National Park Guides

The Wild Side of America: Exploring the Untamed Beauty of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

POSTED ON May 30, 2022 BY Ralph S.

Introduction to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Nestled in the heart of the North Dakota Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. It is one of America’s most picturesque national parks with sweeping prairies, rugged rock formations, winding rivers, and diverse wildlife. It is a must-visit destination for anyone looking to experience the natural wonders of the American West.

Named after the 26th President of the United States, who fell in love with the area’s rugged beauty during his early ranching days, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three sections: The South Unit, North Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch Unit, each offering its own unique charm. Visitors can explore the park’s vast prairies, towering rock formations, and the Little Missouri River while encountering bison, pronghorns, and wild horses.

Whether you’re an avid hiker looking for a peaceful escape or a history buff, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has something for everyone. Come explore its rugged beauty and experience the wild side of America!


The history of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a fascinating one that spans back thousands of years. Its roots stretch back millennia to the original inhabitants of the Great Plains region. Despite the strenuous life, the area has been inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, who have called the region home for over 10,000 years until the late 1800s.

President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States first visited the area in 1883, where he fell in love with its rugged beauty and soon established a ranch near Medora, North Dakota close to the remote Elkhorn Ranch site. During the following years, Roosevelt became an ardent conservationist, championing protection for Roosevelt’s Elkhorn ranch wildlife and successfully lobbied for government-protected lands.

In 1947, Congress designated Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park to honor the president’s conservation efforts, and the park was officially established in 1978 under its current name.

The South Unit, located a few miles south of the town of Medora, was the first section of the park to be established. It features many of the park’s most popular attractions, including the Painted Canyon and the Maltese Cross Cabin, which was once used as a summer residence by Theodore Roosevelt himself.

The North Unit, located near the town of Watford City, was added to the park in 1948. It offers visitors a more secluded and rugged experience, with trails that wind through the park’s stunning canyons and forests.

Finally, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, near the town of Medora, was once the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s personal ranch, where he used it as a retreat from the stresses of his presidency.

Today, the park comprises over 70,000 acres of rolling prairie lands and rugged badlands that make it a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts.


Key Facts About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Size: 70,446 acres (285.08 km²)

Number of visitors: Nearly 600,000 each year

Established: 1947 (Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park). November 10, 1978 (Theodore Roosevelt National Park).

Length of trails: 200 miles (322 km)

Highest point: Bullion Butte at 2,865 feet (873 m) above sea level.

Lowest point: Little Missouri River at 1,900 feet (579 m) above sea level

Other interesting facts:

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to one of the largest free-roaming bison herds in the United States, with an estimated population of over 1,000 animals.
  • The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is the park’s most remote western section. In addition, it is now a popular hiking destination for visitors looking to explore the park’s more secluded areas.
  • Visitors to the park can explore the remains of a historic petrified forest, where ancient trees were preserved in stone over 60 million years ago.
  • The park’s scenic vistas and unique landscapes have been featured in several films, including the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
  • The park’s remote location and lack of light pollution make it an excellent place for stargazing, with clear night skies that offer unparalleled views of the stars and constellations.
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including bison, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and wild horses.

Climate and Weather

Oxbow Bend, Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a semi-arid climate. Summers are usually hot, while temperatures can drop as low as 0°F (-18°C) in the winter months. Precipitation is low, with an average of 13 inches (33 cm) per year, and snowfall is common in the winter months. So, visitors should be prepared for a range of conditions, from hot and dry summers to cold and snowy winters.

Spring (March-May)

Spring in Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be unpredictable, with temperatures ranging from below-freezing to mid 60°F (0-18°C). Snow and rain are common during this time, and visitors should be prepared for muddy trails and roads.

Summer (June-August)

Summer in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is hot and dry, with temperatures ranging from mid-70s to mid-90°F (24-35°C). Thunderstorms are common during this time, and visitors should be aware of the potential for lightning strikes.

Fall (Early September-November)

Fall is a popular time to visit the park, as temperatures begin to cool and the leaves start to change color. Average temperatures during this time range from mid-30s to mid-70°F (2-24°C). But visitors should be prepared for cooler weather in the evenings.

Winter (December-February)

Winters in the park are cold and snowy, with temperatures often dipping below zero Fahrenheit (-18°C). So, it would be best to check the weather and find information on road or trail closures.

When to visit Olympic National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a stunning destination that can be visited year-round, with each season offering unique experiences. So, choosing the best time will depend on personal preferences and interests.


Spring is a transitional time in the park with fewer crowds than in other months. May is the best month to visit because the weather is more stable, and visitors can enjoy outdoor activities like hiking and biking. But occasionally, hiking trails may be muddy, and some park roads may be closed due to lingering snow and ice.

With unpredictable weather and changing wildlife patterns, bison, feral horses, prairie dogs, and other animals will begin to emerge from their winter habitat.


The summer months are the busiest time to visit the park, as the warm weather, sunny skies and longer days make hiking, biking and camping comfortable. Visitors can camp, and explore the park’s scenic drives.

Unfortunately, the peak season crowds and high temperatures can make it challenging to appreciate the park’s beauty. But early mornings and late afternoons are the best times to beat the crowds and avoid the hottest part of the day.

Summer is the best time to see the park’s bison herd, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and mule deer that come out to graze. The maltese cross cabin is another popular destination worth visiting in summer.


Fall is another popular time to visit the park, as the cooler temperatures make for a stunning display of changing foliage. Wildlife will also be more active during this time, as they prepare for winter.

Visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, and participating in ranger-led programs. September and October are the best months to visit, as the crowds are thinner and the weather is milder. In addition, migratory birds can be seen during this season, making it an excellent time for birdwatching.


Winter is a quiet and peaceful time to visit the park. It brings snowfall to the area, creating a beautiful winter wonderland.

Visitors can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling, and can take advantage of the park’s low visitation rates to truly connect with nature. The park’s lodges are open year-round, but some park roads may be closed due to snow and ice.

The park’s remote location and lack of air pollution make it an excellent time for stargazing during clear night skies.

Unfortunately, snow and ice can make hiking trails and gravel roads in the south unit hazardous.

Recommended Gear

It’s important to prepare for any weather conditions in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Here are some recommendations for each season:

In summer, visitors should plan for hot and sunny days. So, bring plenty of water to stay hydrated, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and lightweight clothing. Insect repellent and sturdy hiking shoes or boots are also essential for exploring the park’s trails.

In fall, visitors should bring layers of clothing, as temperatures can range from chilly, especially in the mornings and evenings. Afternoons can be pleasant. So, a rain jacket or poncho is recommended for wetter days. Hiking boots are essential for exploring the trails in the south or north unit, as they may be muddy or covered in fallen leaves. Don’t forget to carry warm layers, including a lightweight jacket or fleece, gloves, and a beanie.

Winter in the park can be harsh, with snow and icy conditions on the ground. Visitors should come with warm layers, including a heavy jacket, waterproof boots, compression hiking socks, and gloves to keep warm during cold days. It’s also recommended to bring traction devices for shoes or boots, such as microspikes or crampons, to navigate icy trails and gravel roads safely. Don’t forget your camera, as the park is especially beautiful during this time of year. Check out how to hike in winter.

Spring in the park can bring unpredictable weather, including rain and snow. So, visitors should bring waterproof gear, such as a rain jacket and pants, to stay dry while exploring the park. During chilly mornings, lightweight and breathable layers are also recommended, as the temperature can fluctuate throughout the day. A hat and sunscreen would be essential when the day gets hot. Sturdy hiking shoes or closed-toe shoes are still necessary for hiking on muddy or wet north unit trails.

For more tips on what to bring when hiking, check out this ultimate backpacking checklist.

What to do

Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a variety of activities for visitors of all ages. From a family-friendly hike and camp to ranger-led programs, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

You can explore the unique landscapes or visit the Maltese cross cabin near the south unit visitor center to see where President Roosevelt stayed before.

Shelter at Riverbend Overlook Over the Little Missouri River

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the park. With over 40 miles of easy to challenging out-and-back trails, visitors can explore a variety of landscapes. Visitors can explore the park’s badlands landscapes on longer multi-day or shorter half-day hikes along a paved trail.

Day Hikes: Visitors can explore a variety of north or south unit trails that range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Some popular hikes include Wind Canyon Trail in the south unit, Jones Creek Trail, Painted Canyon south unit Nature Trail, Buckhorn Trail, and Achenbach Trail in the north unit. Each of these trails offers unique views of the park’s natural beauty and wildlife. But it’s essential to understand how to boost your energy efficiency while day hiking.

Backpacking: For visitors looking to spend a night or two in the park’s wilderness, backpacking is a great option. There are several backcountry campsites available for overnight stays, with permits required. Additionally, the park offers several backcountry trails, including the Maah Daah Hey Trail which runs through the park and connects to other north and south unit trails in the area.

Points of Interest: Along the park’s hiking trails, visitors can explore a variety of points of interest, including prairie dog towns, bison herds, feral horses and stunning rock formations. Some popular points of interest include the Painted Canyon Overlook, the Cannonball Concretions Trail, and the Peaceful Valley Ranch.


Best Hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a variety of hikes to explore. From family-friendly south & north unit trails to more challenging multi-day backpacking trips, there’s something for everyone in this park. Here are some of the best hikes:

  • Wind Canyon Trail: This easy 0.4-mile (0.6 km) out-and-back south unit trail is a great option for families. It offers spectacular views of the Little Missouri River and the park’s colorful badlands. The trail takes about 30 minutes to an hour to complete and ends at a breathtaking view overlooking the Little Missouri River.
  • Painted Canyon Nature Trail: This easy 30-minute 0.9-mile (1.4 km) loop trail is another great option for families. It offers panoramic views of the park’s colorful badlands and wildlife.
  • Buckhorn Trail: This moderate-strenuous 11.4-mile (18.3 km) North Unit trail offers visitors a chance to explore the park’s scenic ridges and valleys. The trail takes about 5-7 hours to complete and offers stunning views of the park’s wildlife, rock formations, and natural beauty.
  • Achenbach Trail: This strenuous 18-mile (30 km) backcountry north unit trail is a great option for a multi-day adventure. The trail takes visitors through the park’s remote wilderness areas, offering stunning views of wild horses, prairies, and rock formations. It takes 2-3 days to complete, with several backcountry campsites available for overnight stays.
  • Jones Creek Trail: This challenging 6.9-mile (11 km) backcountry trail is ideal for experienced hikers looking for a day hike. The trail cuts through rugged terrain, offering stunning views of the park’s natural beauty. The trail takes about 4 hours to complete and offers an opportunity to spot bison, feral horses and coyotes.
  • Petrified Forest Trail: This moderate to strenuous 10.3 miles (16.6 km) South Unit trail offers visitors a chance to explore the unique petrified forest, with ancient logs and stumps that have turned to stone over millions of years. The trail takes about 30 minutes to complete and offers an opportunity to learn about the park’s geology and natural history.
  • Caprock Coulee Trail: This moderate 4.3 mile (6.9 km) North Unit loop trail has rolling hills and some steep grade changes. It is a great option for visitors looking for a longer hike with stunning views of sweeping North Dakota badlands landscapes. The trail takes about 2-3 hours to complete and offers an opportunity to spot bison, feral horses, pronghorns, and coyotes, and explore the park’s unique rock formations.
  • Lower Little Missouri River Trail: This is a moderate 0.7 mi / 1.1 km (paved inner loop), 1.1 mi / 1.8 km (unpaved outer loop) trail along the banks of the Little Missouri River. It takes about 3-4 hours to complete, offering stunning views of wildlife along its path.
  • Maah Daah Hey Trail: This is a South Unit 96-mile (154 km) long point-to-point trail that stretches across the park. Maah Daah Hey Trail is a multi-day backpacking trip, and should only be attempted by experienced hikers with proper gear and knowledge of wilderness survival skills. It takes 3-5 days to complete the entire trail, depending on your skills.



Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a variety of camping opportunities for visitors. There are six main campgrounds located throughout the park – Juniper campground, Cottonwood, River Bend, Sibley Lake, Peaceful Valley and Sage Creek. All campgrounds have restrooms and showers, as well as picnic tables and fire rings. But campsites should be reserved in advance, and permits obtained.

All camping reservations are taken through Reservations are made by phone at 1 (877) 444-6777.

The park’s developed campgrounds are:

  1. Juniper Campground: This campground is located in the park’s North Unit and offers 50 sites for tents and RVs. The campground is open year-round and offers amenities like flush toilets, drinking water, and picnic tables. Reserve the Juniper Campground Group Site
  2. Cottonwood Campground: This campground is located in the park’s South Unit and offers 76 sites for tents and RVs. The campground is open year-round and offers amenities like flush toilets, drinking water, and picnic tables.

Note: The park cannot take reservations – they must all be made through

Cottonwood Campground – Standard Campsites – Sites may be reserved up to 6 months in advance but no less than 5 days before arrival.

Cottonwood Campground – Group Site – Reservations open each year on the first business day in March at 8:00 am MST.

Group Campsites: The park offers several group campsites, including the Roundup Group Campsite in the South Unit and the Juniper Group Campsite in the North Unit. These sites are perfect for large groups and offer amenities like picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets.

Apart from the developed campgrounds, the park offers several backcountry camping options in designated areas. Also, permits are required for both front- and backcountry camping. They can be obtained at any of the park visitor centers before setting out.

Note that camping outside of the park’s developed campgrounds requires a free Backcountry Camping Permit which can be obtained at the North or South Unit Visitor Centers upon arrival.

Some of the most popular backcountry camping areas in the park include:

  1. Maah Daah Hey Trail: This 96-mile (154 km) trail offers incredible backcountry camping opportunities, with several designated campsites along the way.
  2. Jones Creek Trail: This challenging backcountry trail offers several campsites along the way, offering visitors a chance to explore the park’s remote wilderness.
  3. Petrified Forest Backcountry: This backcountry area offers several designated campsites and an opportunity to explore the park’s unique petrified forest.

Click here for more campground information.


Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers several challenging climbing opportunities for expert climbers. From the stunning Wind Canyon walls in the South Unit to the rocky outcrops of the North Unit, there’s something for everyone! There are also a variety of routes, but all climbers must have permits before setting out.


Fishing & Boating

The Little Missouri River is a popular spot for those looking to cast a line or take out a canoe or kayak. Anglers can expect plenty of trout and bass, as well as other species native to the area. Boaters should be aware that there are no boat launches in the park, so all boats must be carried in or rented from a nearby marina.

Here are North Dakota fishing regulations you need to understand before heading out to the River.

Winter Sports

With its cold winters, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a popular location for winter sports, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. The park offers several groomed North Unit trails for winter recreation and plenty of opportunities to take in the scenery.

Scenic Drives

The park offers two scenic drives in the North and South Units. The 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive in the South Unit and the 14-mile drive to the North Unit’s Oxbow overlook are both must-dos. Both routes offer amazing views of the western North Dakota Badlands and give visitors an opportunity to view the park’s landscapes and wildlife in their natural habitat. You will also find the North Unit National Park Service visitor center along the north scenic drive.


With its stunning landscapes and wildlife, the park offers several designated viewpoints and overlooks, perfect for capturing a perfect shot.

Badlands Overlook at Theodore National Park

Visitor Centers and Museums

The park’s South Unit visitor center and museums offer a wealth of information about the park’s history, geology, and wildlife. You can also check out the Painted Canyon Visitor Center which features multiple activities such as exhibits & displays, gift shops, and vending machines or the North Unit Visitor Center.

Where to Stay

There are several options for lodging and camping, inside the park or in nearby towns & cities.

Inside the park, there are three campgrounds: Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit and Juniper & Buffalo Campgrounds in the North Unit. All three campgrounds are open year-round, with limited services available during the winter months. Reservations are recommended during peak season.

For those who prefer amenities with a parking area, there are several lodging options available in nearby towns like Medora and Watford City. Some popular options include the historic Rough Riders Hotel, the Medora Campground, and the Medora Cabin Company. You can also visit the North Dakota Cowboy Hall if you are in Medora.

Watford City, located about 20 miles from the park’s North Unit, also offers lodging, hotels, motels, and campgrounds. Some popular options include the Cobblestone Hotel & Suites, the Little Missouri Inn & Suites, and the McKenzie RV Park.

Dickinson, located about 40 miles from the park’s South Unit, offers a variety of lodging options, hotels, motels, and campgrounds. Some popular options include the Astoria Hotel and Suites, the Comfort Inn, the Heart River Golf Course and RV Park.

No matter where you choose to stay, be sure to book in advance, especially during peak season, to ensure availability.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Getting to and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park is relatively easy, with different transportation options available.

First, the park is located in western North Dakota, just south of Watford City and Medora. The nearest airport to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport (DIK), located in Dickinson, North Dakota, which is approximately 35 miles from the park’s South Unit. Other nearby airports include the Bismarck Airport (BIS) and the Minot International Airport (MOT), both located approximately 100 miles from the park.

Once you arrive in the park, there are a few transportation options available. You can rent a car to drive to the park or arrange for a shuttle service or taxi. Several rental car companies operate at the two airports, including Avis, Budget, Enterprise, and Hertz. But, the Scenic Loop Drive is open year-round. However, it can be tricky during snowy or icy conditions, and 4WD vehicles are recommended. There are also trails and roads that are open for hiking and biking, depending on the season.

Shuttle service in the summer months operates between Cottonwood Campground, Painted Canyon Visitor Center in the South Unit, Juniper and Cottonwood Campgrounds in the North Unit. But, visitors can still drive their own vehicles. There are also ranger-led tours and car rental services in the park to explore the North and South Units.

Finally, private tour operators offer guided bus tours throughout the year, some with national park service officials.


In conclusion, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a true gem of North Dakota and one of the most unique national parks in the country. With its rugged badlands, abundant wildlife, and rich history, the park offers something for everyone.

Visitors to the park can explore its many trails through its canyons and valleys, and immerse themselves in the history of one of America’s most iconic presidents. The park offers a variety of camping options, from primitive backcountry sites to more developed campgrounds with modern amenities.

Whether you’re looking to connect with nature, learn about the history of the American West, or simply escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Theodore Park is the perfect destination. So why not plan your visit today and discover all that this incredible park has to offer?

If you have enjoyed this post, visit our national park guide section to find more exciting destinations.


Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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