Part wildlife sanctuary and part wild west, Theodore Roosevelt National Park encompasses the other badlands, the ones you’ve never heard about. While throngs of tourists head to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands in South Dakota, this little brother in North Dakota is usually overlooked. If it weren’t for I-94, which travels just south of the park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be even more obscure.
It’s the only national park in North Dakota, and it’s a very special place. As with all the lesser-known national parks, Theodore Roosevelt will thoroughly reward you for visiting. You’ll embark on an intimate and colorful experience with the burnished hills, the plentiful wildlife, and the people that call this corner of the prairie home.
Our road trip took us through North Dakota in June, when the prairie still had a bit of green and the days were just starting to get hot. This is the perfect time for baby bison, wildflowers, sweaty horseback rides, and stargazing. Here’s why you’ve got to make the trek to North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Medora, North Dakota: A Little Kitsch and a Lot of Hospitality
No wonder their motto is Explore it. Adore it. Medora is pretty dang cute, with every building, including the post office, boasting a wild west facade. The town is situated right at the entrance to the south unit of the park. Not only can you stock up on amenities, eat your fill of pizza, and mail out those postcards, but Medora’s got it’s own touristy charm. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
- Medora Musical – Starting in June you can attend this outdoor cowboy musical once or every single night of the summer – 94 shows in total. It’s a great mix of singing, dancing, comedy, and cowboys, and it pays tribute to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt and his love affair with the North Dakota Badlands. You and your family will be smitten with this gem of a show.
- North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame – Right downtown, this huge museum takes you to the wild west of days gone by. Explore the state’s rich cultural heritage from the legacy of the American Indian to the ranching and rodeo scene. This is the place to escape the heat on a hot summer day.
- Stagecoach Rides along the River – The stagecoach route from Medora to Deadwood was in operation in the 1880s. Relive the experience with a half hour tour of the scenic Little Missouri River. It’s the perfect way to relax after an in-town lunch.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is Full of Wildlife
Both the south and north units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park have loop roads that offer incredible vantage points for viewing wildlife. I could watch the prairie dogs in their elaborate cities for hours on end. They are the cutest inhabitants on the prairie, but you will only find them near the loop road in the south unit. In the north unit, you have to hike to the prairie dog town.
The big guys – bison and wild horses – are everywhere. We had the best luck seeing them just before sunset as they meandered along the roads grazing. I made elaborate plans to escape the charging bison we would encounter on our hikes, but we only saw them from the car – thank goodness. One did come pretty close to the campground we were staying in, but he didn’t seem at all interested in RVs or tents; he was only intent on grazing on the tall prairie grass.
Plenty of other animals make their home here, including elk, deer, pronghorn, coyote, porcupines, and the prairie rattlesnake. Because the hills and prairies are so expansive and treeless, binoculars will be your new best friend. If you have kids, or you just don’t like to share, be sure to bring a pair for everyone.
You Thought the Park was Quiet, Check out the Hiking Trails
Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is something special. The sky out here is so big and every trail leads to amazing overlooks with expansive views. The park has something for everyone, from easy, paved nature walks, to steep and challenging backpacking trips. There isn’t much shade in these parts and the summer temperatures are enough to bake you through, so be sure to wear sunblock and carry plenty of water, even if you’re going out for a short jaunt. There are tons of options for hiking, but here are some favorites.
- Buck Hill – This short hike (0.2 m/0.3 km) is very steep, but it brings you to the highest point in the park. You’ll have 360 degree views of the surrounding hills, canyons, and valleys. Bring your binoculars and scope the prairie for the herds moving across the park.
- Painted Canyon Nature Trail – Get right into the canyon for an up-close-and-personal experience with the geology and wildlife of this amazing ecosystem. Descend in the heat of summer and the painted rock walls will keep you cool. At just under a mile, this trail is moderately steep into and out of the canyon.
- Petrified Forest Loop – While not as visually stunning as Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, this remote trail is rugged and isolated. 10.3 miles makes for a long day hike, or if you have kids or just want to take it slow, you can make it a two-day backpacking adventure. You’ll be rewarded with amazing views from the ridgeline, huge, stone tree trunks strewn about, and more than likely, not a single other hiker. Be sure to wear long pants for this one. The tall prairie grass is not friendly to bare legs.
If you are anywhere near this oasis in North Dakota, you really must take some time to explore the only national park in the state. We camped in Cottonwood Campground in the south unit, which was really lovely. It’s close to the amenities in Medora, and it’s the perfect base camp for exploring the park. If you can, do the park loop drive in the evening as the sun is setting. You’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views, no traffic, and lots of animal sightings. I can’t tell you much about the best time of year to visit since we were only there in June, but we experienced perfect weather, no crowds, and lots of baby animals prancing about.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is definitely on our list of favorite parks. It’s got all of the awesomeness of the fabulous national park system, with none of the drawbacks that come with some of the larger parks. We hope to head back before too long and we’d love to hear your stories and tips to help make our second trip even better than the first.
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