A guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The prairies & badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

“It was here that the romance of my life began,” Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed many years ago. Where was “here” exactly? Well, in the badlands of North Dakota and what is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park sign

Unspoiled badlands and prairie meadows across 70,446 acres make the Theodore Roosevelt National Park such a gem to explore. It’s the only American national park named for a single person. Theodore Roosevelt National Park honors Roosevelt’s passion for the badlands in North Dakota and how this region shaped him to become a conservation hero. The park was established as a national park in 1947 and showcases unique landscapes and an abundance of wildlife.

The prairies & badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Split into three units, the Theodore Roosevelt National includes a North and South Unit, in addition to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The North and South Units sit a 68-mile drive apart from each other, while the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is an hour and a half drive from the city of Medora. There is also a long-distance trail system connecting all three units.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit

The North Unit features a 14-mile scenic drive (28 miles roundtrip) through its premise. There are also a variety of scenic trails, including many that connect to each other. Here are a few of the highlights from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Cannonball Concretions Pullout

It’s easy to see where the name “cannonball” comes from here. A sign at the pullout explains that the spherical boulders called concretions “are formed within rocks (shale, clay, sandstone, etc.) by the deposition of mineral around a core.” As erosion continues, more cannonball concretions will be exposed in this area of the park. Wander around to see the cannonball concretions up close.

Cannonball Concretions Pullout at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

River Bend Overlook

The River Bend Overlook features a scenic vista of the Little Missouri Floodplain. At the viewpoint, just a short walk from the parking lot, there is also a stone shelter, which was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

River Bend Overlook at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Oxbow Overlook

Boasting a magnificent view in all directions, Oxbow Overlook sits at the end of the scenic drive. The highlights of the panorama include the Little Missouri River making a 180-degree bend, the beautiful badlands, and river valley. The wind in your face, the quietness of the surroundings, and the beauty surrounding you all make this spot a perfect place to take in the magnificence of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Oxbow Overlook at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit

In the South Unit, a 36-mile scenic loop drive takes you to some very impressive views within the park. And don’t miss out on the Painted Canyon Overlook, which is located at a different exit along I-94 to the rest of the South Unit. The unit also has a variety of interconnected trails. Check out these sights at Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.

Painted Canyon

A visitor center, beautiful overlook, and interstate rest area are all located here. If someone had no idea the Theodore Roosevelt National Park was located here and needed a driving break, they will be pleasantly surprised by the incredible view they’ll get to take in at this rest area. The Painted Canyon is on the badlands upper margin and has a stunning panorama. Take in all of the colorful hues.

Painted Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

South Unit Visitor Center & Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin

The visitor center at the South Unit has a museum and theater. Stop in to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt and the North Dakota Badlands. Additionally, behind the visitor center’s main building is where Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin has been moved to. You can explore the restored cabin and see what it was like when Roosevelt stayed there.

Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Prairie dog towns

Along the scenic loop and some hiking trails, you’ll get a glimpse of the prairie dog towns. Prairie dogs are members of the squirrel family and named for their tail and bark-like call. A prairie dog town encompasses a lot of burrows closely spaced together. There are three colonies located right along the scenic drive. It’s so amazing to see these small creatures and their mounds. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear their calls.

Prairie dog town in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Boicourt Overlook

The Boicourt Overlook is one of the most beautiful views of the North Dakota Badlands within Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s worth walking along the short, scenic Boicourt Trail, which is only 0.2 miles and has just a slight grade. The viewpoint looks like a perfect spot to take in a sunset.

Boicourt Overlook at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Elkhorn Ranch Unit

To get to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, you have to take a steep, unpaved road or get there from a long hike along the Maah Daah Hey Trail. It’s recommended to ask for information at a visitor center because severe weather can wash out the road. The Elkhorn Ranch is the location of Roosevelt’s second ranch, however, the buildings no longer exist. The foundation is marked with stones. Built in 1885, Roosevelt’s ranch included an eight-room house, in addition to stables, a chicken house, cattle shed, and blacksmith shop.

Tips for visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If you work up an appetite while exploring the park, stop in Medora for a selection of restaurants and stores. Medora is where the South Unit Visitor Center is located and is a fun city to check out.

Historic Medora, North Dakota

Keep in mind that the North Unit is on central time and the South Unit is on Mountain Time. So if you want to attend any ranger talks or guided walks, be aware of the time zones.

Drive safely and cautiously. The speed limit within the park is 25 miles per hour, unless otherwise stated. The winding park roads are used by pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and wildlife. A herd of bison even crossed in front of our car in the North Unit. So it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and keep your distance from wildlife.

Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bring plenty of water. The weather can be harsh in the North Dakota Badlands, including hot and dry weather in the summer, so make sure you have enough water for your entire trip, especially when hiking and backcountry camping. Within the park, there aren’t any water sources recommended for filtering.

The entrance fee to Theodore Roosevelt National Park for a private vehicle is $30 for seven days. If you plan to visit numerous parks in one year, it might be advantageous to purchase an America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass for $80. Every year nearly 600,000 visitors explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park and see the place that inspired Roosevelt so strongly. Have you been one of those visitors or is it a national park you’d like to visit?

Related article: A guide to Hot Springs National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park​ features unspoiled badlands and prairie meadows and honors Roosevelt’s passion for North Dakota and his conservation efforts. On a trip to the park, you'll see unique landscapes and hopefully an abundance of wildlife, like bison and prairie dogs.

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