Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the North Dakota Badlands isn’t as well known or traveled as Badlands National Park in neighboring South Dakota. That’s a big plus for those who prefer fewer people to deal with when hiking.
The wildlife in Theo is somewhat different, too, with a couple of major highlights: the bison and wild horses. There are few places in the west where you have a better chance of seeing mustangs than in Theodore Roosevelt.
Our family first camped there back in 2011 on our way home from the Tetons and Yellowstone. On that trip there were a couple bison walking right through the campground! The horses we saw were mostly off in the distance, which was very cool.
Our next trip, though, we saw several bands of mares and foals right next to the road, and again the next morning (at least I did—I left the camper at 6:30 while the kids were all snoozing).
You may also spot bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer, lots of different kinds of birds, and prairie dogs.
While we’ve only done overnights in this park on our way home from Wyoming or Montana, it would be worth a dedicated trip, especially in the late spring when the wildflowers are blooming and their are baby animals to be seen.
There’s more vegetation here than in South Dakota’s badlands, which gives it a different feel. So while the rock formations aren’t quite as striking, it has its own advantages.
Hiking at Theodore Roosevelt
There are nineteen hiking trails in the park, from 10 minutes to 12 hours long.
There are several very easy, fairly flat trails you can hike off the main park loop in 15 or 20 minutes. And there are trails with lots of elevation variation that include stream crossings, petrified forests and backcountry wilderness.
As with any backcountry hiking, you’ll need to be prepared with the proper gear for cool-to-cold nights, hot days and possible thunderstorms.
For the Park’s guidelines for backcountry hiking and camping, click here. The two most important: 1. you’ll need a (free) permit to camp, and 2. leave your dog at home. As with most of our national parks, no dogs (or pets of any kind) are allowed on the trails on in the backcountry.
You’ll also want plenty of water along, or a very good water filter for the creeks and rivers.
We only had time for a couple short hikes on our most recent visit. Both were very worthwhile…
Wind Canyon Trail at Sunset
I had read that the short Wind Canyon Trail is one of the park rangers’ favorite sunset spots. We had left Glacier National Park that morning, then we all wanted to go into Medora for dinner after setting up camp.
So after driving the park loop, we made the Wind Canyon trail just in time for sunset—and a glorious one it was!
This trail is easy and just a quarter mile long round-trip. It has beautiful views of the Missouri River below as well as vistas of the surrounding badlands and prairies.
Buck Hill Trail in the Early Morning
None of the kids (our adult kids, that is!) were interested in waking up early with me, but I didn’t want to waste the last morning of our trip in bed!
So I set my alarm, made my coffee and headed out alone to drive the Park’s loop.
I left Cottonwood Campground at about 6:30 am and I think I only met 3-4 cars on the whole loop. And that wasn’t until I was on my way back to the campground.
PRO TIP: Get going early in any national park to beat the crowds! Not only that, the wildlife is more active in the mornings and later in the evenings.
On the east end of the loop is a turn-off to Buck Hill, the highest point in the Park. Take that turn-off and hike this under-half-mile out-and-back trail. It’s steep, but the 360º view is worth it!
On the way out I had stopped to watch some of the mares and foals grazing on a sunny hilltop. On the way back I saw a herd of bison, including one huge bull walking right down the park road towards me.
It was just him and me (in our Expedition, so I felt safe!) on the road for a few minutes—a very cool experience as I stopped the truck to watch him amble off to graze.
How to Get There
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is on the western edge of North Dakota, just across the Montana border.
The park is easily accessible from Interstate 94. If camping isn’t your thing, there’s lodging in the small town of Medora and a few other western North Dakota towns in the area.
The North Unit is a little over an hour north of the South Unit. We haven’t been there yet, but hope to drive up there on our next trip out. The hikes up there are an hour long up to all day.
The Final Word
Teddy Roosevelt National Park gets under a million visitors a year, sometimes well under. If you prefer a park that’s quieter with abundant wildlife and plenty of natural beauty, you’ll want to check it out.
The climate and landscape is very different from lots of other parts of the country, but beautiful in its own way. Our family has grown to love these western parts of the US because it is so different from what we’re used to.
It’s a 4-1/2 hour drive to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. A great road trip idea would be to combine Teddy Roosevelt with the Black Hills and Badlands, maybe with Devil’s Tower thrown in, too! You could easily fill up a week or two.
You’ll like these, too…
- Camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (coming soon!)
- Vacationing in South Dakota’s Black Hills
- Devil’s Tower: Red Beds Trail, Wyoming
Sharon is the founder and publisher of Active Outdoor Women. She loves getting outside in beautiful places to hike, paddle, camp, snowshoe, ski, ride—and encouraging others to come along! Besides maintaining AOW and her other website, Twin Cities Outdoors, Sharon writes and designs websites, newsletters, blogs, emails, books and other marketing tools for clients.