Theodore Roosevelt National Park isn’t so much of a destination in itself as it is a stop on your way somewhere else with a bigger wow factor. Glacier National Park, Badlands National Park, this just isn’t the highlight.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit
Most of North Dakota is relatively flat and featureless, with a wild difference on the western border where fields of canola and corn become the rugged valleys and twisted features that define badlands.
This sudden change was caused by erosion cutting deep drainage channels separated by short steep walls. Many of these walls have hoodoos and toadstools left when a harder caprock protects the soil underneath of it from eroding.
The Park is divided into three units – the South Unit which is the most popular and most-visited, the Elkhorn Unit where Theodore Roosevelt had his ranch, and the North Unit set 58 miles north of I-94 which doesn’t see much tourist traffic.
We started at the South Unit, boondocking outside the park high on a mesa in an area known as Scoria Pit. A free campsite for a few days while we had to work, with an endless supply of solar power and Starlink internet.
Once the weekend rolled around we moved into our campsite in the Cottonwood Campground within the Park. No hookups, but it’s the weekend and we’re here to play and not to work!
Bison Goes Camping
There is one primary loop road through the Park’s South Unit, although part of this is closed as of this post in 2023 which makes this an out-and-back drive. There are plenty of pulloffs with scenic views, prairie dog towns, and (hopefully) horses and bison.
Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm
The smoke haze from the Canadian wildfires washed out a lot of the distant views, but the wind shifts around and our final day in the South Unit had great visibility.
Little Missouri River
We moved up to the North Unit and spent two nights at a CCC campground in the Little Missouri National Grassland just outside the Park. The campground inside the Park is paved and more wooded with shade, but we needed to make sure we had the best sun we could to power laptops and Starlink so we opted for the CCC based on reviews of it being open with little shade.
The North Unit has a single scenic road in and out, and while the views are no less spectacular than the South Unit there isn’t much to see or do. We hiked the Caprock Coulee loop trail and enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not for everyone. There were maybe 10-15 other vehicles in this entire section of the Park during our visit, compared to hundreds or thousands each day in the South Unit. What we did see in droves were the bison – lots and lots and lots of bison everywhere, including blocking us in on the road for a bit.
Unless you’re a must-see-everything person, we advise skipping the North Unit entirely. Stop at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and do either the short nature trail or the 4 mile Painted Canyon Trail. This will get you a good bang for the buck.
Then visit the main area of the South Unit, drive the scenic loop and do all of the short trails to lookouts such as the Coal Vein trail. Most of the longer trails crossing the Park aren’t worth doing, we hit them and weren’t impressed with much except the solitude – no other people out there.
Also start as early in the day as you can. Summer heat here is a butt-kicker and while the crowds are small they do pile up. Especially when there are bison or feral horses along the road.
Hot and Dry
Buffalo Are Dangerous
These guys aren’t moving!