.
On a tour of the cabin, visitors can see several objects originally used by the President as well as other replica items including a writing desk, trunk, rocking chair, and more. You can see the kitchen, bedroom, and living room. The cabin offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of the country’s only cowboy President and should be a must on your visit to the park.
Spot the critters at Prairie Dog Town
At the Prairie Dog Town Overlook, you can see hundreds of black-tailed prairie dogs, one of the most famous mammals living inside the park. These critters are actually rodents that bark in high-pitched noises if they spot predators.
They live in communities called towns and burrow their homes. At the overlook, you can spot several standing guards over their burrows and jumping up or down – or barking – if you happen to go near. The prairie dogs are herbivores and you can spot them nibbling on grasses and weeds.
The prairie dogs are abundant throughout the park and you will soon start spotting them throughout their visit!
Look out for the bison herds on your path
The American Bison is synonymous with North Dakota and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the best places in the state to see these majestic creatures. The bison was once prolific on the Great Plains but soon came near to extinction due to excessive hunting.
Fun Fact: Did you know that the American Bison is the national mammal of the United States? It is also the largest mammal in the country and can weigh up to 2000 pounds!
Fortunately, the conservation efforts carried out by Roosevelt protected their habitat, and today, you can see the bison roam freely in the state. The national park has hundreds of wild bison. You can see lonely bison while hiking on the trails.
However, our favorite experience was to encounter a large bison herd crossing the road in the south unit. We had to make way for the bison as they slowly continued to cross. While waiting, we could watch bison calves as well as adult bisons rolling in the dirt.
Learn about the unique history of the feral horses
While most of the park wildlife can be found in both the units, the feral horses can only be spotted in the south unit of the park. These horses were originally brought from Europe during colonial times and since then, they have roamed freely on the Great Plains. The horses do not belong to anyone and are truly wild.
The Native American tribes used them to hunt buffaloes and during battles. The horses contributed vastly to the growth and development of the indigenous people. The horses were also important to ranchers. They are recognized as an indispensable part of the cultural history of the state.
We actually learned a lot of this information in the ‘Horses of North Dakota’ exhibit at the North Dakota Cultural and Heritage Center in Bismarck. But seeing the wild horses run free in the National Park was a unique experience. The horses stay in groups called bands. It was fascinating to see them run and graze on the grasslands. We could also spot a few young foals.
Have other equally amazing wildlife encounters in the park
The national park is home to rich and diverse Great Plains wildlife. Visitors can see a variety of other mammals and birds apart from the famous bison herds, prairie dogs, and feral horses. While hiking in the park or camping, you can spot coyotes, badgers, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelopes, and more.
We also spotted white-tailed deer, hare, chipmunks, as well as a variety of birds including golden eagles. We could hear a rattlesnake as we hiked in the park. Our kids loved seeing the wildlife in their natural habitat and it was a fun and educational experience. To increase your chances of viewing wildlife, we recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars.
Take in the Badlands formations on the South Unit Scenic Loop Drive
The 36-mile long scenic loop road is the best way to experience the popular south unit of the park. Overlooks, trailheads, and interpretive signs are conveniently located along the drive. The scenic drive begins at the visitor center and takes you through remote areas of the national park.
Along the way, you will see the Little Missouri River, the badlands, and abundant wildlife. If you happen to visit spring to early summer, the green grass sways in the wind and you can spot a variety of wildflowers. Late summer to fall, the dried brown grass makes the landscape even more unique and desolate.
We recommend stopping at all the overlooks and taking your time on the scenic drive. Take photographs and see wildlife. Hike the Wind Canyon Trail to see spectacular views of the Little Missouri River. Admire the badlands from the Boicourt Overlook and the North Dakota Badlands Overlook.
While the drive seems short, considering the many viewpoints and hiking trails, we would recommend keeping anything from 3 hours to a full day to enjoy the scenic drive.
Visit Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch
While the Maltese Cross Cabin Ranch was FDR’s first ranch in North Dakota, the Elkhorn Ranch was where he spent a significant amount of time. His books refer to the Elkhorn Ranch as his home ranch.
While only the ruins of the ranch remain, you can still visit to see the foundation stones at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. This is the place the president chose to grieve in solitude after the death of his mother and wife – and is a fascinating place to visit.
A short 0.7 miles one-way trail leads from the parking lot to the site. The solitude of the site and its location amidst beautiful landscapes is breathtaking. Due to the lack of visitors and amenities, you can almost step back in time and experience what the President experienced while living there.
“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand–though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and for, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset.”
– From ‘Hunting Trips of a Ranchman’ by Theodore Roosevelt
See the panorama from Buck Hill
Buck Hill, in my opinion, is one of the best-kept secrets of the park. This overlook is not on the main scenic drive; you need to take a turn just a little before Boicourt Overlook. That’s why it is avoided by most people. When we visited Buck Hill, there were just a couple of other visitors there.
At 2855 ft, Buck Hill is the highest point in the south unit. This is an excellent place to watch a panoramic view of the prairies and the badlands. You can also spot wildlife including the wild horses and bison. The view from up here is especially popular with photographers.
From the parking lot to the top of the hill is a steep but short half-mile-long trail. The trail is family-friendly, our 4-year-old could easily hike to the top without any help.
Canoe or kayak down the Little Missouri River
The Little Missouri River is a tributary of the Missouri River. It flows through both the units of the national park and through the badlands formations. The gentle river is popular for paddling. From the water, you can have a unique perspective of the eroded badlands formations. You can spot the different layers of deposits and its rich vibrant shades.
Avid outdoor enthusiasts can actually canoe or kayak from the south unit in Medora to the north unit. Along the way, you can hike or spot wildlife including pelicans, eagles, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, bison, and owls. Late spring or early summer is one of the best times to go on a paddling trip. However, the trip takes about 5 days and is not for the fainthearted! To plan a trip, read the official information here.
Mountain bike the scenic Maah Daah Hey Trail
To experience the best of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, consider traversing the Maah Daah Hey Trail. The name is from the Mandan Indian language and means ‘an area that will be around for a long time’.
The trail is 144 miles long and connects the north and south units of the national park. You can bike/hike along the trail. Several campgrounds are located along the trail for backpackers. The trail is also open to horseback riders. Even if you can’t hike it in entirety, we recommend walking a mile or so on it in the south unit, for the unique experience and vistas.
Along the trail, you will be treated to expansive views of the grasslands and the uneven badlands. You will also experience North Dakota’s magnificent solitude and have a variety of wildlife encounters.
Drive the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit Scenic Byway
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit offers a much more isolated experience than the popular south unit. Accessible by an hour’s drive along North Dakota 85 from I-94, the North Unit is known for its dramatic scenery. The badlands seem more colorful here plus you can get more up close to them.
Drive along the 28 miles out and back scenic drive to explore the highlights of this area. You will be driving through the badlands and see the park from beautiful viewpoints such as the River Bend Overlook and Oxbow Overlook. You can also spot bighorn sheep, bison, and deer on the drive as well as see unique geological landforms such as cannonball concretions.
See the cannonball concretions in the North Unit
One of the more unique geological landforms that you will see in the north unit is the sandstone cannonball concretions. Stop at the Cannonball Concretions Overlook on the North Unit scenic drive to see these unique natural phenomena.
The sandstone cannonball concretions are large spherical boulders that formed naturally in the rock layers. They are formed by the deposition of minerals around a central core. The boulders became exposed as erosion weathered away the surrounding rock layer.
The cannonballs are fascinating to see. Some of them are as large as five feet and perfect spheres. You can also see some being embedded in the surface; partially eroded from the bedrock. The cannonball concretions look striking against the surface of the badlands and are a must-see on a visit to the north unit.
Explore more of the park by hiking
Hiking is one of the best ways to experience the rugged badlands, abundant wildlife, and fascinating landscapes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park has many hiking trails in the south unit as well as the north unit that are perfect for a variety of difficulty levels.
The Wind Canyon Trail is an easy trail along an eroded canyon that leads to spectacular views of the Little Missouri River. The views from here are especially scenic at sunset, making it popular with photographers. Equally stunning is the panorama from Buck Hill, the highest point in the park. The trail is just under half a mile and kid-friendly.
We also enjoyed hiking along the Old East Entrance Trail and seeing the now abandoned visitor center. We saw a hare and prairie dogs on this trail plus the kids enjoyed running over the flat grasslands.
Another must-do hike is the Petrified Forest trail that takes you past an entire area covered with petrified trees. Petrified trees are trees that instead of decomposing have been turned to stone due to unique environmental conditions. The landscape here is especially stark and desolate with colorful petrified trees in every direction.
View the dark night sky
For both astronomy lovers and amateurs alike, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its surrounding areas are great places to view the night sky. The sky here is especially dark at night and you can see thousands of planets, stars, and constellations clearly.
The Milky Way is also clearly visible from the park. Carry along binoculars or a telescope to make the most of your stargazing. The park is especially popular for watching meteor showers, shooting stars, and comets.
While you need to camp in the park to observe the night sky and go on the scenic drives at night, areas around the park such as Medora are also excellent for stargazing. The park also holds the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival in the summer.
Watch the spectacular Northern Lights
Few people know that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is also a good place to watch the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. While sightings are not guaranteed, when they do they light up the sky in beautiful shades of green and blue.
While the chance for sightings is year-round, they are more frequent and visible from late fall to spring. If you are hoping to see the northern lights on your visit, then read this before you go.
Camp in the stunning wilderness
Camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the best ways to experience this unique landscape of deep canyons and gullies at night. You can try to spot both the Northern Lights as well as the beautiful dark sky.
The park has three campgrounds: Cottonwood in the south unit and Juniper in the north unit, as well as the equestrian RoundUp campground also in the south unit. The park also allows backcountry camping, but you need to obtain free permits at the visitor center.
See the snow-covered badlands in the winter
While most people visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park from spring to fall, the badlands look beautiful even when covered in the snow in winter. However, the conditions are harsh: the park receives over 300 inches of snow throughout the season and blizzards are also common.
Theodore Roosevelt called the park ‘an abode of iron desolation’ and in no other season is this comparison more apt than in winter! Visiting in winter will also give you an idea of the extreme winter of 1886-1887 that killed over half of Roosevelt’s cattle.
The park is open year-round and the scenic drives also do not close for the season. There may be occasional closures, which you can verify at the visitor center before your visit. You can engage in winter activities such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice fishing inside the park.
Visit Chateau de Mores Historic Site
Just outside of the south unit entrance to the park, you will find the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site. This historic home was the hunting lodge and residence of the Marquis de Mores, who founded the town of Medora, named after his wife. The house was built in 1883 and is preserved as a historic site.
On a tour of the historic house, you can see the many spacious rooms that the marquis built for his wife, Medora. You can see various daily items used by the Marquis and his wife, most of which are still in excellent condition. It is fun to listen to the history of those times and the story of the Marquis.
Enjoy a stay in the charming town of Medora
Medora is the perfect base for exploring the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It has ranked among the best small towns in the USA and has a charming vibe that you simply can’t help falling in love with. There are several things to do in Medora and we recommend spending at least half a day here.
Some of the must-see attractions include exploring the Chateau de Mores Historic Site, the charming downtown with pioneer-style buildings, the Medora Musical dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, and unique dining destinations such as the Pitchfork Fondue and the Cowboy Cafe. You can also spend a relaxing day playing mini-golf, zip-lining, or just strolling around the boutiques and antique stores.
We hope you liked our post on things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Did we miss out on any outdoor activities or things to do in the park? Let us know in the comments!
Disclaimer: We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park and several other destinations in North Dakota as part of a paid campaign with North Dakota Tourism. All opinions, local businesses, and activities recommendations are our own.