Theodore Roosevelt National Park started it’s life many years ago as Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park. Although memorial parks are an odd thing, and it probably became a better fit as a National Park. The park protects a large swath of the North Dakotan badlands.
Why is the Park named for Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt came to the North Dakotan Badlands in 1883. Roosevelt fell in love with the badlands and return to the area many times, and even investing in a ranch and (Maltese Cross Cabin) in the area. These events took place years before Roosevelt would become Governor of New York and President of the United States. After the passing of his wife, Roosevelt returned to North Dakota to his ranch (and eventually second ranch) and his life in the West. Roosevelt became synonymous with the Wildness of the West and he took great pride in his life and time there. The area where he settled later became known as the National Park today.
When was Theodore Roosevelt National Park established?
Years before it was a National Park, the badlands were surveyed for an area for a park. Much of roads and trails in the parks were created by the Civilian Conservation Corp, which famously built many park structure, roads, and trails across the National Parks. In 1946, the area would take on the designation of Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge. In 1951, the park was renamed Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park. The first and only Memorial Park administered by the National Park System. This probably in ways lead to it’s designation in 1978 to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The Structure of the National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into two units, the North and South unit. The North Unit’s entrance is located about 15 miles south of Watford City off Routh 85. The South Unit’s entrance is located close to the city of Medora off route I-94. The two entrances are nearly 70 miles apart.
There is actually no way to drive internally between the units. You can actually hike between the unit’s although you’ll need a backcountry permit and much of the area is designated “wilderness”. So don’t expect any services.
When to Visit Theodore Roosevelt NP
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open year round to visitors (weather permitting) which gives ample opportunity to visit the park. The Park receives about 600,000 visitors a year, and while that sounds like a lot it is far lower than many other National Parks. Summers see the most traffic with children out of school and everything open. Winters can give you a lot of solitude in the park, however snow can and does at times close the roads into the park. Spring can see more rain which should should consider when visiting the park. Fall can be some of the best times to visit with lower crowds and still fairly good weather.
What is the Weather like in Theodore Roosevelt NP
North Dakota can see some extremes with weather and that is for sure noticeable in the National Park as well.
Winters can be very cold with some heavy snowfalls. You can find temperatures below -10F in peak winter. The summers can have extreme heat as well. At times I was recommended to not hike on a specific date because of the high heat. You can certainly see temperatures above 100 in peak summer months
Mid May to October tends to be the peak times and best weather times overall to visit. Spring can be unpredictable with weather with late snowfalls and even potential for tornados in the area.
For me fall is the perfect time to go. Particularly September, with still warm days, plenty of sunlight, and overall good weather conditions.
Places to Visit in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
While I recommend you getting out into nature, you can visit quite a lot from the main thoroughfares through the park. The loop road in the South Unit is popular to drive and stop at very overlooks and stops. You’ll likely see wildlife from the ease of the road as well. The North unit and road provide great view of the badlands as well. Several short walks like the Oxbow Overlook and Painted Canyon Nature Trail give quick non-strenuous views as well.
North Unit Points of Interest
The North Unit is far smaller in terms of what is road accessible than the South. But there are still some cool road-accessible things worth seeing and the views of the badlands indeed are worth the trip as well. You’ll also find far fewer people than the South Unit.
Really odd seeming rock spheres that appear to not really belong to the landscape. However, it’s such a cool story in that as mineral rich water seeps into the porous gaps of the badlands it starts to form around a core such as with pearls and forming these interesting stone spheres.
River Bend Overlook
Gives you a cool view over the Little Missouri River from a cool little shelter. The shelter was built by the CCC during the 1930s! So the history there is really cool as well. Enjoy the view and the Shelter.
Located at the end of the road in the North Unit, Oxbow Overlook is worth the stop even just to stay you made it to the end of the Road. The views are beautiful and there’s several large and small trails that extend from this point. Take a bit of time to wander the Overlook as well.
South Unit Points of Interest
The South Unit has a lot more options for places to stop and see. You can spend quite a bit of time driving the loop road and stopping at overlooks and various sites. Be sure to check out the painted canyon area as well.
Painted Canyon Area
Not Accessible from the loop road (you need to access from I-94, exit 32), the Painted Canyon area has a visitor center as well as a few jumping off points for trails through the badland landscape. Worth visiting for a chance to get close to some of these interesting formations.
Prairie Dog Town
There are over 20 prairie dog towns in the South Unit of the park, and quite a few are located near the loop road. You’ll see the first dog town about 3 miles from the park entrance before you hit the main loop. You’ll likely even see quite a few bison in the area as well.
Peaceful Valley Ranch
The only remaining of the original ranches located within the National Park. You have an opportunity to see some of the historic buildings of the ranch and learn about the history of the area. From 1918 to 2014, the park offered horseback rides and sadly has ended that practice. They stopped it due to repair issues (which have been made) and maybe one day those activities will return to the ranch. During the 1930s the ranch also housed Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) staff. Several hiking trails start from this area as well.
Maltese Cross Cabin
Before he was president, Teddy Roosevelt spent a lot of time in North Dakota and much of it at his ranch and Cabin. The cabin now has been moved adjacent to the South Unit Visitor Center. Guests can tour this cabin with ranger-led tours.
Coal Vein Nature Trail
There are several trails that explore the landscape of the park and one traces along exposes coal veins in the park. There are several of these exposed veins and they do tend to catch on fire at times. When I was there in 2021 the vein was burning and prevented access to the area (and lots of smoke). Burning coal veins like these are a natural part of the badlands landscape.
Boicourt Overlook gives visitors a view over the landscape of the badlands. It is a beautiful view and an easy stop along the road. It gives a good appreciate of the size and features of the park and area.
Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt NP
There’s definitely more hikes to be had in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This is just a sample of ones that you can look into while in the park. If you want some serious multi-day hikes, you need to plan ahead and get a backcountry permit. Permits are free and can be obtain at the North and South Unit Visitors Centers.
Hiking in the North Unit
Less of a trail and more of a quick meander. Oxbow overlook gives you a great view over the badlands of the North Unit. The trail is about 0.2 miles and starts at the end of the road for the North Unit.
A 1.5 mile trail that takes you up to a beautiful overlook over the Missouri River. The trail is overall pretty easy going with beautiful views and rolling landscape. The trail starts at the end of the road in the North Unit near the Oxbow Overlook above.
Definitely one that requires some prep and a lot more work. The Achebach trail requires 10+ hrs. and covers over 18miles. You’ll likely have sections of it all to yourself, especially as your progress further. Bring lots of water and definitely keep an eye on the heat and weather. We were told to avoid on days when it’s particularly hot (100F or so).
Hiking in the South Unit
Elkblom & Big Plateau Loop
A 5.2 mile moderate rated high. The Big Plateau Loop gives you a great view of Teddy Roosevelt’s Park’s landscape and wildlife. You wander through the badlands up to a large plateau and through various other landscapes touching on some of the wilderness areas of the park as well. The plateau is a popular spot for bison grazing and you’ll likely see quite a few on your hike. Be sure to keep your distance though as on our ranger led hike he nearly had to call in for some folks in a dangerous position. Of note, the start of the hike crosses a stream, so consider waterproof footwear. Definitely my favorite of the park. The trail starts near Peaceful Valley Ranch.
Painted Canyon Trail and Nature Trail
These two trails start in the same area and help showcase some of the beautiful badlands. The trail names come from the layers of sediment that make up the badland structures. The Nature Trail is great for folks who want a quick introduction without the stress. The Nature Trail is about 1 mile and takes about 30 minutes to complete. For those who want more of a challenge and get closer to the badlands, the Canyon Trail covers over 4 miles (out and back) and takes about 2 hrs. to finish.
The trail does not go through the main entrance of the South Unit, but close to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center (Exit 32 off I-94)
Wind Canyon Trail
For those looking for an easy but lovely trail, Wind Canyon is a short 0.5 mile loop with lovely views over the Little Missouri River. The trail is easily accessed from the north side of the loop road.
Wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Before coming to Theodore Roosevelt NP I had no idea the diversity of wildlife in the national park. But there is ample opportunity to view wildlife and you’ll likely see quite a few, including a multitude of Bison and Prairie Dogs. Below are some of the animals you may encounter in the park.
The largest land mammal in North America, Bison can weight upwards of 2,000 lbs. At one point Bison nearly went extinct with a small herd remaining in Yellowstone National Park and in a few private reserves. Protections have increased those numbers to over 500,000 thousands but a far cry from the tens of millions that roamed the American West. Twenty nine Bison from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge arrived in 1956.
Today, Theodore Roosevelt has about 600 bison divided between the two parks. The parks limit about 200 – 400 Bison for the South Unit and about 100 – 300 Bison in the North Unit. Rangers strictly controls the bison to prevent cross breeding with cows that can make them susceptible to respiratory diseases.
Black-tailed Prairie Dogs
While called dogs, Prairie Dogs are more closely related to squirrels than their canine friends. The name comes from the barking sound emitted by the dogs to warn other prairie dogs of danger. Of the 5 prairie dog species in North America, the black-tailed Prairie Dog is the only one that is found in the park. Prairie dogs then to live in groups, and you can find several “dog towns” throughout the park. Several are easily seen from the various roads that travel through the park. You’ll often see bison near prairie dog towns as the dogs eat the small grass encouraging new growth. Be careful when walking by a dog town as you could easily step in a hole and injure yourself. Oh and be sure to to stay away from Prairie Dogs, many actually carry the Bubonic Plague. Yes, that plague, the one called black death.
Elk (also called wapiti) are large members of the deer family and one of the largest mammals in North America. Male Elk (bulls) can weight 700-1100 lbs. and females (cows) can weight around 600 lbs. Fall seems a lot of activity during the “elk rut” where bulls compete for mates. Elks were only reintroduced to the badlands in 1985 and since have grown quickly in population.
There are over 185 different bird species that frequent the park. Some of the notable ones you may see include Golden Eagles, wild turkeys, great horned owls, and sand-hill cranes. Many of the birds are migratory so you’ll have to check on the season if you have something specific you hope to see.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Itinerary
If you want to do Theodore Roosevelt National Park right, think to spend two days in the park. If you want to maximize National Park Units consider one of the nearby places as well.
Day 1: North Unit
Head to the North Unit for the First Day. From here you can drive the park road that leads through the park. There are several hiking trails you can also visit.
Visit: Be sure to check out Cannonball Concretions and the unusual rock formats. Stopping at the various Overlooks especially River Bend (and the cool CCC Shelter) and also Oxbow Overlook which is at the end of the road. Usually there is a ranger here to give advice as well.
Bonus: If Time Permits and you are a National Park Completionist, check out nearby Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site.
Day 2: South Unit
Travel early to the South Unit to beat the crowds. Stop at the Visitor Center (if it’s open by the time you arrive) or drive the road in stopping at the prairie dog town before the loop.
The hike should take you a few hours to complete. Either bring your lunch, or after the hike, continue on the loop road to see the rest of the loop and stop at the various overlooks.
Have lunch in nearby Medora. There a bunch of cool little spots in the strip downtown.
Stay: Consider spending the night at Cottonwood Campground (and hear a cool Ranger Talk), or for something less rustic, in nearby Medora or if hotels are pricey/booked up in Dickinson.
If you have additional days, recommend spending more time in the South Unit. There are a lot of hikes that you can certainly do. However, unless you are planning to do more longer (backcountry hikes) it might not be as interesting scenic diversity wise.
Camping in Theodore Roosevelt NP
There are a few campsites in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There is one campground in the North Unit and two in the South Unit. Although the second is actually a group campsite for one group and primarily for those with horses.
South Unit Camping
# of Units: 76
Reservations: Half first-come first-serve – half reservation on Recreation.gov
Fees: $14 per night (summer) | $7 per night (winter) *discounts for seniors/access pass
Group Site: 1 unit – $30
The main campsite in the south and for the park. Reservations for the campsites start up to 6months before and stop 5 days before your date. The park is a bit hit or miss with guests (it is not a high traffic NP) and you can often find day-of sites. But if you plan to do this go early.
The site can handle tents and RV/trailers. Make sure the site you choose can fit your vehicle. There are no hookups or dumps available.
One of the best features of the site; during the summer Rangers lead nightly presentations in the amphitheater at 9pm.
Roundup Group Horse Camp
# of Units: 1
Reservations: Recreation.gov site
Dates Open: May 1 – October 30
Max Stay: 5 nights
Roundup is a group campsite and the only site that allows horses. Only one group reserves the site at a time. The site can accommodate 20 people and 20 horses or 30 people (w/o horses).
Reservations begin on the March 1st at 8:00am MST and must be made at least 5 days prior.
North Unit Camping
# of Units: 50
Fees: $14 per night (summer) | $7 per night (winter) *discounts for seniors/access pass
Group Sites: 1 – $30
Reservation: First come First Serve except for Group Site
Juniper Campground is the sole campground in the North Unit. It’ll likely fill up slower than Cottonwood Campground in the South. However, I recommend trying to secure your site early in the day.
All sites can handle tents, and most can handle RV/Trailers. If you have a bigger trailer definitely go early. There are no hookups or dumps available.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Lodging
Unlike some other major national parks, there are no hotels located within the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt NP. There are campsites within the park as noted above. There are options (noted below) for hotels outside of the park. Note: There are far more options for hotels by the South Unit than by the North Unit.
Hotels Recommendations Near Theodore Roosevelt NP
For hotels, there are options for hotels in Watford city for those who want to stay near the North Unit entrance. For those near the south Unit, Medora offers a handful of options. You have a lot more options if you expand beyond to Dickinson as well. If you are ok with driving there’s certainly plenty of options in Bismarck (about 2 hrs. away).
North Unit Hotel Recommendations
Located close to the center of Watford City, The Watford offers clean, spacious rooms for a pretty reasonable price. [Check prices for the Watford]
Little Missouri Inn & Suites Watford City
Also a good option in town and located fairly close to the center of town. Little Missouri Inn & Suites also offers a good morning breakfast in the price of your room. I found they tended to have some of the best prices in town as well. Overall worth checking out. [Check prices for Little Missouri Inn & Suites]
South Unit Hotel Recommendations
Hotels by the South Unit are far more plentiful. Options in Medora are limited and tend to get expensive and fill up fast in the summer so you can expand beyond a bit if you are ok driving. You’ll find most chain hotel brands if you prefer one for points or status as well.
Rough Riders Hotel
Renovated 76 room hotel, also famed for a place Theodore Roosevelt stayed. With a more old west feel and close to the park, Rough Riders Hotel offers guests a perfect option to stay in central Medora. There are options for staying in the more historic rooms (with modern conveniences) or some of the newer guest suites that have been made as well. Giving options to various guests desire. There is a restaurant onsite or you have other options within town as well. [Check prices for Rough Riders]
AmericInn by Wyndham Medora
A bit off the main drag but still close to the action, AmericInn offers a good value for stays in Medora. I found the prices here to be some of the best and the rooms are clean and the location is still quite good. Also includes free breakfast which is a nice perk. [Check prices for AmericInn]
Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham
Well prices and Clean, Hawthorne Suites by Wyndham is a great option for those looking for a very clean and well run hotel that is just a bit further away from the park. Located in Dickinson (30 mins from the park), you have a lot of options for food as well in the area. The hotel also offers free breakfast. [Check prices for Hawthorn Suites Dickinson]
TownePlace Suites by Marriott Dickinson
I may be biased being a lifetime Platinum Marriott member, and I tend to lean towards Marriott’s when I can. Towneplace Suites is located in Dickinson which is about 30 mins outside of the South Entrance. It’s a good option and I find you can get better discounts in Dickinson than Medora during the high season. [Check TownePlace Suites Dickinson Prices]
There are three Visitors Center for Theodore Roosevelt NP with one in the north and two in the south unit.
North Unit Visitor Center
Address: 208 Scenic Dr, Watford City, ND 58854
Hours: Open Daily 9am – 5pm (May 31th – October 31st)
There is a small visitor center in the north unit right next to the entrance gate for the North Unit. It’s really quite small but you can get information, maps, souvenirs, as well as your cancellation stamp. Also a great spot to ask for information on hikes and weather in the North Unit
South Unit Visitor Center
The South Unit visitor center is the larger and better visited of the visitor centers. And with the longest hours. Additionally, you can also visit Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin which was relocated next to the visitor Center.
Hours: Daily 8am – 6pm (May 26th – Labor Day) | 8am – 4:30pm (Labor Day – October 31st) | 9am – 4:30pm (November 1 – May 26th)
Painted Canyon Visitor Center
Located outside of the main area of the Park. Painted Canyon Visitor Center occupies a small park access and several popular hikes in the Painted Canyon Area.
Address: Exit 32 Hwy 94, ND 58645
Hours: 9am – 4:30pm (May 1st – October 31st)
- Private Vehicle: $30
- Motorcycle: $25
- Individual: $15
- Theodore Roosevelt NP Annual Park Pass – $55
For those visiting multiple parks, its highly recommended to buy the America the beautiful pass for $80. This gives you annual entrance to all National Parks for a year.
** There are a few exceptions usually for those requiring tours. **
Cancelation Stamps for Theodore Roosevelt National Park are available at both the North Unit and South Unit visitor centers.
Website: Official NPS Website
Getting to the Park
The Park is easily accessed from I-94 or ND-85 depending on which side of the park you want to visit. The two units are not connected internally by roads so you’ll need to leave a unit before venturing to the other. It’ll take about an hour to drive between to two units.
Bismarck is the nearest major town and airport about 2 hrs. east of the National Park. Fargo, North Dakota is about 4.5 hrs. from the Park.
You can technically do it all in a day if you are really pressed for time and are ok just driving the roads and visiting the overlooks. But you should really plan to stay at minimum two days in the park.
Do you have another questions or are looking for any additional information? Let us know and we can try to address it!