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Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a must stop on any I-94 road trip across the United States. I-94 runs thru a small section of the parks south unit. There is even a visitor center that duels as a rest stop! If you are short on time and only have one day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, here is the guide for you.
About Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is made up of three sections. The north unit, south unit and Elkhorn Ranch. It is about an hour and 15-minute drive from the north unit to the south unit. It is about an hour and 15-minute drive from the south unit to Elkhorn ranch.
The units protect mixed grassland interspersed with badlands and a section of the little Missouri River. The park is home to bison, prairie dogs, elk, bighorn sheep, feral horse, and some other animals but these are the most common seen.
If you have been to Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Teddy Roosevelt National Park is similar in landscape but greener. The Little Missouri River provides more moisture for plant life to grow.
Each unit is worth a visit, with only one day, I would visit the south unit and leave it at that.
Getting to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The south unit has two visitor centers. Each has a marked exit on I-94. Follow the signs. If you are on a I-94 road trip, just stay on 94 until you see exit 27 (from the east) or exit 24 (from the west). Otherwise your options are to fly into Fargo or Rapid City, South Dakota and drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. At that point, you are making a special effort to visit this park. So why not make a longer trip out of it.
Where to stay
The south unit offers a campground called Cottonwood near the Little Missouri River. Cottonwood campground is located about 5 miles into the park. It offers water and half the campground can be reserved in advance. The other half is first come first serve.
Just outside the park is Medora Camp Grounds and Red Trail Campground. Both campgrounds are on the edge of Medora and minutes from the park entrance. They offer showers and RV hook-ups depending on the season.
The southern entrance is located in the town of Medora. This quaint country town offers several hotels and a couple of places to eat. The other option are about 30 minutes from the south entrance. Dickinson, North Dakota is the larger of the two town and offers the most amenities. Check out Dickinson hotels here.
24 hours in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Historical Maltose Cabin
- Scenic Loop Drive
- Hike 3.2 miles in total
- Epic Views of the Badlands
- Learn about prairie dog society
- Watch the sunset
Head into the park from the south unit main entrance in Medora. If the visitor center is open, stop and explore the small exhibit on President Theodore Roosevelt and his original cabin. The Maltose Cabin was built by Roosevelt and his ranch hands. Be sure to check out one of the logs on the left side of the entrance. Roosevelt hammered spent bullet casing into the log in the shape of a Maltose.
From the visitor center, head into the park. You will cross a bridge over I-94. There are a couple of small overlooks. You can stop and enjoy the view and any or all of them. Keep your eyes peeled for feral horses, bison and elk. Be aware, the bison think nothing of standing in the middle of the road and refusing to move.
As the landscape starts to flatten, you will arrive in your first prairie dog town. The prairie dog towns are huge. All the mounds of dirt you see are from their underground burrows. Unless a predator is around, the prairie dogs will be out in about forging for food. Spend some time here and watch the prairie dogs interact and back. Lots of barking means someone is nervous about something. A higher pitch bark with a jump means the coast is clear.
Stop at the Skyline Vista Trail for a short 0.3 mile walk out to an overlook. This will provide a view of Medora and the Little Missouri River.
At the junction keep left and head towards Ridgeline Trail. This short but steep loop trail has a trail guide to explain the ecosystem of the badlands. The trail is 0.6 miles and should take under an hour to hike.
If you are in love with the prairie dogs and would like to see more of them, plus visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s original entrance station, then hike the 0.8-mile Old East Entrance. The trail wanders thru a prairie dog down and ends at the entrance station. The building is locked.
Follow the signs down the dirt road to the Coal Vein Nature Trail. This nature trail is 0.8 miles long and explores how a coal vein fire changed the landscape in the area. This trail has a few steep sections. The trail has excellent view out into the badlands.
Next drive up to Buck Hill. Buck Hill is the second highest point in the park. There is a short steep paved trail to the top of the hill. The top provides a panoramic view of the badlands. Be aware that rattlesnakes have been seen up here.
Keep with the short hike theme of this trip, head over to Boicourt Trail. This 0.3-mile hike leads one out on a ridge with a suburb view of the badlands. **Keep this trail or nearby overlook in mind if staying in the park to watch the sunset.
Enjoy the views as your keep driving around Teddy Roosevelt. The northern section of the park tends to be greener has the buffalo tend to hang out in this section.
At the junction, head towards Wind Canyon Trail. This short 0.3-mile loop is a little steep but provides an excellent view of the Little Missouri River. This is another great sunset spot.
There is another prairie dog town as you head back towards the park exit. Feel free to stop and watch. If it is dusk keep an eye out for coyotes and badgers. They have been see working together to catch prairie dogs.
End your day by watching the sunset from either Boicourt or Wind Canyon.
Add on Activities
If you would like to do a little more hiking, head over to exit 32. This is the second visitor center in the South Unit. The Visitor Center has an overlook over a region of these badlands called Painted Canyon. Be aware of bison, they like to eat the grass near the overlook. There are two hiking trails from the overlook. The shorter Painted Canyon Nature Trail is about a mile and takes one on a loop in they canyon. The second one is the Painted Canyon Trail which is 4.2 mile further into the canyon.
How do you plan on spending your one day in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
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