Standing in the gift shop just past the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I picked up a magnet from a large rotating display. Shaped like North Dakota and colored with soft pastels depicting a farm, it said, “North Dakota: I Saved the Best for Last!” I smiled, wondering how many people before me—perhaps even people standing near me that day—were celebrating the milestone of checking their 50th US state off their travel bucket lists. Visiting North Dakota often requires some intention. Too far north to really be on the way to most destinations and without some of the famous attractions that might draw big crowds, there’s a reason it’s often one of the last states people choose to visit. I wondered how many people started their visit with a funny magnet, only to end it with the breathless wonder they were about to encounter after spending time at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Of the national parks we have visited, both Adam and I rank Teddy Roosevelt National Park near the very top of the list. Whether you are looking for a reason to visit North Dakota or are ready to experience one of the USA’s most magical spots, here are a few ideas to make planning your trip a little easier.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Brief IntroductionTheodore Roosevelt is best known for serving as the 26th president of the United States, and more than anywhere else, his heart lived in North Dakota. Roosevelt’s first visit to the Peace Garden State was in 1883 for a bison hunting trip, and his experience introduced him to the ruggedness and freedom of the West. It was a lifestyle that resonated with him so much that he purchased land and spent quite a bit of time there, eventually authoring three different books about his life there. In fact, he once shared, “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”
After Roosevelt’s death in 1919, creating a national park in his honor was a fitting tribute to his life and legacy. On April 25, 1947, President Harry Truman established Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, and in 1978 the park’s boundaries were expanded and it was renamed Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Today, the park boasts more than 70,000 acres across three areas: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
Things to Do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Nature steals the show at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and there are plenty of spots to experience it. Here are a few of our favorites.
► Painted Canyon Visitor Center
Don’t miss the chance to experience the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, which will provide you with a breathtaking view of the expansive Badlands before you begin your journey into Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Located in the South Unit, it’s a great place for the basics; you can buy souvenirs, fill up your water bottle, and explore the exhibits to learn more about the park. It’s also a great place to launch your park exploration. A 4.2 mile there-and-back trail is a great way to start your visit with a hike, and the path takes you through the wild prairie grasses and past petrified trees along the route. A second, shorter trail (just under one mile) is also available if you have less time or would like a shorter walk. If neither option suits your schedule, the viewing deck is a good place to appreciate the park and, occasionally, see the wildlife that call it home. Bison have been spotted from the visitor center, and you might get lucky enough to count yourself among those who have seen them from that location, too.
► Prairie Dog Towns
There are few wildlife sightings that excite me as much as prairie dogs, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park is full of them. Prairie dogs live in towns that they construct from an intricate series of burrows, and observers can watch them as the go about their business. Although interacting with the prairie dogs is not allowed, they are social creatures, and you’ll have the chance to watch them as they pop out of the holes they dig, chase each other in what look like energetic games of tag, and even pause and watch the human onlookers with a similar sense of curiosity.
As we drove our car past a prairie dog town, we saw the car in front of us roll to a stop when a prairie dog scampered toward the vehicle, paused, and stood up on his hind legs with his head outstretched toward the driver. Was he part of the welcoming committee? Asking for directions himself? Hoping for a treat? It’s hard to know—he darted off almost as quickly as he ran over—but their acceptance of human visitors to their towns makes them a lot of fun to watch.
► Maltese Cross Cabin
You can visit Theodore Roosevelt’s first cabin in North Dakota, which today is part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. He used the cabin in 1883 and 1884, during his first visits to North Dakota on bison hunting trips. He used the cabin in 1884, when he learned that his wife and his mother had died within hours of each other, and it provided him with the solitude he wanted to process the enormous loss. The cabin is original and preserved, although it is not in its original location; it is a small structure, so it was relocated by the park service after it was restored. The cabin contains some of Roosevelt’s own possessions as well as period pieces, and guided tours are available in the summer months. At other times during the year, the cabin is available for self-guided tours.
► Oxbow Overlook
At the end of the North Unit, Oxbow Overlook showcases some of the best views of the Badlands to be found in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You can see the Little Missouri River surrounded by tall trees and buttes that jut up into the air. Park for a while to explore by foot on some of the trails; you’ll be greeted by some incredible panoramic views from every place you stop.
► Scenic Loop Drive
In a way, the best way to experience Theodore Roosevelt National Park is to drive it. We spent several hours exploring the Scenic Loop Drive, which covers 36 miles primarily through the South Unit. There are many places to pull off for photos or to appreciate the incredible views, and they can provide wonderful opportunities to see wildlife like bison, deer, wild horses, coyotes, and other wildlife. The Badlands offer some of the most stunning and interesting geological features in the United States, and the drive is worth it just to experience some of nature’s most incredible work.
► Site of Elkhorn Ranch
While processing the loss of his wife and mother, Teddy Roosevelt left his Maltese Cross Cabin in search of a more private, remote location. He hired two woodsmen to build a new cabin for him, which he called Elkhorn Ranch. The cabin was bigger than the Maltese Cross Cabin, and its location afforded him the privacy he was looking for in a new location. He frequented the cabin until 1887, after which time he returned sporadically. The cabin no longer exists, but if you are interested in seeing the spot there are some foundation markers in place. Park maps indicate where you can find it, but it is off the beaten path and there isn’t much left to see.
Considered to be the gateway to the South Unit of the park, Medora is a historic town with quite a bit to offer. We stopped for a cup of coffee at Hidden Springs Java, which has a great menu as well as some snacks that might tide you over as you drive or hike your way through the park. We also stopped at the Old Town Hall Theater, where a statue of Teddy Roosevelt is on display. If you have extra time, you may enjoy some of the town’s historic streets and museums to learn more about life in Badlands; in the evenings, theater events like the Medora Musical are guaranteed to keep you entertained.
More Information: Facebook.com/HiddenSpringsJava
Take a look at our video below for a few of the scenic highlights around Teddy Roosevelt National Park!
Tips for Visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park
If you’re planning to visit the park, here are a few more tips to help you make the most of your day!
► Take a map
Cell phone service is pretty weak at park entrances and disappears completely as you drive further into the park, so pick up a map from the visitor center on your way in. The maps will help you to identify many of the park’s most popular features, which will ensure you don’t miss something you were excited to see.
► Pack the essentials
Theodore Roosevelt National Park isn’t close to much, and once you are in the park you won’t find places to stop for food or meals. Take plenty of bottled water and food to keep you hydrated and fueled as you explore.
► Fill up your tank
Like restaurants or shops, gas stations aren’t available within the park, and you’ll want to be sure you have a full tank of gas so you can explore the many miles of attractions that require driving. You can fill up your tank in Medora before entering the park.
Where to Stay Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park
When selecting a hotel, your best bet will be to stay in Medora, which is the closest town to the park. If you plan to visit with an RV or enjoy camping, those options are also available and require reservations in advance, especially during busy seasons. We always use Booking.com to select hotels based on the amenities that are most important to us; take a look at Booking.com to see which hotels are available during your travel dates to find a great option for you!
Enjoy Theodore Roosevelt National Park!
Our visit to Teddy Roosevelt National Park was one of the calmer and more relaxing stops we made during our summer road trip. During a time when visiting national parks was perhaps more popular than ever before, it’s still not one of the most sought-out parks for most travelers. That’s one of the best reasons to make it a priority for your next vacation; if you are looking for peace, wildlife, incredible scenery, and a chance to experience what changed a young Teddy Roosevelt’s life so completely, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is for you. You may not need a magnet declaring that you saved North Dakota as the best for last to remember your trip; your memories will undoubtedly be an even better souvenir.
More Information: NPS.gov/thro
Want to learn about more interesting locations around the United States? Check out these posts from our archives!