Julie United States 7 Comments

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is made of up three separate units: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The North Unit is our favorite part of the park. The views of the badlands and the Little Missouri River are spectacular, the Caprock Coulee Trail is tons of fun to hike, and this unit tends to be a bit less crowded than the South Unit.

Overview of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt is located on US-85. From the South Unit, it takes just over one hour to drive here.

South Unit to North Unit Map

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.

It takes half to a full day to visit the North Unit, depending on whether or not you go hiking. This section of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is very easy to see from your car, but there is one hike we highly recommend. We will get to that in a few minutes.

Theodore Roosevelt Park Sign

Things to Do in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This list of things to do in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is organized geographically. The list starts at the park entrance and ends at the end of Scenic Drive.

#1 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.

Scenic Drive North Unit

Badlands Theodore Roosevelt

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.

There are pull outs along the way, like this one called the Cannonball Concretions Pullout.


Cannonball Concretions Pullout

#2 Wildlife Viewing

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a great park for wildlife viewing. 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.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt

#3 Buckhorn Trail

Distance: 11 mile loop | Difficulty: Moderate | Time: 6 to 8 hours

The Buckhorn Trail is an 11 mile loop that takes you into the backcountry of the North Unit. On this hike, you get to see several prairie dog towns and there is a good chance that you will see bison.

We did not hike this trail (but we hiked three others in the North Unit). Prior to our visit to the North Unit, Tim and I spoke to a park ranger for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. He said that this is a nice trail, but it is long, somewhat repetitive, and there was a recent grassland fire so the vegetation is just starting to recover.

Due to its length, this tends to be a low traffic trail, so if you like to get away from the crowds, this is a hike to consider doing. However, if you only have the time or energy to do one hike, we have several more options below.

US National Parks List

#4 Little Mo Nature Trail

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

We loved this short trail. It’s quick, it’s easy, and you get a very nice view of the Little Missouri River.

This hike starts and ends at the Juniper Campground. This hike has a short loop and a long loop.

The short loop is 0.7 miles long, paved, and takes you to a viewpoint of the Little Missouri River.

The long loop (1.4 miles) is a bit more challenging and offers great views of this part of the North Unit. You will start on the short loop. The long loop breaks off the short loop and you will start hiking on a dirt trail. This trail heads up some steps to a viewpoint of the area. Then, it loops back towards the Little Missouri River and rejoins the paved short loop.

North Unit Theodore Roosevelt NP

View from the longer loop. In this photo, you can see the paved trail of the short loop.

 Little Mo Nature Trail

The view from the highest point on the trail.

There is a nature trail guide available at the trailhead which explains the sights along the hike.

Little Mo Nature Guide

#5 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 the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National 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 Trail

Caprock Coulee Trail

 Theodore Roosevelt National Park photo

Overlooking the Little Missouri River from the Caprock Coulee Trail.


How to Visit Theodore Roosevelt NP

On the Caprock Coulee Trail, you also have views of the badlands.

#6 River Bend Overlook

Scenic Drive climbs up onto a plateau. At the top of the climb there is a parking area and viewpoint over the park. From the parking lot, it is a short, downhill walk to the River Bend Overlook.

From this overlook and shelter, you get panoramic views of the North Unit of Theodore Roosvelt National Park.

River Bend Overlook

North Unit View

River Bend Overlook View

The view from the River Bend Overlook

#7 Bentonitic Clay Viewpoint

This viewpoint gives you views over the badlands. Bentonitic clay is the blueish-gray clay that colors these hills.

Bentonitic Clay

Bentonitic Clay Overlook

Bentonitic Clay Overlook

#8 Oxbow Overlook

As Scenic Drive heads towards Oxbow Overlook, keep an eye out for bison. This part of the drive takes you through grasslands and we saw a lot of bison here.



Scenic Drive ends at a large parking lot. Walk up to the viewpoint, Oxbow Overlook, where you can see an oxbow bend of the Little Missouri River. There are also restrooms here.

Oxbow Bend Theodore Roosevelt

Oxbow Overlook

#9 Achenbach Trail to 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. The trailhead is located next to the bathroom.

It’s a rather boring hike through a grassland to get to Sperati Point, unless you happen so see bison from the trail. Even without the bison, this hike is absolutely worth it for the view.

Achenbach Trail

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.

Here is the view.

Sperati Point

Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt NP

Note: The Achenbach Trail continues beyond Sperati Point. In total, it is 18 miles long, has two river crossings, and heads into the backcountry of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Things to Do in the North Unit: On a Map

How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (things to do and the driving route). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

How Many Days Do You Need in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

On the quickest of visits, you can cruise through the North Unit, stopping at the overlooks along the way. It takes approximately 3 hours to drive out-and-back on Scenic Drive and visit the overlooks.

With half of a day, drive Scenic Drive, visit the overlooks, and hike either the Little Mo Nature Trail or the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point.

With one full day in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you can drive Scenic Drive, visit the overlooks, and hike the Little Mo Nature Trail, the Caprock Coulee Trail, and the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point.

Theodore Roosevelt NP North Unit

How to Get to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt is located on US-85. From the South Unit, it takes just over one hour to drive here. From Dickinson, it takes an hour and fifteen minutes to drive here.

Where to Stay

To visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we recommend staying in either Medora or Dickinson.

Medora is located next to the park entrance for the South Unit. This western-themed town has small shops, restaurants, and lodges.

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

Juniper Campground

Juniper Campground

Plan Your Visit

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

Hours of Operation: The North Unit is open 24 hours a day all year. Visitor Center hours vary by season and you can get updated hours on the NPS website.

Time Zone: 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.

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 things to do in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, let us know in the comment section below.

Where Are You Going Next?

THEODORE ROOSEVELT: Get an overview of this national park in our article Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We also have guides to the South Unit, the Ekblom Trail, the Caprock Coulee Trail, and the Petrified Forest.

BEST OF THE BADLANDS: Learn about the best things to do in Badlands National Park, how to hike the Notch Trail, how to spend one perfect day in Badlands National Park, a get a list of the best hiking trails in the park.

SOUTH DAKOTA ITINERARY: In our One Week South Dakota Itinerary, visit Custer State Park, Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore.

NATIONAL PARKS BY SEASON: Theodore Roosevelt National Park appears in our Best US National Parks in June and Best National Parks in October articles. For more information about the best times to visit the national parks, check out our Best National Parks Month-by-Month Guide.

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.


Visit More National Parks:


Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit


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Comments 7

  1. Avatar for Elizabeth Brunt
    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      That’s a great question. You may have cellular service in the North Unit and South Unit, but I wouldn’t depend on it. I can’t recall if we have cellular service, but I’m fairly certain we did in parts of the South Unit. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for David A Ward
  3. Avatar for Anusha Gopalakrishnan
    Anusha Gopalakrishnan

    Hi Julie
    You continue to help us in our NP explorations ; Last year we visited the Mighty five, Grand canyon and Death valley, all thanks to your guidance.
    This year we are visiting the Dakotas , but due to some work commitments it will be in early Spring (March 27th).

    My question for you is regarding the drive between North and South Units of Teddy Roosevelt NP. We are staying at Dickinson and we only had 1 day to explore this park. And we were initially only thinking of exploring the South Unit, but from your page it looks like we should drive to the North Unit too; atleast drive the scenic routes. I wanted to check if there is a way to drive through the park from the North to South unit through the mid part (Elkorn ridge).

    Also, if we miss the North Unit, would we miss a lot of animals? I hope to see wildlife in South unit.
    Thanks a lot

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Anusha. I am not aware of a way to drive to the Elkhorn Unit in between the north and south units. And I don’t think you miss much by skipping the Elkhorn unit. Plus, since it is gravel roads to get there, I’m not sure how those roads will be in March (there is still a chance it could snow). We loved the north unit, and if you don’t mind doing a lot of driving, you could visit both in the same day, but you will have to be very choosey about what you do in the south unit. In the south unit, going as far as Wind Canyon is probably sufficient, and visit Painted Canyon Overlook…that will take a few hours but still give you enough time to drive through the north unit. We saw a lot more wildlife in the north unit but that was just based off of our few days in the park. We did see bison when hiking several places in the south unit, so there is a chance you will see wildlife while you are there (although it’s never a guarantee). I hope you have a great time in the park and get to see some bison! Cheers, Julie

  4. Avatar for Betty Vondran
    Betty Vondran

    You have helped me plan 75% of a huge National Parks tour this summer (Tetons/Yellowstone/Glacier/Waterton/Teddy Roosevelt) and your information has been by far the most useful of any sites I’ve explored; thank you!

    Question – we are going to have about 1.5 days at Teddy Roosevelt, staying in Medora. I’ve been through Badlands National Park years ago, but could never get there at sunrise or sunset for the stunning color pics. This is my shot; but with the road closure the loop in the south unit is out and back and getting there before sunrise or leaving after sunset to get back means an hour drive in the park, which I am guessing could be treacherous? Recommendations for the best pics of the Badlands with the sun lighting them up?

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Betty. Thanks for writing in! Scenic Loop Drive is paved and should be fine in the dark, whether it’s very early in the morning or after sunset. You have to take your time, because there could be wildlife on the roads, but in general, road conditions are great in the park. The badlands in Theodore Roosevelt is nice but not nearly as dramatic as Badlands National Park. In my opinion, the “better badlands” of Theodore Roosevelt is in the North Unit and in general, we liked the North Unit more than the South Unit. But for a good view of the Badlands in the South Unit, we liked the Boicourt Overlook Trail and Buck Hill. In the North Unit, Sperati Point is awesome, but you have to hike to get here, and the River Bend Overlook is also very nice. For an easy spot to get to from Medora of the ones I listed, Boicourt Overlook is the closest and about a 30 minute drive. I hope you have a great visit to the parks this summer and let us know if you have more questions. Cheers, Julie

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