Julie United States 2 Comments

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks. In this post, learn about the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

 

While in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

A Quick Geography Lesson

Theodore Roosevelt is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.

Theodore Roosevelt NP Map NPS

Map of Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the National Park Service.

The South Unit

Most visitors spend their time at the South Unit. It has a convenient location on Interstate 94, so it is easy to get to and there are several small towns nearby that make great places to stay.

The South Unit is further divided up into three more regions.

Painted Canyon is in the east. Located right on Interstate 94, there is a Visitor Center, a rest stop for those traveling along Interstate 94, and several very good hiking trails.

Scenic Loop Drive dominates the central area of the South Unit. This 36-mile-long road leads to numerous hiking trails, overlooks, and campgrounds. Driving this loop is one of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

In the west is Petrified Forest. To get here, you will need to drive on a gravel road, but your reward is seeing ancient, petrified logs and some of the best wildlife sightings in the park.

South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Map

Map of the South Unit | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The North Unit

The North Unit is located one hour north of the South Unit. To get here, take US-85 north from Belfield.

The North Unit is much more compact than the South Unit. One road, Scenic Drive, runs through this section of the park. This is 14 miles long and along this road are overlooks, trailheads, picnic areas, and campgrounds. The road ends at Oxbow Overlook. From here, you turn around and follow the same road out of the park.

Elkhorn Ranch Unit

This small, very remote region of the park is where Theodore Roosevelt lived after the deaths of his wife and mother. To get to this ranch, you will drive on unpaved roads, a drive that takes about an hour, one-way. Visiting this part of the park is not about hikes or scenic drives…it’s more about visiting a historical site and a place where Roosevelt found solitude during a challenging time in his life.

Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Next is a list of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. These are listed in geographical area, starting with the South Unit, then the North Unit, and finally Elkhorn Ranch.

Things to Do in the South Unit

Drive Scenic Loop Drive

Scenic Loop Drive is a 36-mile-long road that makes a loop through the South Unit. From this road, you have access to numerous hiking trails and viewpoints in the park.

To drive this road, hike a few short trails, and visit the overlooks, it will take between a half and a full day, depending on how much you choose to do. Several of the sights that I list next in this article are located along Scenic Drive. For more information, a map, and many more photos, read our Guide to the South Unit.

Currently, part of the road is closed (miles 24 to 28), so it cannot be driven as a loop. You will have to drive it out-and-back. Get more information on the National Park Service website.

Maltese Cross Cabin

Location: Scenic Loop Drive

The Maltese Cabin was constructed for Theodore Roosevelt in the late 1800’s. He invested in the nearby Chimney Butte Ranch and this cabin was his temporary home.

It is located right behind the South Unit Visitor Center, so it is quick and easy to visit.

Maltese Cross Cabin

Maltese Cross Cabin | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Skyline Vista Overlook

Location: Scenic Loop Drive

This overlook is located right on Scenic Loop Drive, near the entrance into Theodore Roosevelt National Park. From here, you have sweeping views over Medora.

Skyline Vista Overlook

Skyline Vista Overlook | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Hike the Wind Canyon Trail

Location: Scenic Loop Drive

Distance: 0.4 miles round-trip | Difficulty: Easy to moderate | Time: 20 minutes

From this trail, you get a one of the best views of the Little Missouri River. It’s a short hike with one steep climb but it is worth it for these big views.

Wind Canyon Overlook

Wind Canyon Overlook | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

Little Missouri River View

Little Missouri River | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Hike the Ekblom Trail to the Little Missouri River

Location: Scenic Loop Drive

For a chance to get up close to the Little Missouri River, hike the Eklblom Trail.

This hike starts at Peaceful Valley Ranch. From the ranch, it is a 0.2-mile easy hike to get to the Little Missouri River. Here’s the view:

Little Missouri River

Little Missouri River | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Once you see the river, you can call it quits and hike back to your car (for a 0.4-mile out-and-back hike) or go farther and hike the Ekblom + Big Plateau Loop.

If you hike the full loop, it is a 5.2-mile hike that is moderately difficult and takes 2 to 3 hours. Parts of the hike are fun and very scenic, other parts are honestly a bit boring. But we saw tons of wildlife on this trail: a mule deer, two coyotes, a feral horse, and more prairie dogs than we could count. There is also a very good chance to see bison, but we weren’t so lucky.

If you are looking for an interesting hike to do in the South Unit, the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop is one to consider.

Feral Horse

Feral Horse 

 

Hiking in TRNP

Best Hikes Theodore Roosevelt

Hiking the Ekblom + Big Plateau Loop | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Visit Painted Canyon Overlook

Location: Painted Canyon

This stunning overlook is also one of the quickest, easiest things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To visit this overlook, park in the large lot next to the Visitor Center in the Painted Canyon area of the South Unit. Walk the short, paved trail behind the Visitor Center and voila, here is the view.

Painted Canyon Overlook

Painted Canyon Overlook | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Hike the Painted Canyon Trail

Location: Painted Canyon

Distance: 4.2 miles | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 1.5 to 2.5 hours

There are two great hikes to do in Painted Canyon and this is the longer of the two. The second trail, the Painted Canyon Nature Trail, starts next to the visitor center and is a 1-mile loop.

The Painted Canyon Trail is more interesting. The landscapes along the trail are more dramatic and since you head a bit deeper into the park (and away from the noisy, busy highway), wildlife sightings are more likely.

When we did this, there was a herd of bison grazing in the fields near the endpoint of this trail.

Painted Canyon Trail

Painted Canyon Trail | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt

Badlands and caprocks

 

Bison Theodore Roosevelt NP

Bison seen along the Painted Canyon Trail | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Boicourt Overlook Trail

Location: Scenic Loop Drive

Distance: 0.2 to 0.5 miles out-and-back | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 20 to 45 minutes

This trail offers two different viewpoints of the badlands in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Take the flat, paved trail 0.1 miles to the first overlook. The view from here is just OK. It takes a bit more walking to get to the better viewpoint.

The paved trail turns into a dirt trail. It heads out deeper into the badlands and from the end of the trail, you get wonderful panoramic views for one of the best views of the South Unit.

Boicourt Overlook Trail

Boicourt Overlook Trail | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

Boicourt Overlook Trail View

View from the Boicourt Overlook Trail

Enjoy the View from Buck Hill

Distance: 0.2 miles out-and-back | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 15 minutes

Buck Hill is the second highest point in the South Unit. From the parking lot, it’s a short but somewhat steep uphill walk to the viewpoint.

Buck Hill

Buck Hill | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

South Unit Theodore Roosevelt

View from Buck Hill | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Beyond the main viewpoint, the trail keeps going. We hiked it and Tim and I both think that the views are better from the overlook, so we don’t think it is worth extending this hike any farther.

Hike to the Petrified Forest

Location: Petrified Forest, South Unit

In this remote section of the South Unit, there are several small areas of petrified wood that you can hike too. It’s not quite as impressive as what you see at Petrified Forest National Park, but it’s worth if you like hiking, wildlife sightings, and visiting a quieter area of the park.

To get here, it is a 6-mile drive on gravel roads to get to the trailhead. To get to the petrified wood, hiking distances range from 3 to 10 miles, depending on which area(s) you choose to visit. This entire experience takes a few hours to half of a day.

We liked this experience. We saw more bison than people while in this area of the park and seeing the petrified wood is interesting.

Below are photos of the petrified forest, and if this sounds like something you are interested in doing, read our Guide to the Petrified Forest for more information.

Petrified Forest Theodore Roosevelt

Petrified Forest North Dakota

Petrified Wood

 

Petrified Forest Hike Photo

Things to Do in the North Unit

Enjoy the Views along Scenic Drive

Scenic Drive is 14 miles long (28 miles out-and-back). It starts at the entrance to the North Unit and ends at Oxbow Overlook. Without stops, it takes about 30 minutes to drive it one way.

It is a gorgeous drive from start to finish. This road twists and turns through the badlands, going past overlooks and next to prairie dog towns.

Along Scenic Drive, there is a very good chance that you will see bison. Also keep a look out for mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorns, coyotes, and golden eagles.

Scenic Drive North Unit

Scenic Drive | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 Caprocks

Cannonball Concretions on Scenic Drive

 

Bison Theodore Roosevelt

PRO TRAVEL TIP: The North Unit and the South Unit are in two different time zones. The North Unit is in the Central Time Zone and the South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone.

Little Mo Nature Trail

Distance: 0.7 to 1.4 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 30 to 60 minutes

For a short, scenic hike in the North Unit, put the Little Mo Nature Trail on your to-do list.

There are two ways to do this: hike the short, paved trail (0.7-mile loop) or do the longer loop (1.4 miles). The longer loop is a bit more challenging and parts of it are unpaved, but it you get great views of this part of the Little Missouri River and the North Unit.

Little Mo Nature Trail

Little Mo Nature Trail | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

Little Mo Nature Trail

Little Missouri River | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

River Bend Overlook

From this overlook, you get panoramic views of the North Unit of Theodore Roosvelt National Park. From inside the shelter, you can take some cool photos of the Little Missouri River and the badlands.

River Bend Overlook

River Bend Overlook | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

North Unit View

Caprock Coulee Trail

Distance: 4.1-mile loop | Difficulty: Moderate | Total Ascent: 730 feet | Time: 2 to 3 hours

The Caprock Coulee Trail is one of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In fact, it is our favorite experience in the park.

This trail starts on the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and then climbs up onto a plateau in the badlands. You will pass the very scenic River Bend Overlook and then you get to the best part of the hike. As the trail skirts along the edge of the badlands, you get awesome views over the Little Missouri River.

Caprock Coulee Hike

Theodore Roosevelt Things to Do

View from the Caprock Coulee Trail | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

How to Visit Theodore Roosevelt NP

View of the badlands from the trail

Oxbow Overlook

Scenic Drive ends at the parking lot for Oxbow Overlook. Walk up to the viewpoint, Oxbow Overlook, where you can see an oxbow bend of the Little Missouri River.

Oxbow Bend Theodore Roosevelt

Oxbow Overlook | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Sperati Point

Distance: 2.4 miles | Difficulty: Easy | Time: 1 hour

For one of the best views of Little Missouri River in all of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, hike the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point.

This hike starts at the Oxbow Overlook parking lot. It’s a rather boring hike through a grassland to get to Sperati Point, but it’s worth it for the view.

From Sperati Point, you get a similar view to Oxbow Overlook, but it is more impressive from here, since you are closer to the Little Missouri River and the vantage point is better.

North Unit Theodore Roosevelt

Sperati Point | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Elkhorn Ranch Unit

The Elkhorn Ranch Unit

The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is the most remote area of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. From Medora, it takes about an hour to drive here and most of this is on unpaved roads. But if you are looking for solitude in a national park, this is a great place to visit. Very few people venture out this way so you just may have it all to yourself.

Getting to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit

From Medora, the drive is 46 miles one-way. The final 30 miles of this road are gravel roads that head through private property. We did this drive in a Toyota Sienna Minivan (not our first choice, but it was our only option when we picked up our rental car due to low inventory) and had no issues on the drive. However, if it has recently rained or snowed, parts of the gravel road can be impassable, especially the last 3 miles of the drive. Get updates on road conditions at one of the park visitor centers before you do this drive.

Road to Elkhorn Ranch

Road to Elkhorn Ranch

In the park newspaper and on the National Park Service website, there are detailed driving instructions for how to get to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. We followed Google Maps and this worked fine, too. Just note that there is no cellular service at Elkhorn Ranch.

Once you reach the parking area, it is a 0.75-mile one-way flat, easy walk to get to the ranch.

Elkhorn Ranch Unit

Theodore Roosevelt built the Elkhorn Ranch in 1885. He moved out here looking for peace not long after his wife and mother died on the same day. Sewall and Dow operated the ranch for Roosevelt for several years. Roosevelt abandoned Elkhorn Ranch in 1890 and over the years, the buildings were stripped and all that remains are the stone foundations of the cabin.

Elkhorn Ranch

Elkhorn Ranch | Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Is Visiting Elkhorn Ranch Worth It?

For most people, I would say no. It takes a while to get here and it’s one of the least exciting sights to see in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I think it is only worth for those with an interest in the history of this site or those who want to explore all areas of the national park.

Best Experiences in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

To help narrow down the long list of things to do, here are our favorite viewpoints and hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Best Viewpoints in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Here are our top 5 favorite viewpoints and their locations:

  • Sperati Point, North Unit
  • River Bend Overlook, North Unit
  • View from the Wind Canyon Trail, South Unit
  • Painted Canyon Overlook, South Unit
  • Views along Scenic Drive in the North Unit

Best Hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Here are our top 5 favorite hikes and their locations:

  • Caprock Coulee Trail, North Unit
  • Ekblom Trail +/- Big Plateau Loop, South Unit
  • Painted Canyon Trail, South Unit
  • Boicourt Overlook Trail, South Unit
  • Little Mo Nature Trail, North Unit

Best Unit to Visit in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If you only have time to visit one section of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I recommend the North Unit.

The North Unit is small and easy to visit. The drive along Scenic Drive is gorgeous from start to finish and there is a very good chance you will see bison and other wildlife on the drive.

Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, our favorite hike in the park, and visit the numerous overlooks with their spectacular views of the Little Missouri River. The North Unit also tends to be less crowded, so that’s a bonus.

Bison

Bison in the North Unit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Itinerary

If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit). Here is a day-by-day itinerary for 1 to 3 days in the park.

Day 1: North Unit

One full day is all you need to thoroughly explore the North Unit. Drive Scenic Drive, visit the overlooks, hike the Little Mo Nature Trail, the Caprock Coulee Trail, and the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point.

Day 2: South Unit

Start your day at the Painted Canyon area of the South Unit. Take your pick between the Painted Canyon Nature Trail (short and easier) or the Painted Canyon Trail (longer but more interesting).

Next, drive Scenic Loop Drive, visiting the overlooks along the way. If you like hiking, we also recommend doing the Ekblom Trail and Big Plateau Loop.

Day 3: Petrified Forest and/or Elkhorn Ranch Unit

A visit to the Petrified Forest takes a half of a day and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit takes a half of a day, so these can be combined into one day. Or, visit one of them and use the afternoon to travel to your next destination.

How to Get to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located on Interstate 94 in western North Dakota. There are several small towns located nearby, these being Medora, Belfield, and Dickinson.

Here are driving distances and times from nearby destinations to Medora:

  • Bismarck, North Dakota: 135 miles, 2 hours
  • Rapid City, South Dakota: 240 miles, 4 hours
  • Billings, Montana: 280 miles, 4 hours
  • Devils Tower, Wyoming: 230 miles, 3.5 hours

To get to the North Unit, it is a one-hour drive from Belfield and just over an hour drive from Medora.

Where to Stay

Medora has a good location for visiting the south unit, since it is located next to the park entrance. This small, western-themed town has small shops and restaurants.

Belfield is the next closest town but doesn’t offer a lot in the way of hotels or restaurants.

We stayed in Dickinson, which is about 30 minutes east of the South Unit and just over an hour away from the North Unit. There are numerous hotels to choose from, with popular chains such as TownePlace Suites by Marriott (this is where we stayed), La Quinta by Wyndham, Candlewood Suites, and Hampton Inn & Suites.

In Dickinson, we highly recommend the Brickhouse Grille (great steaks, salads, and seafood) or Phat Fish Brewing (brewery with beer flights and bar food) for dinner.

In the North Unit, camping at the Juniper Campground is first-come, first-serve. With a free permit, you can also camp in the backcountry.

Plan Your Visit

Cost: $30 per private vehicle, valid for 7 days

Hours of Operation: The South Unit and the North Unit are open 24 hours a day all year. This includes all three areas of the South Unit. Visitor Center hours vary by season and you can get updated hours on the National Park Service website.

Before you go, check the National Park Service website for park conditions and updates on road closures and trail closures.


If you have any questions about the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, let us know in the comment section below.

Where Are You Going Next?

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: For more information about how to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park, read our Guide to the South Unit and our Guide to the North Unit.

SOUTH DAKOTA ITINERARY: If you also have plans to visit South Dakota, don’t miss our One Week South Dakota Itinerary.

YELLOWSTONE: If this is part of a road trip with Yellowstone, learn how to plan your visit in our Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide. You can also include Beartooth Highway on the drive between Theodore Roosevelt and Yellowstone National Parks.

NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.

USA TRAVEL INSPIRATION: For more great ideas on where to go in the United States, check out our article Best USA Road Trips, which has 18 sample itineraries for your next big adventure. You can also see more travel itineraries on our Travel Itineraries page and our National Park Itineraries.

Read all of our articles about the United States in our United States Travel Guide.

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

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Comments 2

  1. Avatar for Cam
    Cam

    What time of the year did you visit this park? The foliage looks like autumn but I could be wrong. Looking to visit next summer and wondering if I’ll see these beautiful colors.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
      Author

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