“THIS is why we came to Theodore Roosevelt National Park!”, I thought to myself while quietly gazing through the windshield of our motorhome. Driving through the untouched vast terrains while witnessing many different geological wonders, roaming buffalo and other wildlife, I wondered why it took us so long to visit.
In western North Dakota lies a quiet less-visited National Park that gets far few visitors than Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons. However, in my opinion, Theodore Roosevelt National Park reigns as one with the crown jewels of our National Park System because of its’ solitude in nature. From its’ rugged Badlands meeting the Grasslands and Great Plains, it’s no wonder the majestic bison, elk and prairie dogs claim this land as theirs’…and why Theodore Roosevelt called it ‘home’.
Why is it named after Theodore Roosevelt?
It’s where Theodore Roosevelt found his healing place after losing his mother from Typhoid Fever and his young wife, Alice, from kidney disease in 1884. Alice perished only two days after giving birth to their daughter on Valentines’ Day. Oddly, his mother passed away on the same day leaving not-yet-President Roosevelt a devastated and broken man. He needed time and a quiet place to heal his wounded heart.
He escaped his political career and left his daughter with his sister before setting out to the Dakota territories to seek that solitude. During that time, he kept busy by ranching and becoming a sheriff. Roosevelt also found his passion of writing history. But it wasn’t but a couple years later that a paralyzing blizzard forced him returning to society in New York and back into politics.
And now, 135 years later, while gazing out our windshield at Roosevelt’s healing place, it didn’t take but a few hours or exploring to understand why he came here.
During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency between 1901 and 1909, he signed into legislation establishing five National Parks; Crater Lake, Oregon; Wind Cave, South Dakota; Sullys Hill, North Dakota (later re-designated a game preserve); Mesa Verde, Colorado; and Platt, Oklahoma (now part of Chickasaw National Recreation Area). He also established four National Monuments.
Upon Theodore Roosevelt’s passing in early 1919, there were proposals to establish a memorial in his honor. However, though Theodore Roosevelt headed much legislation to establish and preserve our National Parks, it wasn’t until November 10, 1978 that Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established.
Today, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to over 70,000 acres of incredible nature that memorializes him for his contributions to the preservation, conservation and protection of our America’s resources.
Just a side note; did you know that President Theodore Roosevelt is one of the busts carved into Mount Rushmore? If you’re going to visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial, we highly recommend checking out our Mount Rushmore ultimate visitor guide before you go!
Where Theodore Roosevelt Lived
Prior to his wife and mother’s passing, Theodore Roosevelt (pre-Presidency) was an avid hunter and loved the outdoors. North Dakota (Dakota Territories) called his name so he decided to buy a ranch where he could go when he needed time away from New York. So, he purchased the Chimney Butte Ranch located 7 miles south of the town of Medora.
Just outside the National Park entrance, stands his Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin and the Chimney Ranch. Roosevelt had built the Maltese Cross Cabin in 1883. However, many years later, it was relocated from its original position near the banks of the Little Missouri River seven miles south of the town of Medora to its’ current location for continued preservation.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin and museum are open during visitor center operating hours. And, before heading out the door to set out on your adventure, pick up a couple souvenirs and stickers.
Upon returning to the Dakota Territories after his family tragedy in 1884, Theodore Roosevelt built a second ranch site; naming it the Elkhorn Ranch. Because of its’ remote location, he claimed it as home. Today, the isolated site that’s deep in the Badlands is not easy to find. However, there is a map showing its location. Little remains at the location. For more information, you can ask a Ranger at the Visitor Center. When we return (and we will!), this is on our must-do list.
One Park + Two Units = Lots To See and DO!
There are two parts of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; the South Unit and the North Unit. Both have indescribably beautiful scenic drives and pull-offs to view wildlife and scenery. But there’s so much more to do than drive the scenic loops and looking through your windows.
To give you an idea of the many hiking trails throughout Theodore Roosevelt National Park (both units combined), there’s something for everybody’s comfort zone. There are five (5) easy trails, six (6) easy-to-moderate trails and eight (8) moderate-to-strenuous hiking trails. Unfortunately, we only got to hike three trails during our visit because of weather and time restraints. So that alone, tells us we need to go back to finish business.
While the main attractions are the incredibly mind-blowing badlands topography and the majestic Bison, there is so much more to see and do. And, to be quite honest, we didn’t get to see and do everything we wanted.Because we had a few days of cold rain, it limited our time to explore. But that didn’t stop us going out on the nice days.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK – SOUTH UNIT
South Unit Scenic Loop
The 36 mile South Unit loop begins and ends in the town of Medora. While the drive takes approximately 90 minutes alone, we planned an all-day outing to stop for hikes and take some once-in-a-lifetime photos. The road winds around the Little Missouri Badlands.
South Unit Visitor Center
Before entering the South Unit, you’ll want to visit the Visitor Center. Don’t forget to get your cancellation stamp in your National Park Passport. There are Rangers available to recommend hiking trails and answer any questions you may have. You also can pick up your backcountry permits at the Visitor Center as well. Before leaving though, we highly recommend not missing the 17-minute video that highlights the history and habitats of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Our first day after arriving, we drove the South Unit Scenic Loop Drive. It has several pullouts and interpretive signs of the history, wildlife and terrain. There was quite an abundance of wildlife including what the Park is known for; the Bison. You may also get a glimpse of pronghorns, mule deer and elk, turkeys, coyotes and both, golden and bald eagles. And, if you’re lucky, you. may get to see the wild horses in the distance.
Oh, and we can’t forget the prairie dogs! We pulled our motorhome over at the park’s Prairie Dog Town to sit and watch them forage and chatter.
South Unit Hiking Trails
On day two of our visit, we took in some easy hiking in the South Unit. Our first hike on the Wind Canyon Trail took us on a half-mile incline up to an overlook where the view of the Little Missouri River surely didn’t disappoint. However, if we could offer a piece of advice, hike that later in the day as we learned that’s a great sunset viewing point.
But the trails we missed were the Buck Hill trail and two self-guided nature trails; the Coal Vein Trail (about .8 mile) and the Ridgeline Nature Trail (about .6 mile). If you’re into taking a historic jaunt, check out the hike to the old East Entrance Station (approximately .8 mile round-trip). Be aware, if you want to overnight on these trails, you will need to get a backcountry permit at the Ranger Station.
For more information on the South Unit hiking trails, check out their Hiking Guide.
South Unit Camping – Cottonwood Campground
THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK – NORTH UNIT
The North Unit scenic drive is a little shorter taking in 28 miles of incredible scenery and vast terrain differentials. This roadway treks across the Badlands inclining its way up to the historic River Bend Overlook. And, just when you think you’ve seen it all, the drive guides along the prairie grasses and, once again, through the Badlands to the breathtaking Oxbow Overlook. Plan to spend some time there to take in the view and explore.
North Unit Visitor Center
Since we had already visited the visitor center at the South Unit, our intent to visit the North Unit’s visitor center was only to get our National Park Passport cancellation dated stamp. Besides, the North Unit’s was much smaller and had the same souvenirs, postcards and stickers. There are restrooms available there as well.
The North Unit treated us to several different viewings from rugged wilderness area, more badlands to vast grassland prairies. On this scenic drive, we got to see bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes and more prairie dogs. We were told by the Rangers that we may be lucky to spot a moose or two; especially during rut season.
Points of Interest
- River Bend Overlook and CCC shelter
- Oxbow Overlook
- Cannonball Concretions Pullout
- Caprock Coulee Nature Trail
- Achenbach Trail
North Unit Hiking Trails
Nature Trails in the North Unit are perfect for casual hikers, but we read in the pamphlet that the backcountry trails really steal the show! The Buckhorn, Caprock Coulee, and famed Achenbach Trails traverse the park’s vast wilderness areas. Again though, hikers must procure a backcountry permit for overnight hiking.
So of those trails, unfortunately we only got to hike the Caprock Coulee trail because we still had much to see in the North Unit. On the trail, we encountered other hikers who sternly advised us to turn around and head back as a ‘bison bull who was full of himself’ didn’t want any of us in his territory. Never do we want to mess with wildlife anyway but a big huge horny bison, oh hell no! Once we got back to our motorhome, we grabbed a snack and continued on our drive.
For more comprehensive on the North Unit hiking trails, check out their Hiking Guide.
North Unit Camping – Juniper Campground
We didn’t camp in the North Unit however, we want to share the information about The North Unit’s Juniper Campground. It’s about five miles from Highway 85. And like Cottonwood, the primitive campground is open to tents and RVs with no hookups.
All regular sites are first come, first served. Juniper Campground generally fills up by late afternoon on weekends and holidays. The group site is by reservation only at recreation.gov and reservations open each year on the first business day in March at 8:00 am MST. And like the South Unit’s Cottonwood Campground, water may not be available at the beginning and end of the season due to weather.
Next time we visit, we definitely will camp at Juniper Campground to enjoy more of the North Unit.
Great trip planning resources for Theodore Roosevelt National Park
When planning your visit , we highly recommend this Theodore Roosevelt National Park National Geographic map of the park. We collect these maps because the illustrate hiking trails and topography. Also, they are waterproof and won’t tear at the folds.
Also, check out this guide book: