“The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.” Theodore Roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt created five National Parks, 10 National Forests, 18 National Monuments, and established the U.S. Forest Service. He is oft referred to as the ultimate conservationist, a fitting designation for the only person after which a National Park is named. In 1947, President Truman signed the bill that created Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, and in 1978 President Carter signed law establishing it as our 38th National Park.
The park spans 70,448 acres across three territories: The North Unit, South Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch. History demonstrates folks were reluctant to part with as little as 2,000 acres for the original Roosevelt memorial, valuing the territory as ranch land more than any monument to our 26th president.
In retrospect, to witness a portion of this otherworldly expanse, this spectacular badlands territory that extends deep into the horizon, would make any visitor question the shortsighted vision of early North Dakota ranchers.
Because if Theodore Roosevelt National Park is just “ranch land”, then the Grand Canyon is just “a fishing stream”.
The park sees about 600,000 visitors annually, which makes it one of the least explored parks in the USA National Parks system. This coincides with the interesting fact that North Dakota is the last state Americans visit on average. North Dakotans say Americans “save the best for last”, but if that were true then Texas would be the last state people visit.
The South Unit is the most frequented portion of the park. At 46,158 acres it contains the majority share of land. The primary entrance is in Medora, although the park has a visitor center at Painted Canyon and primitive inroads in other places.
The North Unit consists of 24,070 acres. Its located an hour north of the South Unit and sees far fewer visitors. Worth mentioning is, the layout of the North Unit is more straightforward than the South Unit: A 14-mile out-and-back road begins on one side of the park and commences on the other side.
Between the two parks is Elkhorn Ranch, home to Roosevelt’s personal ranch property. Comprised of 218 acres, this tract of land sees very few visitors.
Millions of years ago, when the continent was bending beneath itself to form the Rocking Mountains, large amounts of sand, silt, and ash flowed in the rivers. Eventually these sediments were deposited in layers, and over time became sandstone, siltstone, mudstone and clay, the foundation of what you see in the parks today.
Enter the ice ages of the Pleistocen Epoch. Massive sheets of ice advanced southward from Canada, which re-routed rivers that would normally empty elsewhere into the Mississippi River. This caused the river and its tributaries to flow with the added force necessary to carve into the soft sedimentary layers of the North Dakota Badlands. This process created the fantastic landscape we now enjoy as Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The Hoffmann family spent three days exploring the North and South Units of the park in August of 2021. The highlights included tremendous views, active wildlife, and the pleasant town of Medora.
While the South Unit is more convenient and popular, we would encourage anyone to spend a day at the North Unit as well. It was actually our preference.
The following are what we found to be the most beautiful and interesting things to do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” Theodore Roosevelt
This was our favorite view in either park, a jaw-dropping panoramic atop tapered cliffs with a river. Throw a crafty, rock-walled structure into the mix and this North Unit tableau is unlike any we’ve seen.
The approach is easy — a 30-second jaunt from the parking lot. A viewing deck crowns the hillside overlooking the view, and a stairway leads down to the structure.
A hundred feet down the road — back toward the park entrance — you will find a foot path beside the guard rail. Follow the pathway up to a different vantage. From atop this hill you can work your way out onto a butte and follow the tiers down to an envious cliff-side perspective.
Before exiting the park we explored the North Unit Visitor Center / Zoloft chamber. Just inside the closet-sized room stood a lonely, young man behind a counter.
Forgive me here, but the thought that someone spent four years attending university classes to stand behind that counter, in solitary confinement yet under the random observation of schmucks (like me), forced to chuckle nervously when strangers offer condolences for their shipwreck situation…
I cannot fathom the chagrin, or despair a college grad would experience upon realization that at the end of all their scholastic achievement — motivated by a deep appreciation of nature — they have been damned to the front third of a trailer, beside a wheat field, in the most remote part of a nation.
I know, I know. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is beautiful — that’s the point of the article. But life is cruel sometimes, and this is one of those times.
“Life is a great adventure … accept it in such a spirit.” Theodore Roosevelt
The Boicourt Overlook is the biggest view in the south unit. A path from the parking lot winds to a towering precipice above a vast, verdant landscape.
We love the approach to this viewpoint — the scenery just gets better and better as suspense builds. From atop the cliffs the locus spans 360 degrees and looks across a gorgeous valley.
The South Unit is best accessed by a 36 mile loop in the middle of the park. Currently, the loop is broken due to a landslide in May of 2019, and has temporarily become an out-and-back road. The Boicourt Overlook is about halfway around the loop, or about 40 minutes from the park entrance.
A smaller parking lot around the corner offers another expansive view in the opposite direction. A small hike down the trail leads to some terrific views overlooking the Upper Jones Creek Trail. We found several logs of petrified wood, as well as super interesting clay formations near the valley floor.
The entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is in the town of Medora. The town was founded by an entrepreneurial Frenchman in 1883, Marquis de Mores, who named the town after his wife. He built stores, a hotel, and started a beef business. The town has been many things over the years, but remains mostly a cattle town to this day. The USA’s first Dude Ranch was started in Medora.
In 1883, a 25-year-old Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the North Dakota Badlands and established a ranch himself. His residence, the Maltese Cross Cabin, is on display at the South Unit Visitor Center (it has been moved many times over the years).
Eventually folks moved on from Medora and the town was somewhat abandoned. Then in the 1940’s, an ambitious and successful salesman/business owner named Harold Shafer from Bismark, ND, built up the town. He is the man responsible for the classic American brands Mr. Bubbles and Snowy Bleach, among other products. He had a profound respect for Theodore Roosevelt, and rebuilt the Rough Rider Hotel, named in honor of President Roosevelt, board by board. In 1965 he purchased the Medora Musical (which you can read about below). Over the years he built the town into the tourist destination it is today.
As far as tourist towns go, Medora maintains a charming atmosphere. There is no shortage of t-shirt stores, frilly boutiques, or overpriced restaurants, but the character is decent, the streets stroll well, and the storefronts are beautiful.
Some of the best things to do in town include: The Cowboy Hall of Fame (pictured below), Perception, a children’s park, the Harold Schafer Heritage Center, and an assortment of performances including the Teddy Roosevelt Show and the Gospel Brunch. There are candy stores and gift shops, as well as golfing, horseback riding, and a Pitchfork Fondu.
Then, of course, there is the famous Medora Musical.
“The lack of power to take joy in outdoor nature is as real a misfortune as the lack of power to take joy in books.” Theodore Roosevelt
The Wind Canyon Trail is different from it big view peers in the park. An enormous, sheer cliffside displays its composition of soft rocks, a relic of a distant time when swift rivers were carving up the landscape. Take the winding path that leads along the bluff to a high point overlooking the scene.
Our children enjoyed this brief outing. A two-minute walk from the parking lot brought us to the edge of the cliff. The entire area was explored in 30 minutes or less. At the very top is a picturesque little fence to protect viewers from the cliffs.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is frequently referred to as the North Dakota Badlands. The park shares common features with Badlands National Park, Toadstool Geologic Park, and others, yet it is lively with vegetation, which in many ways makes it more beautiful. The stark harshness of Badlands National Park is dramatic and spellbinding, but here in TRNP one feels at home in the vast, strange world. It is easy to see how Teddy Roosevelt made his residence in these parts.
The Medora Musical is like the best High School Musical in the country. Small-town talent from all over the region, some from as far as Connecticut, come together to entertain and teach the history of Medora through song, dance, and theatrical performance.
It is cheesy. It is ridiculous. About ten minutes in we regretted our decision to come.
But it grows on you and it gets better. The history is forced at times — like your elementary school teacher got stoned and decided singing their lesson was a good idea — yet it is interesting and they make it fun. There are moments of genuine laughter, and some of the original songs are catchy. Plus, the Coal Diggers Band rips it up pretty good.
The campy hosts detract from the show with their awful jokes, and the borrowed songs occasionally get butchered. Hell, the whole thing perilously teeters on schmucky. But in the end the personalities of the actors win out.
The bottom line is we enjoyed ourselves, so the show was a winner. We would absolutely recommend the Medora Musical for anyone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
And there might be an age limit. Let’s just say we were a little on the young side.
“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.” Theodore Roosevelt
Deep in the buffalo country of the North Unit lives another soaring panorama. It is probably the largest view in all of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Central to the scene is a meandering river. National Geographic does a fine job explaining how water currents over time will force a river to curve and straighten, leaving kidney-shaped oxbow lakes along the path. Here you can see the work in progress.
The valley is preposterously large and begins far in advance of the designated viewpoint. You will see it along the road while you are driving. When President Roosevelt refers to land “fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth,” he must be talking about what we are seeing here, in this wild landscape of oddly-shaped buttes.
To enjoy the most intimate view, take the Auchenbach Trail (signs are easy to spot). It is a 1.1 mile out-and-back trail, although it continues on for miles under another name. At the 1.1 mile mark the path pauses perfectly on a bluff where pale blue buttes tower above the tree-filled valley. If you’re lucky you’ll be treated to turkey vultures circling the canyon floor as they search for the rodentia of an alien world.
“There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.” Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt called the prairie dog the “most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable.” These little sun-worshippers are incredibly cute and have no shortage of distrust for park-goers, safely keeping their distance at all times.
Is there a more adorable sound than the “Yee-who!” battlecry of the prairie dog? When passing through a prairie dog town we roll down the windows and drive slow just to listen for it. What’s funny though, is when you watch them actually make the noise they are screaming it in each other’s faces, as if to say, “Get off my lawn!”
If you’ve seen a thousand holes in the grass you’ve seen a Prairie Dog Town, and if you’ve seen one Prairie Dog Town, you’ve seen them all. The only difference is the size. Some of the largest towns we’ve ever seen are here at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.” Theodore Roosevelt
The most expansive view in the South Unit is at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. From atop these cliffs you’ll enjoy 180 degrees of badlands until the earth curves over the horizon.
You can follow the path along the cliff to take in every vantage. There are also trails on the canyon floor which can be accessed via stairs near the visitor center. From above it looks like a beautiful walk down there. The visitor center is small, but nice.
We spent about an hour here. Painted Canyon would make an excellent place for a picnic lunch.
Petrified Forest Loop
This loop trail is on the far west side of the park, about twenty minutes from the South Unit entrance. We had every intention of checking it out, but ran out of time.
Jones Creek Trail
One thing we want to do next time is hike some of the trails in the South Unit. The Upper Jones Creek Trail is in one of the more beautiful parts of the park.
Maah Daah Hey Trail
This is 144 miles of non-motorized Badlands trail rucking action. Sounds daunting. Sounds like the kids would hate it. Perhaps someday for the adults. Considered one of the best things to do in North Dakota.
Perception in Medora
We’ve found these odd illusion shacks to be a good time, although they are losing their luster. We think the kids would enjoy it and will definitely go next time.
Dickenson Museum Center and Badlands Dinosaur Museum
Dickenson is about 30-40 minutes east of Medora. The museum has a good reputation.
“The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena, who strive valiantly; who know the great enthusiasums, the great devotions, and spend themselves in a worthy cause; who at best know the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if they fail, fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
“Unless a man is master of his soul, all other kinds of mastery amount to little.”
“There are many qualities which we need in order to gain success, but the three above all—for the lack of which no brilliancy and no genius can atone—are Courage, Honesty and Common Sense.”
“You often hear people speaking as if life was like striving upward toward a mountain peak. That is not so. Life is as if you were traveling a ridge crest. You have the gulf of inefficiency on one side and the gulf of wickedness on the other, and it helps not to have avoided one gulf if you fall into the other.”
If you have stumbled onto this article by good fortune, feel free to take a moment and allow us to introduce ourselves.
Or if you are interested in other badlands-type places to visit, check out our article on Toadstool Geologic Park in Nebraska.
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