Western North Dakota is wild and rugged, with few trees, free-roaming horses, and a gem of a national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park in North Dakota, and it’s one the most underappreciated parks in the country.
While plenty of visitors head out to see the iconic Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park in South Dakota, these “Northern Badlands” as they are called by the locals, see far fewer people. There’s so much to see and do within the park and in the gateway community of Medora, that Theodore Roosevelt quickly became one of my favorite national parks of all time.
Not long ago, our family embarked on a 10,000 mile journey to explore as many national parks as we could fit into a summer. We camped, hiked, and explored more than 10 national parks before heading home to Vermont, but Theodore Roosevelt National Park was definitely our favorite. We visited in June, when the burnished hills still held onto a bit of green, and the days were just starting to get hot. June is also the perfect time to see incredible wildflowers and baby animals.
Here’s why this park is a great choice for families.
A Wild West Welcome
In some ways this super cute cowboy town is a typical of national park gateways. It’s definitely got a mission to attract tourists and convince them to spend lots of money, but it’s so charming that you don’t mind doing it. Every single building – including the post office – is designed in the style of the old west. There are saloons, pizza joints, and ice cream parlors for hungry and thirsty explorers, and you can also pick up camping supplies and groceries. I recommend getting gas before you drive the loop around the park. It’s a long way back if you’re running on empty.
Here a few things you won’t want to miss in Medora.
- Medora the Musical – It’s a cowboy musical, showing every single night of the summer. I recommend doing this before you hit the park, as you’ll learn about the history of the park. The show pays tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt, who owned a ranch nearby. It’s a great mix of singing, dancing, and comedy all rolled into one.
- North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame – If the weather becomes unbearably hot, or you experience a rare summer rainstorm, head into town and explore the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. You’ll learn about the state’s unique cultural heritage, from American Indians to modern day ranching and rodeos.
- Stagecoach Rides along the River – The early settlers maintained a stagecoach route from Medora to Deadwood until the 1880s. Your family can relive a bit of that experience with a short stagecoach tour along the Little Missouri River. Get tickets at the Chateau de Mores Interpretive Center.
Wildlife is Easy to Spot
With more than 70,000 acres of land in the park, you may wonder if you’ll see any wildlife. The answer is a resounding YES, especially if you get up early or stay out late. Both the south and north units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park have loop roads that provide lots of opportunities for checking out the wildlife.
You’ll definitely see bison, wild horses, and prairie dogs, but you’ve got a good chance of seeing elk, deer, coyote, pronghorn, and snakes as well. There are expansive prairie dog towns right near the road in the south unit. In the north unit, you may need to hike to see the prairie dogs. Thanks to the lack of trees here, views are expansive. I’d definitely recommend binoculars to scout for animals.
The Hiking is Easy and the Trails are Quiet
This is big sky country for sure. No matter where you hike, the views are amazing! Because there isn’t much shade, be sure to bring lots and lots of water on your hikes, and wear hats and sunblock. Here are some of our favorite trails here isn’t much shade in these parts and the summer temperatures are enough to bake you through, so be sure to wear sunblock and carry plenty of water, even if you’re going out for a short jaunt. There are tons of options for hiking, but here are a few of our favorite trails.
- Buck Hill – Buck hill is short, but very. Before the little kids can even complain about being tired, though, they’ll be at the top. It’s just .2 miles, and you’re at the highest point in the park. Make sure you bring those binoculars so you can look for herds of bison and horses while you’re up there.
- Painted Canyon Nature Trail – This short trails takes you right into the canyon where you can escape the summer heat. The trail is moderately steep in and out of the canyon, but easy once you’re at the bottom.
- Petrified Forest Loop – This is a big hike and very isolated, but it’s got great views, and huge stone tree trunks strewn across the landscape. We made it a very long day hike, but you can also do it as a two-day backpacking trip. The good news is that it’s an easy walk, and very secluded. We didn’t see any other hikers when we were on this trail. I’d also recommend wearing long pants, as much of the hike is through tall prairie grass.
Theodore Roosevelt Park is definitely one of our all-time favorite national parks. If you’re traveling through North Dakota, it’s a must see!
Good to Know
Where: Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in western North Dakota. There are three units to the park. The South Unit is the most popular, with an entrance is in the town of Medora, ND off of Interstate 94 exits 24 and 27. The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85 approximately 14 miles south of Watford City, ND. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit sits roughly in the middle of the North and South Units and is accessed via gravel roads.
When: Early summer and fall are the best times to visit. June is a great time for baby animals and wildflowers, as well as beating the heat and the crowds. Summer is the busiest and the days are dry and hot.
How Much: The cost to enter the park is $25 for your vehicle for 7 consecutive days.
Amenities: The South Unit Visitor Center is open year-round.
How else can we help?
Need a flight? There are no large airports near Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That's one big reason that this park is so delightfully uncrowded. Your best airports to fly then drive are in Bismark, Dickinson or Williston, North Dakota or Billings, Montana.
Need a place to stay? Medora has a handful of hotels and vacation rentals. Camping is available inside the park. Check out hotel reviews and rates on TripAdvisor. Check out vacation rentals for families on HomeAway. Get Katie's tips for booking a vacation home HERE.