Like an outpost in the northern Great Plains, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is located hundreds of miles from the closest national parks like Badlands, Yellowstone, and Glacier. But Theodore Roosevelt is not the only NPS unit in North Dakota, with a pair of national trails and two national historic sites within striking distance. For those travelers who make the trek to the remote Theodore Roosevelt National Park, they’ll be rewarded with a unique landscape of high plains and rugged badlands.
The park is divided into three geographically separate units. Located near the town of Medora on I-94, the South Unit is the larger and more visited portion of the park. A 68-mile drive on paved roads leads to the North Unit, and a 26-mile drive on gravel roads leads to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, a historic property owned by Teddy Roosevelt. Averaging around 750,000 visitors per year, the 110-square-mile park is rarely crowded compared to other high-traffic NPS units. Most visitors focus on scenic drives and short hikes, while longer hikes and camping are also available. Wildlife is abundant throughout the park, with viewing opportunities including bison, elk, pronghorn, and feral horses.
Many people start at the South Unit Visitor Center, located in the town of Medora. The visitor center has a museum about Theodore Roosevelt, plus a 17-minute film and park information. The town is also home to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.
One highlight here is the 36 Mile Scenic Drive, a loop through the heart of the South Unit badlands, offering access to many trailheads and viewpoints, some of which overlook the Little Missouri River. Chances to spot wildlife—including bison, feral horses, and prairie dogs—are high along the scenic drive. Located next to the river, Cottonwood Campground is the South Unit’s popular campground, with 76 sites. Half of these sites are reservable and half are walk-up, and the campground typically fills to capacity each day during the high season, from mid-May to mid-September.
Hiking opportunities in the South Unit include a series of short nature trails: Boicourt Overlook Trail, Wind Canyon Trail, and Buck Hill are each less than a half-mile and lead to stunning park viewpoints. Slightly longer options, in the 1-1.5-mile range, include the Painted Canyon Nature Trail which takes hikers inside a badlands canyon. More adventurous hikers may wish to cross the river and head into the park wilderness on longer trails. One such option is the Petrified Forest Loop, a 10-mile route through badlands wilderness and ancient petrified forests. Part of this loop follows the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a 96-mile long-distance route that connects all three park units and is popular for long-distance backpacking and bike-packing.
The more remote and smaller North Unit has similar scenery and activities to the South Unit but with more solitude. The 14 Mile Scenic Drive is an out-and-back road, mostly paved, that winds below and above the badlands, offering scenic views and trail access. Make sure to stop at River Bend Overlook, offering an iconic view of the meandering Little Missouri River. Juniper Campground has 50 sites, all first-come, first-served. The campground is quite popular, and it often fills to capacity on most days during the high season from mid-May to mid-September.
For hiking, the Little Mo Nature Trail is a pair of short walks through river bottoms. The shorter paved loop is 0.7-mile, while the unpaved loop is 1.4 miles. One of the best hikes is the Caprock Coulee Trail, which loops through badlands terrain in about 4.3 miles. This trail can be shortened by only hiking a portion south of the scenic drive. For a more challenging trek, consider a section of the Achenbach Trail through park wilderness. North Achenbach is a 4.8-mile hike, one-way, from River Bend Overlook to Oxbow Overlook. South Achenbach is 10.4 miles, one-way, from Oxbow Overlook to Juniper Campground. A continuous loop of about 18 miles can be made by combining South and North Achenbach with several other trails.
Elkhorn Ranch Unit
Located on the Little Missouri River, about midway between the North and South Units, is the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Reaching the unit requires driving on unpaved roads, which may require a high-clearance or 4WD vehicle depending on current road conditions–check with the visitor center for current information. Theodore Roosevelt purchased the property in 1884 and began building the Elkhorn Ranch, which he used intermittently until the 1890s. A 0.7-mile path leads to the ranch site, where only foundation stones remain along with a few exhibit signs.
Other North Dakota NPS Units
There are a total of five NPS units and national parks in North Dakota. Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site is located on the banks of the Missouri River, near the Montana state line, about 1-2 hours’ drive from Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This NPS unit preserves an important fur trading post that operated from 1828 to 1867. The highlight today is a reconstruction of the fort as it may have appeared in 1851, including the Trade House, fencing, and watchtowers.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is located on the Missouri River about two hours’ drive east of Medora. This NPS site preserves the location of a major Native American trade center that was active for hundreds of years before becoming a marketplace for fur traders after 1750. The small park offers three hiking trails and three village sites to explore.
At the visitor center, there’s a museum about the history and culture of the Hidatsa people and a full-scale reconstructed Earthlodge. The Village Trail is 1.3 miles and leads to the Awatixa Village site and the Awatixa Xi’e Village site. The North Forest Trail is a 2.2-mile loop through bottomland forest and prairie, with an option to tack on the 2.8-mile Missouri Overlook loop trail. Near the start of the North Forest Trail, a short side trail leads to the Hidatsa Village site. The Two Rivers Trail is 6.2 miles, round-trip, following the Knife River to its confluence with the Missouri River.
Passing through North Dakota, there are two NPS trails to consider. The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the course of the Missouri River, which the Corps of Discovery expedition followed between 1804 and 1806. Along this 4,900-mile route, there are many historic sites and museums, including the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center & Fort Mandan in Washburn, ND.
The North Country National Scenic Trail is a 4,800-mile long-distance hiking trail passing through eight states. The trail starts in Vermont and ends in North Dakota, at Lake Sakakawea State Park. About 440 miles of the NCT pass through the eastern part of the state, with many shorter section hikes possible.
If you want to learn more about the units above or other in-state destinations, check out this North Dakota Tourism Division website.