The Caprock Coulee Trail is often described as one of the best hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. From this trail, you get some of the best views over the Little Missouri River and wildlife sightings are common from the trail.
If you have plans to visit the North Unit and are looking for a great hike to do, put this hike on the top of your list.
Caprock Coulee Trail Hiking Stats
Distance: 4.1 mile loop
Total Ascent: 730 feet
Lowest Elevation: 2,040 feet
Highest Elevation: 2,480 feet
Length of Time: 2 to 3 hours
Caprock Coulee Trail Elevation Profile
Caprock Coulee Trail Map
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.
Caprock Coulee Trail
Step-By-Step Trail Guide
Overview of the Trail
This hike is a loop and there are two trailheads to choose from.
The best trailhead is located at the starting point for the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. Located on Scenic Drive, this trailhead is located at the lowest point on the loop. By starting here, you get the uphill hiking over with early and end with a nice, easy downhill walk.
The second trailhead is located at the River Bend Overlook Trail. From here, you are at the highest point along the hike. You start off with the best views of the hike, followed by a big descent and later, towards the end of the hike, a long climb.
When we did this, we started at the River Bend Overlook Trail because the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail trailhead and parking lot were closed for renovation. A brand new parking lot and restrooms were just installed but not yet open.
I recommend starting at the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail trailhead (the lower trailhead) and hiking this in a counter-clockwise direction. You get the less exciting part of the hike, and most of the uphill hiking, over and done with early in the hike, and get to end with the spectacular views from the ridge.
Caprock Coulee Nature Trail
Starting at the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail trailhead (the lower parking lot), you will first walk the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. This 0.9 mile trail winds through a canyon where you get to see the geologic and biological variety of the badlands.
This first mile is easy and mostly flat. We didn’t find this part of the hike all that exciting but it gets a lot better.
What is a Coulee? A coulee is a steep, narrow canyon that was formed by water erosion. The Caprock Coulee Nature Trail takes you through one of these canyons.
On the Caprock Coulee Trail
1 mile into the hike, the trail begins to climb up to the plateau. For the next ¾ of a mile, you will steadily hike uphill, sometimes through forests and sometimes through a wide, scenic canyon. There will be a few sets of staircases along the way. This is the toughest part of the hike but it’s worth it…the views that await are spectacular!
Once you hit the 2-mile point, you are on top of the plateau and the majority of the uphill hiking is behind you. From the plateau, you will have sweeping views across the North Unit and down to Scenic Drive, as it winds its way up to the top of the plateau.
Hiking onto the plateau.
View from the plateau.
View of the badlands and Scenic Drive.
Big River Overlook
The Caprock Coulee Trail crosses Scenic Drive and not too long after that you come to the parking lot for the Big River Overlook Trail. You can do this now or after the hike, as you drive through the North Unit.
It is a very short walk to this overlook where you have big views over the Little Missouri River.
River Bend Overlook
Along the Ridge
This is the best part of the hike. Along this part of the trail, you have panoramic views not only over the Little Missouri River Valley but also over the badlands. Take your time during this part of the hike and enjoy these views.
View over the Little Missouri River.
View of the badlands.
Another view of the Little Missouri River.
At the end of the ridge, the trail very rapidly descends. You will walk down steep hills and long sections of steps. Once at the bottom, you will arrive at the trailhead parking lot, the end of the hike.
Shorter Version of this Hike
If you don’t want to hike the full 4 miles, it is easy to shorten this hike and just do the best part…the walk along the ridge. Park at the Big River Overlook and hike along the ridge as far as you want to go, turning around when you are ready.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
If you plan to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park from June through September, be aware that it can get very hot. During the summer months, thunderstorms can pop out of nowhere. Plan to hike first thing in the morning or at the very end of the day, when temperatures are at their coolest.
Bring sunblock and water on this hike. Plan on bringing at least 1 to 2 liters of water per person.
Hiking Shoes. Hiking shoes are ideal but you can get by with a good pair of walking or running shoes.
Wildlife Safety. There is a chance that you will see bison on this hike. If you do, keep your distance. They may not look it, but bison can run fast (up to 35 mph, which is much faster than the fastest human beings). The National Park Service recommends staying at least 25 yards away from a bison. You also need to keep a lookout for rattlesnakes, especially during the summer and early fall.
If you have any questions about how to hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about Theodore Roosevelt National Park
BEST OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT NP: Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
SOUTH UNIT: Complete Guide to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP
SOUTH UNIT: How to Hike the Ekblom Trail and Big Plateau Loop
SOUTH UNIT: How to Hike the Petrified Forest Trail
NORTH UNIT: Complete Guide to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP
More Things to Do in the Area
PLACES TO GO IN SOUTH DAKOTA: Here are 15 great things to do near Rapid City, South Dakota. Visit Badlands National Park, go hiking in Custer State Park, visit Wind Cave National Park, and learn how to visit Mount Rushmore.
YELLOWSTONE: If this is part of a road trip with Yellowstone, learn how to plan your visit in our Yellowstone National Park Travel Guide. Learn about the scenic drives in Wyoming between Rapid City and Yellowstone. And don’t miss our 10 day road trip with Yellowstone, Devils Tower, and Mount Rushmore.
MORE GREAT HIKES IN THE NATIONAL PARKS: From hikes to the tallest peaks to beautiful coast trails, read our Guide to the Best Day Hikes in the US National Parks. If you prefer to keep your hikes short and sweet, read our guide to the Best Short Hikes in the 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.
If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.
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