Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to three separate areas of badlands and grasslands in North Dakota. This national park is named after Theodore Roosevelt, one of the United States Presidents, who played a large role in preserving natural spaces like this one. The landscape is beautiful and there is a lot of wildlife. We want to share the highlights from our trip, as well as our one day itinerary that we used to see this park in one day.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is dedicated to the memory of America’s greatest conservationist. President Roosevelt lived in this area of North Dakota for several years before his success in Washington. Later, he declared that he could never have been President of the United States if you hadn’t learned what he needed to North Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three distinct and separate sections. The south unit is by far the most popular and the most visited. The Painted Valley section is near the south unit along the main highway, so it also sees a lot of visitors. The north section is quieter, but still has some nice hikes and a great scenic drive. Below, we outline each section and what you need to know for your visit.
Important: The South Unit is on Mountain Time.
South Unit Visitor Center
You enter the park at the South Unit. Visitor Center in Medora, ND. Medora has lodging, restaurants, and gas. The Visitor Center is good place to stop because there are ranger programs and you can walk through President Roosevelt’s historic cabin. There is also a small museum with artifacts relating to the 26th President, including the shirt he was shot in. (He got up and finished the speech before receiving medical attention.)
Beyond this point there is a large scenic loop that is 48 miles in length. The loop is actually 36 miles long, but part of the road is indefinitely closed, so you can drive 24 miles out, and then turn around and come back making the drive 48 miles. This is what we did on our visit in 2022. Along the scenic route, there are many overlook stops, and several short walks. Watch for wildlife along your drive. We saw buffalo, wild horses, deer, rabbits, prairie dogs and many birds.
Stops you need to make along the South Unit Scenic Drive:
- Skyline Vista
- Prairie Dog Towns
- Wind Canyon Trail
- Boicourt Trail
- Buck Hill
- Old East Entrance Trail
- Badlands Overlook (this is the turnaround point)
You can read more about our recommended hikes in our post called Theodore Roosevelt Kid Hikes. Please note there are only a few hikes that are longer than a mile in this park.
The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is located a bit further east of the South Unit, and it is the smallest section of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There is a small store and a ranger to help you plan, but little else. It is worth stopping at this spot, though, because behind the building is a large overlook for the Painted Canyon. There are many different colors carved out of the butte, and the view is a wide panorama of this palette of colors. Make sure to walk along the rim behind the Visitor Center and check out the views. This area is also free since it is right along the highway, so you don’t need your park pass.
There is one trail here that we wanted to do, but it was washed out on the day that we visited, so we missed out. It’s called the Painted Canyon Nature Trail and it walks down into the valley, so it is moderate, but only 0.9 miles roundtrip.
Important: The North Unit is on Central Time.
The easiest way to get from the south to the north section is an hour drive on the road east of the park. It is a nice drive, and we even saw a coyote skulking along with a deer leg in its mouth in the fields along the roadside.
The north unit of the park has a tiny Visitor Center. It is a small building right inside the entrance station, and we asked a few questions while our boys checked out the touch table. Plan on spending just a few minutes exploring this Visitor Center.
The buffalo are easier to find in the north section, and we saw them all along the fourteen mile scenic drive (28 miles roundtrip). We also saw a lot of beautiful birds in this section. There were cedar waxwings, yellow warblers, spotted towhees, and many others. We saw wild turkeys several times along the out and back drive. The road is narrower, and travels much slower, so make sure to plan accordingly for the 14 (28 RT) mile drive. If you’re looking for solitude, you’ve got a much better chance in this part of the park.
These are the stops that we recommend in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
- Cannonball Concretions
- Little Mo Nature Trail
- Caprock Coulee Nature Trail
- Prairie Dog Town Trail
- Riverbend Overlook
- Oxbow Bend Overlook
- Sperati Point (2.4 miles)
Worth the Visit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is definitely worth a visit. There are a lot of animals including wild horses, bison, deer, prairie dogs, and wild turkeys. The scenery is beautiful. We loved the grasslands, the rolling hills, and the badlands. This national park ranked high on our list. For current conditions, check the Theodore Roosevelt National park website.
One Day Itinerary
We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in just one day. We were unable to find lodging in Medora, so we stayed nearby in Dickinson (about one hour from the North Unit and 35 minutes from the South Unit). This turned out to be a great place to stay. The included printable itinerary is what we did in one day. We hope that it gives you a guide to help you plan your trip. And some of our plans were changed due to weather. After our day in the park, we stayed in Glendive, ND, since we were heading toward Glacier National Park, but you could easily stay in Dickinson for a few nights.