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9 Fun Things to Do In Theodore Roosevelt National Park

By
on
September 16, 2021

Are you looking for a list of fun things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

With sweeping vistas, magnificent beauty, and guaranteed wildlife sightings, there are plenty of fun things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Because it is less busy than other U.S. National Parks, its trails, hikes, and overlooks, can often be experienced without bustling crowds or other distractions.

Read on for 9 things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park to start planning your adventure now!

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park sign
Entrance to the park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in Medora, North Dakota.

It is divided into 3 distinct areas.

The South Unit, which is located in Medora off I-94, is the park’s most popular and most visited area.

The North Unit, 50 miles off the same highway, is equally beautiful, but more remote.

Both units have scenic drives and plenty of hiking trails with varying distances and levels of difficulty.

The third unit of the park, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is a separate, lesser talked about area of the park located 35 miles north of Medora.

The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is only accessible by gravel roads and sometimes requires four-wheel drive.

I recommend checking with park rangers for road conditions and routes before traveling to this site. 

South Unit scenery
The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

We had the opportunity to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park during our family road trip from Minnesota to Montana.

While en route to our 3-day Glacier National Park itinerary, we spent a half-day exploring the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the town of Medora (which is an attraction in itself!).

The South Unit is by far the most convenient area of the park to visit as it is located directly off Interstate 94.

It has two visitor centers, a scenic drive, hiking trails, and plenty of watchable wildlife that can all be enjoyed in as little, or as long of an amount of time that you have to spare.

Even if you’re just passing through Medora, be sure to spend an hour or so enjoying the following things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit!

Visitor Center signs
South Unit Visitor Center signs

1. Go to the South Unit Visitor Center

Immediately upon entering the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you will come across the South Unit Visitor Center.

Park rangers staff the desk and can answer questions about the Theodore Roosevelt National Park map and trail systems, as well as issue backcountry permits.

While there, you can spend time browsing the visitor center museum that has objects and exhibits that relate to Roosevelt’s life and the history of the park.

There is also a small theater where you can watch a 17-minute film about the park.

Last, be sure to exit out the back of the South Unit Visitor Center to tour Theodore Roosevelt’s (actual!) cabin.

Theodore Roosevelt's cabin
Maltese Cross Cabin
Maltese Cross Cabin
Inside of the Maltese Cross Cabin

2. Tour Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin

Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin is located in the backyard of the South Unit Visitor Center.

The logs of the Maltese Cross Cabin are the original Ponderosa Pine log used in 1883, and the cabin has been beautifully restored both inside and out.

As his first residence upon moving to North Dakota, the cabin is larger than most frontier homes were during that time.

The kitchen, living room, and Roosevelt’s bedrooms have been recreated with antique period furnishings that are thought to have been owned or used by Roosevelt.

Free self-guided tours are available all year long, whereas free 20-minute ranger-led programs are available during the summer months.

Scenic loop drive photo
Scenic Loop Drive scenery

3. Drive the Scenic Loop Drive

A must-do activity at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is to drive the South Unit’s 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive.

With a minimum drive time of 1 hour and 30 minutes, the Scenic Loop Drive is the best way to get out and explore the park.

The two-lane paved highway winds through the colorful badland formations and provides panoramic views from every angle and direction.

Throughout the drive, you will find numerous scenic overlooks with educational signs, dozens of trailheads, and guaranteed wildlife sightings.

Though the entire South Unit Scenic Loop Drive is only 36-miles long, the speed limit is 25 mph, so do plan accordingly.

Additional planning tip: The North Unit also offers a scenic 28-mile scenic drive.

This road traces the bottom of the badlands before heading up and out of the canyon to River Bend Overlook and then to Oxbow Overlook. 

Wild horse at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Wild horse at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

4. Watch for Wildlife

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has abundant watchable wildlife and what you see depends on where you are in the park.

Below is a list of some of the animals you might find in the park and some ideas for where and when to look.

  • Feral Horses: Feral horses inhabit the South Unit only. They are often visible from the Scenic Loop Drive and from I-94 at any time throughout the day.
  • Bison: Bison roam throughout the North and South units of the park, and most visitors see them as they drive any of the park roads. Check at the visitor centers for recent sightings!
  • Mule deer: Mule deer are often seen between dusk and dawn anywhere along the park roads in open areas. They usually rest in shaded areas during the heat of the day.
  • White-tailed deer: They prefer thick wooded areas and may be seen in the campgrounds and picnic areas in the evening and early morning hours.
  • Elk: Found in the South Unit only, elk are most often seen feeding in early morning or evening on open grassland sites in the Buck Hill area and in the southeastern quarter of the park visible from I-94.

Other animals you may see in Theodore Roosevelt National Park include longhorns, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, prairie dogs, and many species of birds.

Remember, all wildlife in the park is wild and potentially dangerous. It is recommended to maintain at least 25 yards distance from all animals.

Prairie Dog Town
Roadside prairie dog town

5. Visit the Prairie Dog Towns

The South Unit Scenic Loop Drive passes through three large prairie dog towns (no prairie dog towns can be seen from the North Unit road).

Just a few minutes into the drive, you’ll start seeing prairies with hundreds and hundreds of little sand-colored mounds.

I highly recommend stopping and getting out of your car at the various pull-offs to watch the prairie dogs popping up and looking around.

There are literally so many of them and they are really fun to watch!

The pull-offs have educational signs, as photographed above, that help to tell the story of these small, active creatures.

7. Go Camping

Another fun thing to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is to camp at one of its two campgrounds.

Cottonwood Campground, the South Unit’s only campground, is located 5 miles from Medora, ND.

Here, half the sites can be reserved ahead of time at recreation.gov while all remaining sites are first-come, first-served.

Juniper Campground is located 5 miles from Hwy 85 and is the only campground in the park’s North Unit.

All sites at Juniper Campground are first-come, first-served, with the exception of a group site that can be reserved ahead of time.

It is important to know that both Theodore Roosevelt National campgrounds are primitive, meaning that there are no hookups and no showers. There are, however, seasonal flush toilets and campground hosts.

It’s best to utilize a well-thought-out camping checklist to be sure that you’re adequately prepared.

And last, take note that both campgrounds are known to fill to capacity early in the afternoon from mid-May through mid-September, and even sooner on holiday weekends.

Additional planning tip: Hikers and horseback riders who choose to spend the night in the park’s backcountry can do so by filling out a free Backcountry Permit in the North or South Unit Visitor Centers.

There are no developed backcountry campsites or facilities.

Theodore-Roosevelt Hike
Boicourt Overlook Trail

6. Go Hiking

In the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you will find a wide assortment of short, family-friendly day hikes that lead to beautiful panoramas.

Popular hikes in the South Unit include:

Skyline Vista: An easy, flat, paved trail onto Johnson’s Plateau; 10-minute hike round-trip (0.1 miles).

Boicourt Overlook: Rated easy, this trail has the best views of the park; 12-minutes hike round-trip (0.2 miles). Don’t miss this one!

Buck Hill: A short, steep hike rated easy, that takes you to the highest point in the park (0.2 miles).

Wind Canyon Trail: A 0.4-mile loop with an amazing view over the Little Missouri River; a 20-minute hike round-trip.

Ridgeline Trail: Nature trail with moderate to steep grades, this 0.6 miles trail has stairs.

Petrified Forest Loop: 10.3-mile loop through petrified forests and badlands. You don’t have to do the full trail to see the petrified forest as you will find large areas of petrified wood 1.5 miles from the parking area.

Additional planning tip: For a complete list of hiking trails, their round-trip time and distance, as well as a trail description, visit the National Park Service website here.

8. Earn a Junior Ranger Badge

The NPS Junior Ranger program is an activity-based program for kids ages 5 – 13 that is conducted in U.S. National Parks.

After stopping into either the North or South Unit Visitor Center, kids can pick up a Junior Ranger booklet to complete during their visit.

After finishing all of the activities associated with their age group, kids then turn in the booklet in order to earn their very own Junior Ranger Badge.

This is a fun and interactive activity for both kids, and the adults helping them!

Medora Musical
Medora Musical

9. Check Out the Town of Medora

I can’t mention the things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park without encouraging you to spend time in the cute, little, small town of Medora!

While most national parks are located miles away from any town, Medora is located right outside the entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Park at one central location in Medora and walk the downtown shops and galleries, or visit the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Be sure to have a local beer and dine at either the Cowboy Cafe or Boots Bar & Grill.

Afterward, catch an evening showing of the Medora Musical – a musical production dedicated to President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands and to the Spirit of the Old West.

The Medora Musical is performed live in an outdoor amphitheater every day of the week.

If you are visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park while you’re on your way to Montana, continue planning your adventure here:

Glacier National Park

Whitefish, Montana

Travel Tips

*Before leaving, be sure to check our Travel Resources Page to find exclusive travel discounts and to book hotels, rental cars, and guided tours.*

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Discover the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park from top U.S. family travel blog, Travel With A Plan!
Discover the best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park from top U.S. family travel blog, Travel With A Plan!
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We are the Brommer family from Minnesota, and I'm Jen - the travel planner for our family of 5! We are passionate about traveling together for it's what keeps us happy and healthy at home. The free family vacation itineraries and tips you'll find here are crafted with love to be shared with you. We hope our experiences inspire you to start planning your next family adventure!

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