Every summer tourists flock to get a glimpse of the Badlands in South Dakota. The iconic grassy plains and colorful rock formations are something from a dream. But, have you heard of the North Dakota Badlands? Yeah, I hadn’t either until I was planning the drive from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park and discovered Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This park has all the iconic Badlands views without the crowds!
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North Dakota Badlands Background
Theodore Roosevelt first visited Dakota Territory in the late 1800’s to hunt bison. During this and subsequent visits, he fell in love with the beauty of the land and settled there as a cattle rancher. Years later he credited his experiences in the Dakotas as his inspiration to preserve such lands. Aside from being a US President, he went on to establish the US Forest Service, create five national parks, and protect over 200 million acres of land. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was later named after him to honor his love for this special place.
It’s incredible to imagine that when Teddy first visited the area bison roamed by the millions. By the early 1900’s they diminished down to just a few hundred. Today, as a visitor to the North Dakota Badlands, you can see the success of the bison reintroduction efforts.
North Dakota Badlands Map
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is split into three distinct “units”, with significant driving distances between them. This is important to consider when planning your visit!
This is the most popular and convenient unit to visit. The entrance to the South Unit is in the quaint town of Medora, which is lined with restaurants and lodges. Inside the South Unit, there are reservable campsites at Cottonwood Campground and a thirty six mile paved scenic loop. Along the scenic loop are pull outs, interpretive signs, overlooks and trailheads. The South Unit Visitor Center has rangers available to answer questions, park information, a park store, a small theater and natural history displays.
The Painted Canyon Overlook and Visitor Center are worth the short drive on Interstate 94. Park at the Visitor Center and then walk behind the building to get this epic view! As a bonus, there are restrooms and picnic tables available if you want to relax and enjoy the view.
It’s about a seventy mile drive to the North Unit from the South Unit. Because I only had a day to explore the North Dakota Badlands, I skipped this part of the park and instead went camping and hiking in the South Unit.
The North Unit has a fourteen mile scenic drive (one-way), where you can try to catch a glimpse of the longhorn steer that wander the area. There is also a North Unit Visitor Center which has rangers available to answer questions, a bookstore, short film and other exhibits.
Elkhorn Ranch Unit
Elkhorn Ranch was one of two ranches owned by Teddy Roosevelt. The ranch is no longer standing, but the grounds are marked with exhibits and signs to show what it looked like in its prime. While this does sound interesting, it’s a commitment to visit this unit as it’s a one and half hour drive down a dirt road from Medora! These roads are steep and often washed out by storms, so check with a ranger before setting out on this journey.
North Dakota Badlands: One Day Itinerary
For one day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I would spend it in the South Unit. Before driving to the South Unit entrance, stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook and Visitor’s Center. The view is absolutely stunning and easy to access (no hiking required). Before you leave, grab a photo in front of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park sign.
From there, drive into the cute town of Medora to grab a bite to eat or head into the park. The South Unit Visitor Center posts where wildlife has been spotted that day and rangers are available to advise you on hikes and other activities.
From there, drive the windy road up into the South Unit. Watch closely because all along this road are prairie dog towns. Their little heads will be popping out of the holes in the ground as they curiously watch you drive by.
Stop at the Jones Creek trailhead and go on a short hike to stretch your legs. I opted for a three mile round trip out and back hike. The trail was very flat, but lined with fields of wildflowers, prickly pear cacti and loads of bison tracks. The trail was not very well marked, especially at the creek crossings, so stay aware of your surroundings.
Even on short hikes, be sure to bring these day hiking essentials with you!
After the hike, hop back in the car and continue the scenic loop. Just around the next bend, you’ll see the grassy plain of Beef Corral Bottom along the Little Missouri River to the left. This is where I saw a herd of bison, dotted with prairie dogs. The dramatic rocky backdrop made for quite a view.
Drive around the back side of the rocks to find a parking lot for the Wind Canyon Trail. Just a short walk from the parking lot, there’s an overlook of the Little Missouri River that gives you a peekaboo view of the back side of Beef Corral Bottom. I was able to capture the herd of bison from above from here!
As you continue driving the scenic loop, watch on the horizon for wild horses and elk. One of my favorite stops was the Boicourt Overlook. We happened to stop here right at Golden Hour as the sun dipped low in the sky.
Depending on the time, you can finish the scenic loop or head back towards your campsite at Cottonwood Campground. The campsite was quiet and clean, aside from the bugs. Try to hit the bed early so you can get up and experience this beautiful place during the morning golden hour. There’s nothing quite like seeing the silhouette of wild horses running across the plains as the sun rises behind them.
Other Things To Do in the North Dakota Badlands
If you have more than twenty four hours in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, here’s what I’d recommend.
- Hike the Petrified Forest trail in the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness area located about thirty minutes from Medora.
- Bike along the South Unit scenic loop.
- Tackle a longer day hike such as the Paddock Creek or Talkington Trails.
- Visit the North Unit.
North Dakota Badlands Tips
If you visit the South Unit, be aware that there is significant construction on the road into the park between the Visitor Center and Cottonwood Campground. Expect delays of up to thirty minutes due to one-way traffic on the narrow road.
Here are some other considerations when planning your visit:
- There is little shade in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, so bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
- The only reservable campsites are at Cottonwood Campground, which is near the Little Missouri River. This seemed to be the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, so bring plenty of bug spray. There are campsites that can accommodate larger RV’s, but there are no utility hookups.
- Leashed pets are allowed in the park, though they are not allowed on the trails.
- Drones are not allowed in any US National Park.