I’ve been planning a list of things to do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park for years waiting for the day I got the chance. Now that it’s come I’m here to spill the beans on the best parts of the park.
Theodore Roosevelt has long been a bucket list national park for me as the 26th president’s name sake park where he claimed “the romance of my life began.”
This past year I was finally able to make the stars align and made it out to North Dakota (my 47th state) in the fall to see the stunning displays of foliage. It was the trip of a lifetime
As part of the trip, I (along with my brother) worked with North Dakota Tourism to create a stunning short film on Theodore Roosevelt National Park that will be premiering in April 2022 (we’ll update this post with the video).
We spent a couple of weeks hiking nearly every trail in the park, exploring the vast overlooks, learning about the park’s history, inspecting the campgrounds, and thoroughly enjoying all that Theodore Roosevelt National Park has to offer.
Why Trust Us About Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
We’re Will Pattiz and Jim Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (or Parks Brothers).
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.
Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
About Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Encompassing over 70,000 acres, Theodore Roosevelt National Park boasts a stunning array of breathtaking badlands, snaking rivers, diverse wildlife including our national mammal, and colorful canyons.
This is a land teeming with rugged beauty, massive mammals, and epic overlooks.
The park derives it’s name from the 26th President of the United States who spent many formative years in what is now the national park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Interesting Statistics)
- Location: Medora, North Dakota
- Established: November 10, 1978
- Size: 70,446 acres
- Native Lands: Arikara, Blackfeet, Chippewa, Cree, Crow, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Mandan, Rocky Boy, Sioux
- Visitors: 749,389 (in 2018)
- Entrance Fees: $30 per vehicle; $70 annual pass (or $80 for America the Beautiful Pass)
Things to Know Before You Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
You can expect $30 per vehicle but if you plan on visiting more than one park this year we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
We like this map best for Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
This is our favorite guide for the park.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
Leave No Trace
We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.
Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.
Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
1. See America’s National Mammal, the Bison
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s most popular resident happens to be our national mammal, the Bison.
Seeing one of these majestic creatures in person is truly a sight to behold.
The bison is the largest mammal in North America.
Their common name (buffalo) comes from the French who called them “les boeufs” (which means oxen) and over time that being changed to buffalo.
These majestic animals are visible in both the North and South Units of the park. In the South Unit they can typically be spotted shortly after crossing the interstate bridge into the park upon descending into the first canyon, among other places.
In the North Unit, they can typically be spotted immediately after entering the park.
Make sure you give wildlife distance in the park, especially bison. If a bison crosses the road in front of you – stay in your car. Your actions not only put yourself at risk but the bison as well. Be sure to go over the National Park Service’s 7 Ways to Safely Watch Wildlife before your visit to Theodore Roosevelt.
2. Catch a Sunset at Riverbend Overlook
Perhaps the best place in Theodore Roosevelt National Park to see the sunset is River Bend Overlook.
Located in the North Unit, this vista offers epic, panoramic views of the Little Missouri River and surrounding badlands.
It’s also a very short walk from the parking lot down to the viewing pavilion.
CAUTION: During our visit I sat and watched the sunset from the grassy hill featured in the foreground. Upon the 10 step walk back to the trail featured in the photo above I encountered a prairie rattlesnake.
I never would have seen it were it not for the tell-tale rattle noise which I found to be reassuringly loud.
3. Catch a Sunrise at Oxbow Overlook
The best place to watch a sunrise in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is Oxbow Overlook.
This spot features breathtaking panoramic views of the Little Missouri River Valley that will wow at anytime during the day.
From the overlook there are several trail opportunities including the popular Achenbach Trail.
If you look closely into the canyon below you can often spot bison grazing.
Oxbow Overlook is located in the North Unit of the park at the very end of the main park road.
4. Explore the Ancient Trees on the Petrified Forest Trail
My favorite hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (and easily one of the highlights of the entire trip) was the Petrified Forest Trail.
I almost didn’t hike this trail as I had not read much about it anywhere but had some extra time left on my last day in the park. Boy was I glad I did!
- Length: Depends (1.5 miles each way to either of the petrified forests OR can do 10 mile loop)
- Time: 2-10 hours depending on how long you linger
- Elevation: Maybe 200ft
According to the National Park Service, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has the third highest concentration of petrified wood in the United States. Who knew!
To get to the trailhead you actually have to leave the South Unit of the park and drive down the interstate one stop to West River Rd. Signs (or google maps) will eventually lead you to the trailhead from there.
We opted for the North Trail as we were told by another hiker that had done both that it was far superior – we were not disappointed.
Now I’ve been to Petrified Forest National Park, and absolutely loved it, but the Petrified Forest in Theodore Roosevelt National Park blows the one in Arizona out of the water.
The stumps of trees are absolutely massive – some of them more than 6 feet tall and larger!
5. Admire the Wild Horses (from afar)
One of the most sought after animal sightings in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is that of the non-native wild horses that exist in the park today.
We saw horses (and lots of them) every day that we were in the park.
If you’re determined to see these animals in the wild, the South Unit is your best bet. We saw them most often near the Coal Vein Trail. Keep your eyes peeled on the tops of hills and you’re likely to see some.
6. Check out the Wacky Cannonball Concretions
One of the most otherworldly sightings in the park is that of the cannonball concretions.
While the park is not exactly sure how these were formed they sure are interested to look at and great for families.
The “cannonballs” are easily spotted at their namesake pullout in the North Unit of the park. A short trail goes around the strange reddish-brown spherical objects.
7. Explore the Painted Canyon
Upon first glance I wasn’t sure I had made it to the right place when pulling into the Painted Canyon parking lot.
It appeared that I had missed a turned and ended up at an interstate truck stop.
Turns out I had, and it was the Painted Canyon Visitor Center.
My expectations lowered but only until I got to the railing and looked out at the vista – wow.
There is a trail that goes down into the Painted Canyon area that is definitely worth exploring.
- Length: 4.3 miles (out & back)
- Elevation: 442 ft
- Time: 2-4 hours
8. Visit the Charming Town of Medora
The gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the charming town of Medora.
The park headquarters are located here along with the entrance to the South Unit of the park.
The town has great dining options, a surprising amount of interesting stores, nice hotels, and even nightly shows during Summer!
9. Hike the Coal Vein Trail
The Coal Vein Trail is a short loop hike located in the South Unit of the park that features sweeping views of the surrounding area.
While I was here in the Fall not too distant elk bugles could be heard from here.
- Distance: .6 miles
- Difficulty: Easy
- Time: 30 minutes
In the spring the Coal Vein Trail is a great hike to see epic displays of wildflowers as the park surges back to life.
10. Bike the Maah Daah Hey Trail
The Maah Daah Hey Trail is a world-renowned bike trail that crosses through the park in places and is nothing short of spectacular.
We rented bikes from Dakota Cyclery and couldn’t have been happier with our experience.
You can rent bikes and ride to a spot on the trail or they’ll even take you to a desired entry point.
Bicyclists can pick up the trail in a number of locations and ride short segments of the trail or choose to do a bike-packing adventure as the total trail is 144 miles!
11. Soak in the Views from Wind Canyon Overlook
Perhaps the title of most beautiful overlook in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park belongs to Wind Canyon Overlook.
Looking out from this point on a beautiful day with nice clouds really gives you a taste of pure western beauty.
- Distance: .5 mile loop
- Time: 30-45 minutes
- Elevation: 100ft
In the distance we were able to spot a few herds of bison as well as wild horses playing in the waters of the Little Missouri.
The trail from the parking lot to the overlook is a short jaunt and epic views can be achieved with minimal effort.
12. See the Prairie Dogs
The most delightful critters award in Theodore Roosevelt National Park goes to the ever-lovable prairie dog. I could watch these little guys endlessly.
There are several sizable prairie dog towns located throughout the park.
My favorites are both in the South Unit with the first being located off East River Road at Beef Corral Bottom and the other located off Scenic Loop Drive just pass the terminus with East River Rd.
Fun Fact: Did you know prairie dogs greet with a kiss? They do! According to Treehugger:
“When they do so, they’ll touch noses and lock their teeth with one another, which allows them to determine if they’re members of the same family group.
If they belong to the same family, they continue with their day. If not related, they will often fight or chase the interloper from the area.”
13. See a Sunrise from Buck Hill Trail
One of the best places in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to watch a sunrise or sunset is atop Buck Hill.
This spot is the highest point in the South Unit and offers panoramic views of the surrounding badlands.
Personally I prefer it at sunrise but sunset is just about as stunning. The top of the hill is accessed via a short trail.
- Length: .4 miles
- Elevation: 100ft
- Time: 30 minutes
Alternatively, there is another, less traveled trail on the other side of the Buck Hill Parking lot that offers great views and less crowds.
I dare say the views are slightly better on this trail.
13. Catch a Sunset from Boicourt Overlook
The best place to soak in a sunset in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is Boicourt Overlook.
One of the most magical sunsets I have ever seen took place here with insanely beautiful light that seemed to linger forever.
As if it couldn’t get any better a herd of wild horses strolled in just as the last light was leaving and were resplendent under a full moon.
There is a short trail at the overlook to get a different view should it please you.
- Length: .8 miles
- Elevation: 100ft or less
- Time: 30-45 minutes
14. Hike Out to the Old East Entrance
The old east entrance is a cool hike in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
What used to be a park entrance is now a short hiking trail.
The dome-like formations on this hike are really cool and much bigger when you get up close to them!
- Length: .4 miles (out and back)
- Time: 30-45 minutes
- Difficulty: Easy
When a new entrance was constructed in Medora they closed this one. After a decent amount of digging it’s still not readily apparent to me why they did this so if anyone knows please leave a comment!
All I have been able to find is that it was closed when the I-94 was built.
At the end of the trail you can still see the old entrance station itself.
15. Hike the Buckhorn Trail
Located in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Buckhorn Trail is a crowd favorite.
The views that can be achieved on this hike are among the best in the park!
We hiked about a quarter of this 11 mile trail on a particularly hot day (over 90 degrees!) and are looking forward to hiking the rest in the future.
- Length: 11 miles (loop)
- Elevation: 1000 feet
- Time: 4-6 hours
The first part of the trail ascends up the side of the canyon but is not too steep. After about 3/4 of a mile you start to get some great views of the valley below.
16. Hike the Upper Paddock Creek Trail
Upper Paddock Creek Trail is a great trail with two different entry points in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The trail follows Paddock Creek through the South Unit of the park connecting the Painted Canyon to the loop road.
- Length: 15 miles (as an out & back) or 7.5 each way between Painted Canyon & Park Loop
- Duration: Depends
- Elevation: 1100 feet
The views vary along the hike from ordinary to dramatic as the trail follows Paddock Creek through the park.
We hiked two different segments of this trail and enjoyed both thoroughly.
17. Hike the South Achenbach Trail
The Achenbach Trail can be the most epic trail in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park when done as a loop and combined with the Buckhorn Trail.
This trail is not for beginners however as it’s an 18+ mile loop best hiked as a backpacking loop.
- Length: 18.2 miles (loop)
- Elevation: 2,358 feet
- Duration: two days
If you’re not up for all that, I recommend taking the South Achenbach Trail from Oxbow Overlook to Sperati Point which is just 1.2 miles (each way).
The views from Sperati Point are sublime and there’s basically no elevation gain as you’re walking on the top of the canyon the whole way.
18. Discover the Dazzling Formations
One of my favorite things to do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is hunting for dazzling formations throughout the park.
In my opinion, the best ones can be found in the north Unit of the park and are all over the place.
A couple places to look are down the trail from Oxbow Overlook on the Achenbach Trail and the Cannonball Concretions Trail.
There are also some great ones in the South Unit of the park as well!
19. Check out the Views from Badlands Overlook
From Badlands Overlook it seems like the badlands just stretch on endlessly across the landscape.
This is a great spot to soak in the views and solace of the national park.
If you packed some snacks or a lunch this is a great spot to enjoy while looking out upon the vastness of it all.
20. Go Camping
There are two excellent campgrounds located within Theodore Roosevelt National Park (plus a third group horse camp).
Both of these campgrounds are situated along the Little Missouri River.
Juniper Campground is in the North Unit of the park and Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit.
Combined these campgrounds have 126 lovely campsites.
Map of Things to Do Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Where to Stay at Theodore Roosevelt: Hotels & Lodging
There are no lodges located within the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, there are plenty of lodging options located near the North & South Units of the park.
For the South Unit, look no further than the town of Medora which is located on the border of the park. For the North Unit, Watford City is a quick 20 minute drive.
South Unit Hotels – Medora
North Unit Hotels – Watford City
- Little Missouri Inn & Suites (we stayed here and enjoyed it)
- Teddy’s Residential Suites
- Roosevelt Inn & Suites
- The Watford
- Comfort Inn & Suites
Getting To Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Directions & Location
There are many ways to get to Theodore Roosevelt Park – the deciding factors are cost and time.
- Closest Airport: DIK – Dickinson-Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport (42 miles from the South Entrance)
- Cheapest Airport: BIS – Bismarck Municipal Airport (137 miles from the South Unit)
The fastest way to get to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is by plane, flying into Dickinson Airport (DIK). The airport is only 45 minutes from the park and offers quick access via the interstate.
If money is no issue and time is paramount this is the way to go. The only drawback is that the only major airline currently servicing Dickinson is United.
My recommendation is flying into Bismarck which is an extra hour away as more major airlines have service here and rental cars are cheaper and more abundant. Did I mention it’s typically much cheaper as well?
Depending on your access to a car and the distance you’re willing to drive maybe you’re up for a great American road trip (see my national park road trips post).
RELATED: The Ultimate National Parks Road Trip
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Video
THEODORE ROOSEVELT National Park 8K is the culmination of weeks spent filming in one of the most spectacular regions of the Dakotas.
Encompassing over 70,000 acres, Theodore Roosevelt National Park boasts an stunning array of breathtaking badlands, snaking rivers, diverse wildlife including our national mammal, and colorful canyons.
Journey with More Than Just Parks as we explore a land teeming with rugged beauty, massive mammals, and epic overlooks. This is Theodore Roosevelt. Filmed primarily in stunning UHD 8K.
To make this film happen we spent weeks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park during October capturing the park in our favorite season, autumn.
This film is brought to you by North Dakota Tourism.
Summary of Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- River Bend Overlook
- Oxbow Overlook
- Petrified Forest Trail
- Wild Horses
- Cannonball Concretions
- Painted Canyon
- Coal Vein Trail
- Maah Daah Hey Trail
- Wind Canyon Overlook
- Prairie Dogs
- Buck Hill
- Boicourt Overlook
- Old East Entrance
- Buckhorn Trail
- Upper Paddock Trail
- Dazzling Formations
- Badlands Overlook
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