It may be a bit out of the way, located in the rugged North Dakota badlands; but Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a true hidden gem in America’s national park system. Comprising three geographically separated units, this attraction-filled park needs more than just one day to be explored. To guide you through, I’ve come up with this two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park itinerary.
Two Days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park Itinerary
Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, America’s most outdoor-minded president ever; the park consists of vast wilderness areas home to thousands of wild animals, including bison and mustang, prairies, bluffs and rivers. A decade and a half after Teddy’s death, the area was set aside as the Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area, after which it changes names three times. It became Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 1978.
The park’s three units are the South Unit, North Unit and the remote Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt’ old ranch. If you don’t have more than two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I recommend dedicating the first day to the South Unit and heading to the North Unit on day two.
Day 1 – South Unit
A visit to any national parks should start with a visit to its main visitor center. The same applies to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Begin your two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park at the Medora visitor center, which features, for example, a museum about the park’s namesake man, a 17-minute film and a bookstore. Afterward, head to Maltese Cross Cabin, the first of Teddy’s cabins in the area.
Then, spend the rest of the day on the Scenic Loop Drive; a phenomenal 36-mile circuit through the heart of the South Unit. I suggest driving it in a counterclockwise direction, simply because this leaves one of the best (and most accessible) sunset spots in the park for last.
Keep your eyes open for the park’s abundant wildlife, as well as hikers and cyclists, all of whom use this road. Watch for feral horses, bison, coyotes, pronghorns, mule deer and prairie dogs; just a small sample of the enormous biodiversity in this seemingly rugged wilderness.
You can spend pretty much the entirety of your first of two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park on the Scenic Loop Drive. Note that although it can be completed in just 90 minutes, you should definitely go for a few hikes on the way to get a closer feel for these epic landscapes. Make sure you’re at the Wind Canyon Trail in time for sunset!
Retreat to Cottonwood Campground for an evening of crackling campfires, wonderful night skies, stories and hearty camping food.
Day 2 – North Unit
On the second day, (try to) get up early and drive the approximately 70 miles north to the North Unit. You’ll have plenty of time to cruise the 14-mile road toward the breathtaking Oxbow Overlook. Don’t just head straight for the final viewpoint, though. There’s plenty to see and do along the way.
Hit a couple of trails. Hiking a section of the Buckhorn Trail and North Achenbach Trail is pretty much mandatory in this area. Again, keep your eyes out for herds of bison, and keep your distance if you encounter them. The area is also home to a managed herd of longhorn steers, kept as a reminder of the old ranching days.
A number of wonderful pullouts line the road, too, offering jaw-dropping views, background information and other good stuff. Stop at the Cannonball Concretions Pullout to see extraordinarily fascinating rock formations and the River Bend Overlook for a classic vista of the North Dakota badlands.
Note that you don’t have to hit all trails and stopping point on your way in. After admiring the views at Oxbow Overlook, you’ll have to drive back the same way you came. The choice is yours.
Even though it may be far from other national parks, once you get here, you’ll see how easy it is to actually explore this park. Two days in Theodore Roosevelt is plenty of time to get around both the South and North Units. If you have more time, consider an overnight hike or a visit to remote Elkhorn Ranch, the park’s third unit.
Tip: If you have a couple of weeks’ time, consider doing a North Dakota national parks road trip. Combine Theodore Roosevelt National Park with iconic places in South Dakota; such as Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and Custer State Park.