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Hikes and History

Combine Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the town of Medora and you have a great destination for a vacation. Medora is a tourist town that presents itself more like an old-time frontier town. It is home to stores, restaurants, shows, and other attractions like golf and a zipline.

Scenery photo of the Petrified Forest North Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You can see hills and mountains in the distance. There are tall grasses (green and brown) and the bushes and trees further away from the viewer. Midway in the distance appears to be a path that is gray/white in color that weaves through the base of the hills. It fades up in the distance going up the middle of the frame.
(Theodore Roosevelt National Park -Petrified Trail)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is made up of three different units, each providing a chance to admire gorgeous landscapes and watch wildlife. In the park, there are numerous hikes available and two scenic drives that will allow you to see the wide range of scenery that it has to offer. You can even visit President Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn ranch. I would encourage you to plan for at least 2-3 days in the area to properly see what the park and Medora have to offer.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park  has a $30 entrance fee that is good for all three sections of the park for 7 days. This pass will cover everyone in a single normal non-commercial vehicle (a regular car or truck). As mentioned before, this national park consists of three different sections: North Unit, South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch. Be aware that they are in two different time zones.

View of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The right side of the frame are mountains with trees spotted throughout them but they are mostly grey in color. The left side of the frame is more flat with grass and more trees dotted throughout the landscape.
(Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

The North Unit is in CST and the South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch are in MST. The North and South units both have visitor centers where you can get your National Park Passport stamped and pick-up maps of the area. Each also has scenic drives with pull off points available to give you more time to enjoy the views. The North unit is near one of the two National Historic Sites in North Dakota if you wanted to take a break from the park.

There are 3 larger pieces of petrified wood with smaller pieces that have broken off spread between them. The biggest piece is leaning up against a wide short rock. Color of the wood is mostly white with some red. The rock that it is leaning on is made up of rings of reds and browns. There is a larger, taller rock that looks the same behind it.
(Petrified Wood on the Petrified Forest Trail)

Pets are technically allowed in the park but cannot be walked on any of the trails inside the park. This means that they need to remain in your vehicle, or the campgrounds for most of your stay. There are some trails that you can walk your dog on outside of the park.

Bison grazing and a large ball shaped rock nearby
(Theodore National Park- North Unit)

North Unit- Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The North Unit consists of a visitor center, multiple trails, Juniper campground and a 14-mile scenic drive (28 miles by the time you drive to the end and back). This scenic drive is the only way through the park and provides a great opportunity to see the landscapes and wildlife. If you go in the spring, you will even have the chance to see bison calves.

Interesting formation in the side of an incline. There are two raised circles in the rock several feet apart.
(Interesting natural formations in the rocks)
Bison with calves grazing in a grass field
(Bison calf laying amongst the herd in the North Unit)

North Unit Campground

Juniper Campground is first come, first serve and they are open to tents, RVs and trailers. You self-register at the campsite and the rates are seasonal. In the summer months the sites are typically around $14 a night.

Steep Mountain Wall in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
(Views from the scenic drive in the North Unit)

North Unit Hiking Trails

There are several hikes available with different mileage points available in the North Unit. 

Table of hikes: Praire Dog Town, Sperati Point, and the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail are all 1.5 miles, and the Little Mo trail is the shortest and only paved trail at .7 miles. If you are looking for a more intensive hike in the North unit, you can do the full Caprock Coulee trail at 4.3 miles, the Buckhorn at 11.4 miles or Achenbach at 18 miles

The park is open to backcountry hikes, just remember to get a permit first if it will be an overnight trip.

Mountain scenery- Mountains in the distance have lines of colors. There is a grass field in between camera and mountains
(Theodore National Park- North Unit)

South Unit- Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The South Unit consists of two visitor centers, multiple trails, several campgrounds, and a 36-mile scenic drive. The scenic drive is the best way to see the park. They estimate that it will take around 1.5 hours to do the drive, but I suggest budgeting for more time.

A large bison in the distance in profile but head is directed toward camera. Bison is standing in the middle of a flat prairie. Grasses are brown and green. Sky is clear blue.
(The Humongous Bison from a Very Far Distance: We named him Death)

The wild animals in the park can often cause traffic jams as they cross the roads. Please be respectful of the animals and remember that this is their home. It would be a shame to injure or kill an animal because you were in a rush or not paying attention.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few places you can see wild horse so be sure to keep an eye out while in the South Unit.

Wild horses running in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The lead horse on the right is all black with a white muzzle, there is a pink colored horse behind him and bit further back is a grey horse. They are running on grass and there are several bushes between them and the camera. In the background are large mountains with stripes of colors in hues of whites, reds, and browns. There are trees speckled on the mountains.
(Wild Horses Running through the Park)

South Unit Visitor Centers

Painted Canyon Visitor Center

The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is located off I-94 and is not an entry into the park. This visitor center has a gift shop and rest area. This is also where you access the Painted Canyon trail.

Viewpoint looking up at one of the  large stone hills with lines of color (hues of browns, greys and orange) from the bottom of Painted Canyon . The ground between camera and the hill has grass and small trees. the sky is mostly blue with a grey cloud covering the middle of the sky.
(Painted Canyon)

South Unit Visitor Center

The South Unit Visitor Center is technically in the town of Medora, and the start of the scenic drive. At this center, there is a short movie about the history of the park. There is a museum inside that houses artifacts from Theodore Rooseveltas well as Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin. Both are open during visitor center hours. You will also find another gift shop at this location.

A small white egg with reddish brown speckles on it. The egg is laying on a reddish color boulder. Next to the boulder is tall grass.
(Plenty of things to find in the park if you look- like this egg!)

South Unit Campgrounds

There are two different campgrounds located in the south unit: Cottonwood and Roundup Group Horse Campground. Cottonwood is a primitive campground, and half the sites are first come first serve, and the other half can be reserved. The Roundup Group Horse Campground is reservation only and is open to people camping with their horses. You can also go backcountry camping but you will need a permit (its free).

South Unit Hiking Trails

The South Unit is home to most of the trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Part of the South Unit Scenic Byway was closed when we went so, we were only able to do 5 of the trails; Painted Canyon, Buck Hill, Coal Vein, Boicourt and the Petrified Forest Trail.

A bull snake (black and white in color) moving off a gravel path into green grass.
(Bull Snake found near the start of Painted Canyon Trail)

Painted Canyon trail is .9 miles and leads down into the Painted Canyon and has wonderful views. 

Picture taken looking up from in the Painted Canyon of Theodore Roosevelt National park. The bottom of the hill is bare brown rock. The higher on the hill the more trees and bushes there are. They sky is grey and cloudy due to an incoming storm.
(Here Comes the Rain!)
Picture of Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There are numerous hills with lines of color in greys, pinks, and oranges. They also have bushes and trees dispersed amongst them with the top of the hills having more greenery in density. The sky is bluish pink with a few clouds as it is late in the day.
(Painted Canyon)

Buck Hill which was a short little 0.2-mile hike offered a nice view of the surrounding land. 

Large piece of rock jutting out from the side of a hill over a path. There are grasses on the ground. The rock appears similar to a turtle head/neck and is grey in color.
(Walking Along and Enjoying the View)
View off the edge of Buck Hill in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. there is green grass where the ground is flat. And you can see numerous large hills made up of rocks that have rings of colors (in greys, yellows, reds, and whites). The top of the hills are usually more flat with dark green trees on them.
(View from the end of Buck Hill Trail)

The Coal Vein Trail is 0.6-0.8 miles depending on which route you take. The views on this hike are not much different than what you could see from the roads, but you are able to see an exposed coal vein that had caught fire and burned for 26 years.

View of the Coal Vein Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There are hills in the distance covered with trees, bushes and grasses of varying sizes. On the hills you can see some multi-colored rock/stone that the hills are made up of. They look like the colors are rings around the hills in shades of greys and white.
(Coal Vein Trail)
View of a coal vein running through the middle of the frame from bottom to top. The coal vein is dark grey in color and runs between the base of two large hills made mostly of lighter grey stone. The hills do have trees on the top of the hills and small tufts of green grass/small bushes on the sides.
(A Coal Vein Running down through the Middle of this Picture)

The Boicourt Trail is 0.2-mile hike out to an overhang that offered spectacular views of the surrounding area.

View taken from Boicourt Traill in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There is green grass where the ground is flat with trees dispersed throughout. In the middle of the frame there is a group of trees clumped together. And you can see numerous large hills made up of rocks that have rings of colors (in greys, yellows, reds, and whites). There are more trees spread along these hills.
(Scenery from Boicourt Trail)
Close up of the side of a mountain. The mountain is made up of rings of colors in hues of grey, browns, whites, and reds. Some rings looked like they draped over the ring beneath them like a skirt. There are bushes and trees dotted along the mountain.
(I love how Different the Landscape was at Every Place on this Trip)

Petrified Forest Trail is a 10.3-mile loop, but it can be divided into two sections.  There is the north trail, which is supposed to be the more beautiful section of the trail, and there is the south trail which is the shorter of the two. You will find petrified wood on both sections of the trail.

a single pointed post surrounded by prairie. There is a sign on the post stating that this is the Petrified Forest Trail Junction. There is an arrow pointed to the left for the North Trail and an arrow pointed right for the South Trial.
(Petrified Forest Trail Head Junction)
Landscape is mostly small rocks with a few scraggly bushes in the background. There is a large dead bush in the middle that is laying on its side and has no leaves.
(Petrified Forest Trail)
Flat prairie as far as the eye can see at the start of the Petrified Forest Trail in Theodore Roosevelt NP.
(Start of the Petrified Forest Trail)
View off into the distance where you can see trees and grass spread amongst large flat topped rocks that come out from the sides of the hills. Rocks are grey, white, and red in color.
(Approaching one of the Main Petrified Wood Sections)
There are three chunks of Petrified Wood. Two about a foot apart in the back of the frame and one closer to the front. They are grey with some reddish hues. They lay on a grey rocky/clay looking ground. Behind the 2 stumps in the background the ground angles downward and at that point there is some scraggly bushes and at the base of the hill some tall green trees.
(It was Cool to see Untouched Petrified Wood after seeing the Creations at Petrified Wood Park)
A petrified stump sitting on top of a hill made of rocks/clay. The stump is grey and red of color. There is large bush growing behind and the branches grow over the top of the stump. There are smaller bushes surround the stump.
(Plants Seemingly Growing out of Petrified Wood)

There are other trails available in the South Unit of the park.

For short trails you will have three more options;

Table that gives info on hikes: Skyline Vista trail: 0.1miles  Wind Canyon Trail: 0.4 miles  and Ridgeline trail: 0.6 miles

Prairie scene with rolling hills. You can see trees sporadically on the hills and some patches of the prairie are brown instead of green like most of the grasses.
(Petrified Forest South Trail)

If you have a desire to do some longer hikes you have an additional 4 hikes to choose from;

Table that gives info on hikes: Maah Daah Hey Trail is 7.1 miles in the park. The entire trail stretches 96 miles and connects all three units of the park. The Lone Tree Loop trail is 9.6 miles. The Jones/Lower/Talkington/Lower Paddock Loop is 11.4 miles. And the Upper Paddock Talkington Loop is 15.4 miles

Picture was taken looking up to the top of a hill. There is a dirt path that leads to the top where a woman with a pink shirt has her arms raised to the blue sky. On either side of the path is grass and there are trees on the left side of the path.
(Loved the Boicourt Trail!)

Keep in mind: A common problem on the roads and trails are people getting stuck because of bison walking through and deciding to rest on the paths and roads. From all the signs you will read about bison and safety in the parks, you should know not to approach the bison and stay quite a ways back, especially if there are calves in the area.

A brown horse standing in profile on a road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. On the other side of the horse is a white car driving towards the horse and a dark colored SUV behind the car.
(Wild Horses Leisurely Crossing and Stopping Traffic on the Road)

Therefore, if one is blocking the trail, you are stuck until they decide to move along or if you can use another path to get to your destination. Some people have been stuck for hours so make sure that you are able to be flexible with your timetable.

2 adult wild horses and one foal. The foal is walking away from camera but has a side profile. Color is light brown. Immediately behind it is a black horse that is standing towards the camera but is looking to the right where a brown horse with a white line on its muzzle is standing and looking at camera. They are on top of a grassy hill.
(Wild Horses with a Foal)

Elkhorn Unit

The Elkhorn Unit is perfect for those that are Teddy Roosevelt fans as the only thing there is what is left of his home ranch. To get there you must drive on rough unpaved roads with the last three miles sometimes requiring 4-wheel drive.  It is recommended to check the current road conditions at one of the visitor centers before heading out that way. Be aware that there is no cell phone service most of the way to the Elkhorn ranch.

Medora

Medora is the city at the entrance of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is a fun old frontier type town that caters to tourists. This means that there are plenty of places to eat and shop when you want a break from the National Park. Medora can also provide tons of entertainment in the form of different shows, musicals, golf and a zipline. Here are two of the shows that you should work into your vacation schedule if possible.

Tribute to Medora

Tribute to Medora by Theodore Roosevelt is an amazing show. The actor that plays Roosevelt does a marvelous job. The show consists of a monologue that will take you through the president’s personal history and his passion concerning conservation. This is not a fully scripted show, as the performer interacts with the audience recalling facts and trips that Roosevelt had taken in the different states that the audience members are from. I was blown away during this show.

A Theodore Roosevelt impersonator dressed in a dark suit is standing in the middle of two women. All are smiling at camera. Woman on the right is wearing  a 3/4 length sleeve shirt (white body, maroon sleeves), grey shorts and a maroon baseball cap. Women on right is wearing pink sports tank tops and khaki shorts.
(One of my favorite parts of the trip: Teddy Roosevelt!)

Medora Musical

Medora Musical occurs in an outdoor theater. This musical has a bit of everything like singing, dancing, a horse show, and other variety acts. It tells the story about the history of Medora, and Teddy Roosevelt of course makes an appearance.

Close up of the brochure for Medora Musical 2019. It has a cartoon man and woman dressed as cowboy and cowgirl with a ribbon that is red and blue with stars on it weaving around them.

Why You Should Visit:

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a great National Park to watch wildlife. The landscape is amazing, and the hikes provide the opportunity to see unique things like petrified wood and coal veins, amongst the background of the North Dakota Badlands.  The location of the park is near Medora, a city that thrives providing frontier type attractions and stores. The balance of hikes and history in Medora is a combination that you will not find in many places. When you come to Medora, make sure you watch the Theodore Roosevelt re-enactment and hike the Boicourt and Painted Canyon Trails. I can promise you will not regret it!

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About Author

Animal and wildlife enthusiast that currently owns four dogs, loves to travel, and try new things while saving as much money as possible!

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19 Comments

  1. I love seeing bison and wild horses. I appreciate your cautions as we’ve seen people in Yellowstone NP walking dangerously close to bison and assuming that they can’t move very fast. My bucket list goal is to get to all the National Parks, so I’ll definitely be adding this one to the list. I hadn’t heard of it before.

  2. Very informative and interesting article. My favorite part was about the horses and bison; it’s their domain and they don’t mind letting you know. The different terrains were also nice to see.

  3. What a beautiful national park! The landscape looks incredible! And how wonderful to see wild horses taking a stroll! It sounds like a beautiful place to go hiking. Thanks for the great guide!

  4. Too many people forgetting about traveling to North Dakota. The landscape is dramatic and beautiful – and it has so many hiking trails, national parks and other places to check out. Thanks for these details on Theodore Roosevelt NP!

  5. I’ve never considered visiting North Dakota, but after reading your blog I would love to visit it one day. Thank you for sharing this amazing place 🙂

  6. My boys have been learning about Teddy Roosevelt this year and thinking to share this with them! Looks like a beautiful place to visit!

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