The grand hills and magnificent skylines of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are exactly the sort of vistas you might imagine would please legendary president, soldier, statesman, and conservationist Teddy Roosevelt.
Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park affords its visitors a wealth of outdoor activities, programs, and unforgettable views. The park was established in 1978 in North Dakota because it was a favorite place of Roosevelt and where he spent much of his time when not engaged in politics in Washington D.C. or fighting the Spanish in Cuba.
The park boasts an interesting mix of prairie lands and rocky hills and is the meeting point between the Great Plains of the central United States and the Badlands of the Dakotas.
With a car and some walking shoes, you can enjoy everything this Western North Dakota park has to offer in just a few days or spend more time exploring, adventuring, or getting cozy by the campfire at one of the park’s campsites.
Want to know where to start and where to end up during your tour of this magnificent wilderness? Let’s explore some of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
- Most significant landmark – The Theodore Roosevelt Maltese Cross Cabin
- Best free activity – Painted Canyon Nature Trail
- Best activity for kids – North Unit Scenic Drive
- Best activity for adults – Mountain Biking the South Unit Scenic Drive
- Best food – Theodore’s Dining Room
- Best nightlife – Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival
- Best all-around accommodation – AmericInn by Wyndham Medora
Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
1. Visit the Theodore Roosevelt Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin
Address: Medora, ND 58645
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” He began his love affair with the state in the 1880s when he traveled there to hunt bison. After falling in love with the region, he purchased a property in the area and eventually stayed in what was known as the Maltese Cross Cabin.
Incredibly, the cabin was once disassembled and brought to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. The cabin was also brought to Portland, Oregon, at one point when that city hosted the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Eventually, the cabin would make its way back to the park after it was established in 1978.
The Maltese Cross Cabin is easy to access from the South Unit of the park and is located right behind the South Unit Visitor Center as you enter the park from East River Road. If you’re particularly pressed for time but still want to see an amazing historical artifact, seeing the cabin is a must, even if you’re not staying in the area for longer than an afternoon.
If you’re staying overnight, you can make the most of your experience by staying in one of the cool local ranch properties.
See Related: Famous Historic Landmarks in North Dakota
2. Mountain Bike the South Unit Scenic Loop Drive
Address: South Unit Visitor’s Center, Medora, ND, 58645
The South Unit Scenic Drive is certainly doable by car, but if you happen to have access to a mountain bike or a hybrid bike, you might consider riding the South Unit’s amazing scenic loop drive. The South Unit is the most easily accessible part of the park since it’s right near Interstate 94, and you can start the ride (or drive if you choose your car) from your hotel room, ranch cabin, or campground in Medora.
The park allows bicycles on all park roads, but you can’t take them on trails or into the wilderness. It’s also a good idea to remain aware of your surroundings as you ride because herds of bison and horses often come close to and walk on the road. There are some blind turns and fairly steep sections, and you’ll want to keep an eye out for wandering herds that might cross the road right in front of you.
The South Unit’s scenic loop drive is 36 miles, so it’s definitely a challenge on a bicycle but is certainly a one-of-a-kind experience. The loop officially begins at the South Unit Visitor’s Center, which is less than a mile from the center of Medora. You may park at the visitor’s center and unload your bikes in the park or add a few miles onto your journey from a local hotel like the AmericInn by Wyndham Medora.
See Related: Most Scenic Bike Trails in America
3. Explore the Elkhorn Ranch Unit
Address: Medora, ND 58645
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is located between the South Unit and North Unit and is one of the less visited areas of the park. The area is named for the ranch built by President Theodore Roosevelt after the death of his wife and mother in the mid-1880s. Roosevelt was so distraught that he decided to leave the East Coast and devote the rest of his life to ranching in the Dakota Territory (North Dakota wasn’t yet a state).
The original ranch house no longer exists, but the former ranch remains an important part of Roosevelt’s history. The site features an interactive exhibit and many opportunities for photographs, as well as wildlife photography experiences.
In his book “Hunting Trips of a Ranchman,” Roosevelt describes his ranch house as having a “low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods.” Although the ranch house no longer exists, Roosevelt’s writing certainly brings the place to life in one’s mind.
Reaching the ranch does require some travel, and it takes some time spent on a gravel road to reach the former site of the cabin. The drive is about 90 minutes one way, so it’s a good idea to have a comfortable car capable of traveling over an imperfect gravel road.
See Related: Best Things to Do in North Dakota & Places to Visit
4. See the Painted Canyon Nature Trail & Visitor Center
Address: Painted Canyon Visitor Center Exit 32, Belfield, ND 58622
Entering Theodore Roosevelt National Park requires paying the park entrance fee, so almost all of the activities inside the park (and just about everything on this list) do require an initial fee to experience. If you’re short on time or you’re on a particularly small budget, you can get a glimpse of the park and all its beauty from the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, which is free and just north of Interstate 94 via Exit 32.
The visitor center itself isn’t technically inside the park, and you can even access the Painted Canyon Trail from the parking lot of the visitor center. The trail is about a mile long and offers views of the mountains. If you want the easiest version of the trail, travel along the loop in a counterclockwise direction, as this will give you an easier ascent and gradual decline for the second half.
One of the coolest aspects of the visitor center is that you can actually park overnight in the parking lot with your RV, which is very convenient if you find that the campgrounds inside the park are full or you don’t have much time for visiting the park. There are large parking spots capable of handling an RV or bus, as well as loads of parking spots for passenger cars and trucks.
See Related: Best National Parks in the USA to Visit
5. Peek into the Past in the Petrified Forest
Address: South Petrified Forest Trail, North Billings, ND 58645
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to a dramatic petrified forest with one of the highest concentrations of petrified wood in the country. At one time in the distant past, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was filled with huge trees, and the landscape looked incredibly different than it does today. The area was actually home to endless swamps and trees.
From the parking area, getting to the petrified forest requires walking about a mile and a half, so it’s an activity that can offer a few hours of movement and wonder for a family. If you’re traveling as a couple or have an adventure on your mind, you can enhance your journey through the petrified forest with a further nine miles of hiking.
The trail to the petrified forest is considered easy to moderate in difficulty. Completing the whole 10.5-mile loop notches the difficulty level up to moderate. You might encounter some fairly stiff winds in some seasons, but the views of the extended trail are stunning and worth your time.
6. Drive the North Unit Scenic Drive
Address: 208 Scenic Drive, Watford City, ND 58854
If you’re at the park for more than one day, think about driving the North Unit scenic drive one of those days. The drive is a 28-mile out-and-back drive and offers excellent views from the comfort of your air-conditioned or heated car. Some travelers think the vistas of the North Unit drive are better than the South Unit.
Why not try both and decide for yourself? After all, the scenery is definitely what brings many travelers to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the scenic drives in the north and south are also an easy way to reach various overlooks, hiking opportunities, and installations.
The North Unit is a less-traveled area of the park, but the 50-mile drive north from Interstate 94 is worth the time. If you’re interested in viewing wildlife, the North Unit drive should appeal to you, especially with all the scenic vistas around that offer an ideal backdrop to herds of bison, bison calves, bighorn sheep, and the occasional moose.
See Related: Best National Parks in the Midwest (+ NPS Sites)
7. Hike the Buckhorn Trail
Address: Buckhorn Trail Central McKenzie, ND 58634
If challenge and exploration bring you to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Buckhorn Trail is an ideal place to enjoy a challenging trek into the wilderness. The trail is almost 11 miles long, and you can walk, run, stroll, or hike along the trail for miles with amazing views of the surrounding hills and valleys.
One of the popular activities at the park is birding, and this trail is usually an excellent place for a stroll with your binoculars. You’ll also find some occasionally rowdy herds of bison and snakes along the trail. Sometimes, the vegetation along the trail can get a little thick, so you may want to wear pants if the weather allows for them.
You don’t need to hike the entire trail to get some enjoyment out of it. Traveling just a few miles is long enough to give you some expansive views and a decent workout.
If you hit the trail in the middle of the year, carry as much water as possible. North Dakota gets quite hot and dry in the summer, and you’ll need the extra hydration.
8. Discover the Cannonball Concretions
Address: Cannonball Concretion Pullout, Grassy Butte, ND 58634
During your exploration of the north side of the park, take a moment to look at the cannonball concretions, which are strange round rocks that seem wholly out of place in the uneven and rocky landscape. Round concretions are formed like a pearl without a shell, with many layers of rock adhering to the sphere over time.
It’s easy to reach this display of strange rocks from the pullout across the road from Juniper Campground, and you’ll find plenty of parking at the site. The trailhead for the Buckhorn Trail is nearby, so definitely take a few moments to look at the Cannonball Concretions before heading out on your hike.
Reaching the viewing spot for the concretions is easy and takes just five minutes of walking. You’ll find an interpretive exhibit at the viewing area, and it’s definitely something you’ll want to visit if you’re traveling with kids and want to show them something odd, unique, and fun.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Fargo, North Dakota
9. Trek to the Missouri River from the Wind Canyon Trail
Address: Medora, ND 58645
As you’ve probably surmised from this list of the top things to do in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, hiking trails are one of the main activities available to visitors. However, one of the most dramatic views available to visitors requires just a few minutes spent walking on an unpaved trail. The Wind Canyon Trail can take as few as five or as many as 30 minutes, depending on your rate of travel.
The trail is a loop and takes you to an impressive lookout point where you’ll see the Little Missouri River meandering through the cliffs and hills of the South Unit of the park. You may want to time your visit to this brief half-mile trail for the sunset when the view is simply spectacular with the sun setting in the distance.
Alternatively, try an early morning visit if you’re a photographer and want the sun behind you for your shot. Even though the trail is short, there is a place to sit along the trail, so you can take a rest if you’re not feeling up to the challenge of hiking toward the river. As always, wear some comfortable sneakers and leave the high heels at home!
See Related: Fun & Best Things to do in Medora, North Dakota
10. Stargaze During the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival
Address: Peaceful Valley Ranch, Medora, North Dakota 58645
Much of the world’s population lives in large, bright cities, which obscure the beautiful view of the stars at night. Due to its remote location, the stars visible at night in the Dakotas and at Theodore Roosevelt National Park are expansive and much brighter than most people would normally experience in their day-to-day city lives.
The Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival is an excellent way to make the most of your nights at the park. The festival occurs once a year, usually in September, and features several events over a span of three days. Each night of the festival, you can join amateur astronomers and a group of park rangers, looking through a series of telescopes pointed up at the sky at various heavenly bodies.
The festival also usually features keynote speakers who offer talks after dark from the Cottonwood Campground Amphitheater, which is on the south side of the park. If you’ve never had the opportunity to see the sky from a rural area, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is an incredible place to enjoy stargazing. Even if you’re not in the park during the festival, don’t forget to look up at the stars during your visit.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Grand Forks, North Dakota
11. Camp at Cottonwood Campground or Juniper Campground
Address: Cottonwood Campground 315 2nd Ave, Medora, ND 58645
Address: Juniper Campground Scenic Dr, Grassy Butte, ND 58634
The park offers its visitors two campgrounds, both providing an incredibly rustic and rural experience. Cottonwood Campground is located in the South Unit, and Juniper Campground is located in the North Unit, so you might find it helpful to choose the campground closest to the other activities you want to enjoy while exploring the park.
Neither campground offers cell phone reception or internet connectivity, so you might find camping in the park one of the best opportunities anywhere to unplug from social media and all the trappings of modern life and enjoy some quiet time with the family, your significant other, or on your solo trip of self-discovery.
In addition to a lack of a camp store, cell phone reception, and internet access, neither campground has RV hookups either, even though most of the spots will accommodate an RV. Juniper Campground in the North Unit often fills up by midday, so it’s important to snag a spot early. Meanwhile, some of the sites at Cottonwood Campground in the south are reservable online with the National Park Service.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to do in Minot, North Dakota
12. Wander Along the Little Mo Nature Trail
Address: Little Mo Nature Trail, Grassy Butte, ND 58634
Like the Wind Canyon Trail, the Little Mo Nature Trail is an excellent trail for quick trips into just a hint of wilderness. At a length of 1.1 miles, the trail shouldn’t take more than about half an hour to complete at a leisurely pace. If you’re staying at the Juniper Campground, you’ll find this trail is convenient for a brief outing, and it’s also a great trail that will get you close to the Little Missouri River.
Sometimes, you’ll see bison swim across the river if you catch the trail at the right time. Even though the trail is brief, there are a few spots with expansive views. Much of the trail is wheelchair-friendly and easily accomplished by kids who might not have the stamina to complete one of the longer hiking trails in the park.
Bear in mind, also, that wet weather can make some parts of the trail muddy, so it’s always a good idea to come prepared with good shoes. Pick up a pamphlet at the start of the trail explaining all the sights you’ll see along the way.
A pamphlet is also helpful when the trail gets a little overgrown because it’s easy to accidentally veer onto a bison path that crosses the actual trail and find yourself face-to-face with a herd.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Dickinson, North Dakota
13. Take in the Views from Buck Hill
Address: Buck Hill Trail, North Billings, ND 58622
Take your camera with you when you ascend Buck Hill, one of the highest accessible places in the park. One of the most interesting facets of this quick half-mile trail is that the very top of the lookout was once underwater. If you examine the rocks near the top of the hill, you might notice striations that are evidence of the area once having been covered by a vast amount of water.
On a clear day, you’ll see an amazing 360-degree view where you can see park features like the Painted Canyon and the Boicourt trail. A look to the west will show you a view of the North Dakota Badlands, and a look toward the east will showcase rolling grasslands and the occasional prairie dog town. The south side is full of beautiful forests.
If you’re staying in the park overnight, Buck Hill is an excellent place for stargazing, particularly on a clear night. If you climb the hill at night, make sure to bring a flashlight because ascending to the top means climbing a fairly steep staircase, and you don’t want to trip.
If you’re concerned about your surefootedness, climb the hill before sunset, enjoy a beautiful twilight as the sun disappears below the horizon, and wait for the stars to appear.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Bismarck, North Dakota
Are there bears in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
One of the interesting facets of the wildlife of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the absence of so-called “apex” predators. You won’t see wolves and bears roaming the hills of the park, but the occasional mountain lion visits the park. Large animals in the park include horses, bison, deer, and pronghorn.
What is the closest town to Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
You’ll probably drive through Medora, North Dakota, when you enter Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the South Unit of the park, as it’s the closest town to the park. The North Unit of the park is about 14 miles south of another town, Watford City, North Dakota.
Most travelers will reach the park via Interstate 94, which travels right past the south entrance to the park.
How much time is needed at Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
Realistically, you can cover all the main sights and vistas of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in about two days, but a third day may suit you if you’re camping in the park. The park has three units or areas, and you might consider devoting one day to each unit (North Unit, South Unit, Elkhorn Ranch Unit).