North Dakota is not a place you might expect to wow you with wild terrain. As you drive through the remote western part of the state along two-lane highways, there appears to be nothing in sight but flatland for as far as the eye can see. Then as you near the areas surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park a visible trace of wilderness filled with badlands, dense vegetation, grasslands, and diverse wildlife appears seemingly out of nowhere.
In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to “bag a buffalo.” His first visit to the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born, an ethos that would shape the future of conservation efforts and of the National Park Service.
During Theodore Roosevelt’s time in office, he established the United States Forest Service, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments, and five national parks—protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land.
This park doesn’t get a lot of play on the national stage, mostly because of its out-of-the-way location. My hope is that this article will inspire others to journey there—not only is it among the most historic of all national parks but it is absolutely beautiful as well. With that, I’ll delve into some of the reasons why we loved being there.
Like its neighboring state of South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt is home to many colorful badland formations—sedimentary deposits created over the course of 65 million years by the effects of erosion caused by wind, sun, hail, snow, and rain. One unique distinction of the badlands at Theodore Roosevelt is that vegetation grows from and all around them. Tucked into the folds of the badlands are large deposits of petrified wood—massive trees turned to solid quartz over the course of millions of years. At Theodore Roosevelt, you will find the third-largest deposit of petrified wood in the United States following Yellowstone and Petrified Forest national parks. The most concentrated area can be found along the Petrified Forest Loop trail, a 10-mile hike located in the south unit.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is composed of three units that are bound together by the Little Missouri River. The north unit is quiet and rugged; the south unit is home to abundant populations of watchable wildlife; and the Elkhorn Ranch, or west unit, is where Teddy Roosevelt lived for nearly 13 years. Drives between the three areas can take several hours each so plan to devote at least a couple days in both the north and south units and one afternoon in the Elkhorn unit.
The South Unit’s 36-mile loop begins and ends at the visitor center in Medora, and it’s easy to complete in two hours (that includes time to snap photos of bison or prairie dogs). On the drive, don’t miss the Skyline Vista, an ideal vantage point for viewing the sunset; Badlands Overlook, which in the morning light reveals all of the contours of sheer bluffs and ravines; and Cottonwood Campground, for a picnic under the tall trees. For another easily accessible point in the South Unit, including for those using wheelchairs, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center—accessed from outside the park on Exit 32 off I-94—offers an iconic view of the Badlands. From the overlook, the park stretches off toward the north with juniper draws, colored buttes, and grazing buffalo dotting the landscape.
Exploring the park on foot is the best way to get up close with the terrain and wildlife, and you’ll find more than 100 miles of trails. The hikes are mostly short (under a mile or two) and flat, as the highest buttes only rise a few hundred vertical feet. But be mindful of the summer heat: Average highs climb to the high-80s and it often feels hotter and drier, so bring plenty of water.
In the South Unit, two can’t-miss short hikes are the Wind Canyon Trail, a 20-minute (0.4 miles) stroll through a wind-sculpted canyon with stunning river views and the Coal Vein Trail, a 40-minute hike (0.8 miles) that is the perfect way to learn about badlands geology. In the North Unit, a good hour-long option is the 1.5-mile portion of the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point which courses through prairie grassland to a lookout over the valley below.
The only town associated with the park is Medora and it more or less revolves around its status as Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners, and plenty of cowboy boots and hats.
Whatever scene you are watching, you will be blessed one way or another with a view that differs only slightly from that which captured the heart and imagination of Theodore Roosevelt.
Size: 70,466.89 acres
Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park on April 25, 1947)
Location: Western North Dakota
How the park got its name: This park was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who spent a considerable amount of time living in the Dakota Territory. The site where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is now located was selected after his death in 1919 to honor his dedication to preserving America’s wilderness. The land was set aside by an act of congress. He was known as the “conservationist president” for dedicating his life to obtaining federal protection for lands and wildlife species under threat. During his time in elected office he established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries.
The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.