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.
In this guide, we cover the best things to do in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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.
#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.
View from the longer loop. In this photo, you can see the paved trail of the short loop.
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.
#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.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail
Caprock Coulee Trail
Overlooking the Little Missouri River from the Caprock Coulee Trail.
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.
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 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.
#9 Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point
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 bision, this hike is absolutely 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.
Here is the view.
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.
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.
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?
SOUTH UNIT: Complete Guide to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
SOUTH UNIT: How to Hike the Petrified Forest Trail
NORTH UNIT: How to Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail
SOUTH DAKOTA ROAD TRIP: One Week South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: Black Hills & the Badlands
BADLANDS NP: One Perfect Day in Badlands National Park
MOUNT RUSHMORE: Mount Rushmore: 10 Things to Know Before You Go
DEVILS TOWER: Complete Guide to Devils Tower National Monument
WIND CAVE NP: Hiking the Lookout Trail and Centennial Trail Loop
YELLOWSTONE: 18 Amazing Things to Do in Yellowstone National Park
YELLOWSTONE & MOUNT RUSHMORE: How to Drive between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone
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