28 BEST Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit)

Looking for the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park? Read on for details!

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is unique. I suppose that sounds trite, as you’d expect all National Parks to be unique. But it truly has a different feel than many of the parks you are familiar with.

For starters, this is definitely an off the beaten track national park. Theodore Roosevelt is located in the western part of North Dakota, and it doesn’t see anywhere the number of visitors as, say, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. So while you won’t have all to yourself, it also isn’t hard to find some solitude – which can be an issue in other parks.

Theodore Roosevelt features badlands rock formations, protected prairie, rivers and bluffs, and gorgeous night skies and open views. But in many ways the primary attraction is the wildlife as you’ll have the chance to see bison, wild horses, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and more.

But perhaps the most unique feature of this national park is that more than conserving amazing landscapes or wildlife, it was established to honor the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt spent a great deal of time in North Dakota, owning a ranch that is located in the park, and that time impacted him profoundly.

He said,” I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” Crazy right?

In addition to this, Teddy Roosevelt was a champion of conservationism, which led him to sign the Antiquities Act, which allowed presidents to declare areas as public landmarks. He then subsequently declared 5 spots as national parks, plus 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, and 4 national game preserves. Thanks in large part to his groundwork, the National Park Service was established in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson.

So this park really honors Theodore Roosevelt’s contributions to the protected lands in the United States and conservationism in general!

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Breakdown of Units in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

TRNP has three different units in it: The North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The North Unit is 68 miles/1 hour north of the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is about 46 miles/1 hour from the South Unit.

Most of the sites are in the South Unit and that’s where most visitors spend their time, so that’s what we’re going to focus on in this post!

28 Best Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

There are 3 main areas of the South Unit in Theodore Roosevelt. There’s the area that’s accessible from the South Unit Visitor’s Center, and includes the Scenic Drive and most of the hikes and viewpoints in the park. This is accessed from the town of Medora, ND.

There is also the Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center, and where you can access the Painted Canyon Overlook and Trails. This is actually accessed directly from I-94 as an exit/rest area.

Finally, there is also the Wilderness Area of the South Unit, which includes the Petrified Forest trails, as well as several longer backcountry trails. This is accessed by a 20 minute drive west and north of Medora.

Let’s dive into the list of best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the categories of Viewpoints, Hikes, Wildlife Encounter, Other Things to Do in the National Park, and Things to Do Just Outside of Theodore Roosevelt.

➡️Viewpoints

One of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is stop and admire all the viewpoint throughout the park! These overlooks showcase some of the best and most beautiful scenery in the badlands of North Dakota.

Most of these viewpoints are off the Scenic Drive, a 36 mile loop through the park. However, currently the last section of the Scenic Drive Loop is closed until further notice, so instead of driving the entire loop, you can drive 23 miles to the Badlands Overlook, and then need to turn around and drive back the way you came instead of completing the loop.

This is not such a bad thing though! We had a few epic wildlife sightings on the way back through the park.

1. Skyline Vista Overlook

Skyline Vista is one of the first viewpoints you’ll come to when you head into the Park from the South Unit Visitor’s Center. There’s a short walk out to the edge of the plateau, where you can see the prairie, the badland hills, and part of highway 94.

There are two different viewing areas at Painted Vista – I recommend stopping at them both, as they offer somewhat different views.

2. Boicourt Overlook

Pronounced “boe-court”, this is a great overlook to see a wide expanse of prairie land, rolling hills, and badlands formations, and you can see for miles and miles.

There’s a dirt path from the paved viewpoint area that heads straight towards the bluffs – walk down that for 30 yards for the best views over the rock formations.

3. Buck Hill Overlook

Buck Hill offers incredible 360 views of the park, includes rolling prairie grasslands, and some badlands hills. The viewpoint is a short walk up some stairs just off of the road, and is well worth the stop and effort.

Interestingly, Buck Hill is unique because the prairie around it has never been plowed. Plowing and disruption to the prairie grasses damages the ecosystem and takes years and years to recover. Did you know that prairie is the second most diverse ecosystem in the world (after rainforests)? Yet it receives far less attention and conservation.

4. Badlands Overlook

This is possibly the best viewpoint in the park, at least for viewing the badlands themselves. Here you get a wide vista filled with hills, bluffs, and buttes. You see a lot more color here, with some hills being all red and some being multi colored, including some purple veining. 

While there’s a paved viewpoint right on the side of the road, take the dirt path down to the rocks in front of the official viewpoint for an even better view of the landscape.

5. Painted Canyon Overlook

Painted Canyon Overlook ties with Badlands Overlook for some of the best views (in my opinion, at least!) of the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The hills are striated, extend far into the distance, and are nestled between rolling prairie.

This is also the start of the Painted Canyon Trail, and is next to the Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center. This area is connected to the South Unit by hiking trails, but it is most easily accessed by leaving the South Unit and Medora and heading east on I-94, where a separate exit takes you directly here to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center.

➡️Best Hikes In Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We love hiking, and hitting the trails is one of the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt NP. Now, I will say that the majority of the hikes in this park are pretty easy. In fact, there are several “hikes” here that I would say are very short walks!

However, there are also a couple medium length hikes, and a few very long hikes for those who want a full day excursion. Basically, there are plenty of hiking opportunities in Theodore Roosevelt National Park for everyone.

6. Wind Canyon Trail

Wind Canyon is a very interesting geological feature, because instead of being formed by water, as most canyons are, this one was carved mainly by wind. Because of that, the canyon walls have a rippled stone appearance (from the wind gusts).

The trail starts heading to and along the wind canyon, then turns out over the river. The river does a very picturesque horseshoe bend, curving around the land with bluffs in the background. 

This is a short and easy trail, but also a very interesting and scenic one.

  • Trail Length: 0.4 mile loop
  • Difficulty: Easy (but does have some stairs)

7. Boicourt Trail

Boicourt Trail is a paved, very short, path out another overlook of the badlands hills. Around this area, the bluffs becomes more striated and colorful (in contrast to the mostly tan/gray hills earlier in the park). There is lots of greenery and rolling hills.

While this is a really short and easy stop to make, I did think that the views at Boicourt Overlook were actually better.

  • Distance: 0.3 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Extremely easy

8. Painted Canyon Nature Trail/Painted Canyon Trail

This was one of our favorite trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park! We loved getting down into the hills and closer to a lot of the rock formations. The badlands are really beautiful here and have some colors in their layers.

There are actually two hikes in the Painted Canyon area: The Painted Canyon Nature Trail (0.9 mile loop) and the Painted Canyon Trail (4 miles round trip, and connects to the Upper Paddock Creek Trail).

This was gorgeous at sunset!

9. Petrified Forest Trail

A woman in athletic gear admires a petrified tree in Teddy Roosevelt National Park.
The trunks were some of the best specimens for preserving the wood structure.

The Petrified Forest Trail is located in the national park, but outside of the Scenic Loop Drive. In fact, plan to drive out of the main entrance and along back roads for about 20 minutes to get to the trailhead.

From the parking lot, you can choose to hike the North or South Petrified Forest Trail (we did the North Trail). You’ll hike a little over 1 mile on grassy prairieland with one steep incline and one steep decline until you reach the petrified wood.

There’s a large dirt and gravely area with many many petrified wood pieces scattered throughout, and you can wander freely around, looking at all the wood that has been turned to stone. Some of the stone logs are pretty cool – all gnarled and twisted. Others have calcite crystals in them and are super super pretty.

A petrified log with a large calcite and quartz crystal that has grown inside it. An example of what you can find in the Petrified Forest of Teddy Roosevelt National Park.
These crystals were some of our favorite parts.

Admire as long as you like, but remember that nothing can be removed from the park!

  • Distance: 3.2 miles round trip (out and back) to the first batch of petrified wood on the North Petrified Forest Trail, but you can continue and go farther
  • Elevation: 354 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy-moderate. There are some short but somewhat steep hills to climb.
  • Longer Option: You can also combine trails to do a loop, starting with the North Petrified Trail, then picking up the Maah Daah Hey Trail, then the South Petrified Trail (or visa versa). This trail is 10 miles, more difficult, and very remote.

10. Talkington Trail

Talkington Trail is one of the several backcountry trails in Theodore Roosevelt. This particular loop is made up of several sections of different named trails to create a loop. The entire loop is 16 miles and is relatively flat.

➡️Wildlife Encounters

One of the most exciting things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is observe all the wildlife. At least, it was for our family! What really impressed us here was how abundant the wildlife was. We felt like we were seeing animals everywhere!

While the animals can sometimes be very close to the road or near the trails, make sure you respect their distance, especially with the larger animals. It is recommended to stay 75 feet away from larger wild animals.

Here are some of the main animals you can see in Teddy Roosevelt NP:

11. Wild Horses

Wild horses were our favorite animal to see in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Our little girls are obsessed with wild horses (thanks to the animated movie Spirit) and so seeing them for the first time in real life was a big dream come true for them. So, we spent a lot of time looking for and at wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt, and learned a lot about the wild horses in the park!

The park has 20 bands of wild horses, and the largest band has about 20 horses in it. The horses are completely wild and are thriving in the park, but the rangers and outside groups do track the horses and have named them.

We saw the band of three horses in the picture above several times as we drove around the park! The white stallion is named Trooper, the brown horse with the dark mane is the baby and is named Harper, and the lighter brown horse is the mare and is named Mane.

One of our favorite things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park was spot horses!

Horses will often hang out by Boicourt Spring and you can see them in the bluffs near Boicourt Overlook. Keep your eyes peeled on the ridges at the top of the bluffs as you drive around Boicourt Overlook and Trail, and even down to Talkington Trail – we saw A TON of wild horses hanging out up there!

Between 2pm and dusk, the horses like to come down to the creek by Talkington Trail, so if you’re lucky, you might see them come near or cross the road near where Talkington Trail crosses the Scenic Loop Drive.

The wild horses were EXTREMELY fun for our family to watch, but remember, these are still wild animals and you should give them plenty of space.

12. Bison

Two Bison cross the Scenic Loop Road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Two cars are stopped waiting for them to cross.
Bison always have the “right of way” in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
A lone bison grazes near the Petrified Forest of Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

There are a lot of bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it’s pretty common to see them at some point throughout the park. We saw some crossing the road, and then more while we were hiking to the Petrified Forest. You can also ask a park ranger where the bison have been spotted that day.

13. Prairie Dog Towns

Teddy Roosevelt National Park has many prairie dog towns.

There are several large prairie dog towns in Theodore Roosevelt National Park! These cute little gopher-like animals create large networks of holes and tunnels under the ground, and they are very active, running between holes, popping up and down in their holes, and standing lookout. Watching prairie dogs run around is a really fun thing to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, particularly if you have kids!

The prairie dogs are most active in the morning/evening, and less so in the heat of the day, but you can still see them at anytime.

14. Elk

An elk walks among hilly terrain in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The elk in Theodore Roosevelt National Park have an interesting history. Elk had been native to the region, but then died out at the end of the 1800’s. In 1985, elk were re-introduced to the park to “re-establish a native ecology.” Since that time, the park rangers have had to closely monitor the size and health of the elk herd.

Today, there are between 100-400 elk in the park. They can be hard to spot in the park, but the best area to see elk is around Buck Hill, or near the prairie dog towns around dawn and dusk.

15. Pronghorn, Deer and Bighorn Sheep

All of these animals are also present in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, although we didn’t see them ourselves in the park (we did see pronghorn just outside the park, though).

A male Bighorn Sheep stands near a road.
Bighorn sheep in the nearby Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Considering visiting Badlands National Park in the same trip as Theodore Roosevelt National Park? That’s a great idea – here are 28 incredible things to do in the Badlands!

16. Rattlesnakes

There are rattlesnakes in the park, but it is rare to encounter one. Rattlesnakes will leave humans alone unless provoked or startled, so if you do encounter one, give it space and you should be fine.

➡️ Other Fun Things To Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

17. Maltese Cross Cabin

The Maltese Cross Cabin, a one time home of Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, is located in the national park. It is a log cabin surrounded by trees.
The Maltese Cross Cabin

The Maltese Cross Cabin is one of the places that Theodore Roosevelt resided in when he was living in North Dakota. The cabin is original, but has been restored, and the inside contains a mixture of Roosevelt’s personal belongings and original pieces from the time period.

The cabin is located right behind the South Unit Visitor’s Center and is a quick but interesting stop while you’re in the park. It is only open when a ranger is available to watch over it, but you can always walk around and peek in through the windows.

18. Biking or Horse Riding

There are more than a hundred miles of trails throughout and connecting Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s different units, so if you really want to get out in the wilderness, there are many opportunities!

Can you ride horses on the trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park? Yes, the backcountry trails in TRNP are open to horses and even encouraged, as it hearkens back to the history surrounding the park and Teddy Roosevelt himself. Maah Daah Hey Trail in particular is a great one to explore by horse and to use to connect to the other units in the park.

We personally saw people riding horses on the Petrified Forest Trail. There aren’t any horses avilable for renting, but if you have horses, they are welcome to come.

19. Coal Vein Fire

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is home to many unique geologic features, including many veins of coal. Some of these are even exposed to the air. As such, lightning or wild fires occasionally cause these to burn. An older vein fire, now extinguished, can be explored on the Coal Vein Trail, a 0.8 mile trail on the SE part of the Scenic Loop.

But, a recent wildfire started a new vein burning right next to the Scenic Loop, between Wind Canyon Trail and Boicourt Overlook. You shouldn’t stop and explore here, as there is active burning and fumes being released, but take a look as you drive by, and prepare to smell the sulfur as you go through this area.

Note that these coal vein fires are totally fine and unconcerning to park rangers, and they don’t want you to call and report these “fires.”

20. Admire Wildflowers in Season

Wildflower season is between June and July in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, although some wildflowers do bloom in August and September. These wildflowers add a lot of beauty to the prairieland!

21. Sunrise and Sunset

Sunset over Theodore Roosevelt National park. The sun sets behind badland bluffs, shining on the waving grass of the prairie.
Hard to beat a sunset in these wide open spaces.

Watching the sunset over the badlands hills is a great way to end your day in Theodore Roosevelt. A couple great areas to watch the sunset are the Painted Canyon Overlook (that’s where the above picture was taken), or the Wind Canyon trail.

22. Get a Jr Ranger Badge

Children earn their junior ranger badges at Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

If you’re traveling with kids ages 5-12, you should check out the Junior Ranger program in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In the visitor’s center, pick up a Junior Ranger booklet, which is full of really fun activities about the park, nature, wildlife, and conservation that you can complete as you go about your day.

Then, turn it back in at the visitor’s center and receive a little Junior Ranger badge. Every national park has this program (as well as many national monuments as well), and our kids have LOVED doing the booklets and collecting their badges.

➡️Fun Things To Do in the Town of Medora

Medora is the little town right outside of the national park. The population is a whopping 117 people (it’s truly a small town), but there are actually quite a few really fun things to do in Medora.

23. Enjoy the Medora Musical

The set of the Medora Musical in North Dakota. The set depicts a small western town.

The Medora Musical is an incredible, high quality performance in an open amphitheater, with a well-designed set, a live band, and highly talented singers and performers. Horses come on stage, there’s a battle re-enactment, and lots of engaging singing and dancing as they tell the story of Theodore Roosevelt and the history of Medora.

The show runs June, July, August, and the first week of September and is really a must-do attraction when visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

You can find more information and the ticket center here.

24. Medora Pitchfork Steak Fondue

A man holds several steaks on a pitch fork that have been roasting over large metal bins, which can be seen in the background.  This is at the Medora Pitchfork Steak Fondue.
A fun, and delicious, meal to have in Medora.

The Medora Pitchfork Steak Fondue Dinner is a delicious and unique tradition in Medora that occurs in the evening before the Medora Music Festival begins. Twelve-ounce steaks are cooked to perfection on pitchforks over an open flame, and after you pick up your steak, you can help yourself to a delicious barbecue buffet.

We were extremely impressed with the quality of the food at the pitchfork dinner – the steak was *so* tender and juicy, and the sides were all very flavorful and prepared perfectly. The dinner is set up on the top of a bluff overlooking the beautiful rolling hills of North Dakota.

Plus, cooking steaks on pitchforks – how novel and fun is that?!

If you’re vegetarian, you can purchase a “just the fixings” meal, and if for kids, you can purchase a dinner with a hotdog instead of a steak.

The pitchfork steak fondue dinner is open the same nights as the Medora Musical. You can make reservations for the dinner in advance here.

A metal tray holding food from the Medora Pitchfork Steak Fondue buffet. Steak, baked potatoes, carrots, beans, garlic bread, coleslaw, and lemonade are seen.
Delicious!

25. Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library (Coming Soon!)

Photo courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation

Okay so this is a really fun place that I want to highlight! For almost every president, their presidential libraries are built to contain “…vast archives of documents, museums full of important Presidential artifacts, interesting educational and public programs, and informative web sites. Presidential Libraries and Museums are repositories for the papers, records and historical materials of the Presidents.” (From the US National Archives)

However! this presidential library is a completely different concept, and instead of containing historical records, is really a homage to the conversationism that Teddy Roosevelt valued.

The building itself will be an incredible avant-garde building designed to meld with nature and has world class, groundbreaking sustainable design, will set a new global standard, and instead of just being carbon neutral, will even clean the air. In the world of sustainable design, this is a big deal building.

Groundbreaking is planned for sometime in 2023, and the grand opening will be a few years later.

It’s very easy to feel excited about the vision for this building and project after visiting Medora, stopping by the site that will hold the library, and then stopping by the foundation museum about the library. But personally, it’s also very fun because my dad is one of the main sustainability architects on this project! (Hi dad!)

26. Explore Downtown Medora

Medora is the only city of any size associated with or near the national park, and it more or less revolves around its status as TRNP’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners and plenty of cowboy boots and hats.

It can feel overdone at times, but it also kinda “works” and it does lend a form of charm to the town. So, I encourage to you roll with the kitsch and enjoy some fun buildings, unique window shopping, and great food. Speaking of which…

27. Bison Burger

See a bison during the day, eat a bison for dinner! (My apologies to all you vegetarians). You can eat bison burgers at Boots Bar & Grill and the Little Missouri Saloon. We ate at Boots and the food was all seriously good.

28. Point to Point Water Park

A cute little pool + lazy river in Medora. If you have kids and need to escape the summer heat and have a relaxing afternoon, this is your place. There is also an associated mini-golf and zip line.

Helpful Information for Visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Where to Stay Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Hotels: As Medora is extremely small, there are just a few options for where to stay. The AmericInn by Wyndham Medora is a good hotel option in the center of Medora.

Camping: There is one campground inside the South Unit: the Cottonwood Campground. There are 76 campsites, with half being by online reservation, and half being first-come, first-serve. The campground usually fills up by midday throughout the summer. Click here for more information about camping in the park.

If you want to camp in Medora, the Red Trail Campground or the Medora Campground are good options.

And for a really fun experience, you can also book a stay in a Conestoga Wagon at the Medora Campground.

Finally, Sully Creek State Park is just a little south of Medora and offers campsites along the river.

Closest Airport/How to Get There

The closest airport to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Medora is Dickinson-Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport (DIK), which is 48 miles away. The closest international airport is the Billings Logan International Airport in Montana, which is 290 miles away.

Are Pets Allowed at Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Yes, but they need to be leashed and are not allowed in buildings or on trails – especially backcountry trails.

Parking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Each trailhead had decently large parking lots, but overlooks tended to be more limited in parking. But, I will say people frequently stopped on the side of the road, especially to view wildlife. So don’t be afraid to pull over to admire an animal, just make sure you are conscientious of the drivers around you as you pull over, and don’t approach wild animals.

How Long Should You Spend in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

One day is enough time to see almost everything in the park, not including the longer, backcountry trails. If you want to do any of these trails, another day is a good idea.

I would actually recommend spending just over one day in Theodore Roosevelt, arriving around 5pm to hit the Pitchfork Dinner and the Medora Musical. It’s a really fantastic way to start your time off in Medora. Then, the following day you can venture into the National Park.

What Should You Not Miss at Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

If you have limited time (half day or less), these are a few top spots to visit:

  • Boicourt Overlook
  • Badlands Overlook
  • Painted Canyon Overlook
  • Painted Canyon Nature Trail
  • Petrified Forest Trail

Best Time to Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The best time to visit Theodore Roosevelt is late spring, summer, and early fall. Winters are harsh and start early. High winds and blizzards can occur, and the area regularly gets 50+ inches of snow each year.

In contrast, thanks to its northern location, summers are very pleasant, with average highs in the mid-70’s to low 80’s F.

Plus, because most of the town centers around tourism for the park, a lot of the shops, restaurants, and even accommodations shut down during the winter.

Practical Information

Hours: The national park is open 24 hours a day year round.

Fees: It costs $30 per vehicle to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is good for seven days. Alternatively, you can purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (also known as the National Parks Pass), which costs $80 for a year and gets you into all spots in the National Parks System for free.

Visitor Center Hours: The South Unit Visitor’s Center is open 9am-4:30pm, and is open year-round. The Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center is open 9am-4:30pm during the summer months, and is generally closed during the winter (November-May)

Time Zones: TRNP is interesting in that the North Unit operates on Central Time and the South Unit operates on Mountain Time.

Is It Worth Visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Absolutely! While the landscape isn’t as dramatic as Yosemite or Zion National Parks, Theodore Roosevelt has beautiful badland hills, so many exciting opportunities to observe wild animals, and a ton of history.

Plus, there are some legitimately fantastic things to do outside of Theodore Roosevelt, in the town of Medora. All in all, this is an underrated national park that definitely should be on your bucket list.

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