The Rugged Landscape That Captured Roosevelt's Heart

January 16, 2018Katherine RivardTravel Ideas
— Gary Anderson/NPS

Badlands National Park in South Dakota receives a lot of attention, and for good reason. But what’s happening further up in North Dakota? Plenty! Whether you’re road tripping through the state or just looking for somewhere to escape to (much like our 26th president once did), Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the place to visit. Once there, driving the South Unit’s Scenic Road is an excellent way to get familiar with the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park consists of three separate units totaling over 70,000 acres. The South Unit, North Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch Unit each offer plenty of hiking trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.

The summer is the perfect time to take advantage of ranger-led talks, while the winter months create a setting better suited for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. No matter the season, a 36-mile scenic driving route loops through the South Unit and is one way to see a large swath of the park in a short (or long, if you’d like) amount of time.

South Unit Visitor Center

Black and white photo of Theodore Roosevelt standing next to his horse

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt Center

Located beside the town of Medora, this picturesque drive through the park begins at the South Unit Visitor Center. Stop in to speak with staff at the information desk and watch a short film about the park. A walk through the museum, which focuses on Theodore Roosevelt and the badlands, will leave you excited to explore an area that inspired one of America’s most-revered presidents.

Maltese Cross Cabin

Golden sun low in the horizon through trees behind a wooden Maltese Cross Cabin at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Maltese Cross Cabin

Katherine Plessner/NPS

Just behind the visitor center stands a small cabin made of ponderosa pine from 1883. Though the cabin was only a temporary home for Roosevelt, who spent most of his visits to the area in his ranch home at Elkhorn, the cabin has been restored and still offers a glance back at life long ago in the west. The small rooms are filled with replicas, creating an image of what this modest structure would have looked like when Roosevelt visited, even including his original dining room hutch, writing desk, and a trunk with his initials.

Skyline Vista & Ridgeline Trail

The muddy Little Missouri River under blue skies at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Little Missourri River

National Park Service

Hopping into your car, or perhaps even onto your bike if you opt to cycle along the path instead, you’ll soon come to Skyline Vista — a viewing area that looks out over the Little Missouri River. The short, paved walkway is an excellent first stop along the route.

Looking out from Johnson’s Plateau, you’ll get your first taste of the landscape. Continuing along, you’ll next come to Ridgeline Trail, a slightly more difficult trail. Get out and stretch your legs as you begin to learn more about the badlands ecosystem. Trail brochures from the visitor center will be able to provide handy insights into each trail.

Coal Vein Trail & Buck Hill

Landscape view of the valley from Buck Hill at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

View from Buck Hill

National Park Service

Heading on to your next stop, you’ll soon come to Coal Vein Trail. This 0.8-mile loop and tells the interesting tale of how this steep trail changed since an underground coal vein fire. You’ll see 60 million years of rock formations and what remains from the coal vein that burned below ground for 26 years.

Wrap up before lunch so that you can unwind at your next stop — Buck Hill. Here, at the highest accessible place in the park, you can munch on snacks as you take in the parking lot’s overlook. Once your belly is full, take a short walk up the steep trail for amazing panoramic views.

Boicourt Trail & Wind Canyon Trail

Milky Way night sky over the Wind Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Milky Way over the Wind Canyon.

National Park Service

Back on the road, be prepared to fully see a different side of the badlands as you come to Boicourt Trail. Unlike the stereotypical red and orange rock formations usually associated with the badlands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers a landscape on the other end of the color wheel. Green and vivacious, this 0.3-mile gravel path redefines one’s image of badlands.

Finish taking in the sweeping view before heading to your next stop — Wind Canyon Trail, a perfect spot to capture the sunset alongside the edge of the cliffs if you happen to arrive in the evening.

Other Stops Along the Way

Spots of green trees amongst the tan and red sandstone formations of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Nature Trail at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center

Laura Thomas/NPS

Veering off the scenic route, other stops in the South Unit may include exploring the remains of an ancient swamp in the Petrified Forest or walking beside the incredible colors of the buttes at Painted Canyon Nature Trail. Though the scenic loop drive requires only 90 minutes, driving at a steady pace of 25 mph, the various stops and trails create the opportunity for a much longer day of exploration if that’s your goal.

Meanwhile, the park’s other units each have their own offerings including the South Unit’s scenic drive, which lasts about one hour, and the foundational remains of the Elkhorn Ranch in the Elkhorn Unit.

Wildlife Afoot

Lone prairie dog on its hind legs on alert at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Prairie dog on alert.

National Park Service

The park offers plenty of chances for wildlife viewing while you’re driving along or on foot. The South Unit passes through three prairie dog towns, making it an ideal course for seeing these quirky creatures in their natural habitat. Visitors are likely to also come across bison and feral horses roaming the land.

Other inhabitants of the park include deer, coyotes, beaver, porcupines, and snakes. No matter what animals you see while visiting, remember to keep a safe distance to ensure your own safety, as well as the safety of the animal! Horses are easily agitated, and even the upbeat prairie dogs can bite if visitors get too close.

Long before Theodore Roosevelt ascended into presidency, he traveled west, seeking a more rugged existence in the American wilderness. “I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he claimed.

It was the beauty of lands such as those in Theodore Roosevelt National Park that inspired Teddy to pursue the preservation of public lands once in office. For your own impetus toward an even greater appreciation for the great outdoors, or even just for a change of landscape, head to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and travel along the South Unit scenic drive.

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