Explore America's park logoYou won’t find a home where the buffalo roam across this section of the Great Plains, but you will find 126 campsites at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You’ll also find bison, wild turkey, elk, wild mustangs and prairie dogs. And not too many other visitors.


The park preserves more than 100 square miles of Badlands in western North Dakota in three areas: South Unit, North Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit. The South Unit entrance is in Medora — about 130 miles west of Bismarck — while the North Unit entrance is about 70 miles north on U.S. Highway 85.


The National Park Service highlights the features of this park in a video on its site.



Theodore Roosevelt — adventurer, outdoorsman, Rough Rider and 26th president of the United States — came to the North Dakota Badlands in September 1883 to hunt buffalo and within weeks bought a ranch. The site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch house was included in the creation of Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in April 1947. The North Unit was added in June 1948 and President Jimmy Carter signed legislation that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in November 1978.


Things to do:

Just a windshield safari can take the better part of a day. The South Unit — the most visited unit because of its easy access to I-94 — features a 36-mile loop drive that takes 90 minutes because of the speed limit. It takes at least an hour to drive the North Unit's scenic road to Oxbow Overlook, a dead end, and back. But you really don’t want to stay in the car.


The park offers more than 100 miles of hiking trails, from short loop trails of less than a mile to more than 20 miles of hiking trails west of the Little Missouri River in the Petrified Forest Wilderness Area of the South Unit. The Upper Talkington Trail, an eight-mile round-trip, passes along the edge of a large prairie dog town. The Buckhorn Trail in the North Unit also takes you to a prairie dog town.


A park concessionaire offers guided horse trail rides.


Why you’ll want to come back:

You can see both units of the park — and empty badlands between — in a 110-mile float trip down the Little Missouri River. You may see bison drinking from the river during the three- to five-day trip.


Flora and fauna:

Bison are the headliners here. About 200 to 400 of the wooly beasts roam the South Unit and another 100 to 300 the North Unit. You’re also likely to spot elk, mule deer and, along the river bottoms, white-tailed deer. Wild horses are often spotted from the South Unit Scenic Loop Drive and from I-94.


[skipwords]More than 185 species of birds call the park home at some point during the year. Year-round residents include golden eagles and wild turkeys.[/skipwords]


Fact box:

  • Park size: 70,467 acres or 110 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 563,407
  • Funky fact: The Maltese Cross Ranch cabin, which preceded the Elkhorn Ranch and where Roosevelt enjoyed whiling away time in a rocking chair, could be considered the original mobile home. During his presidency, the cabin was exhibited at the World's Fair in St. Louis, and at the Louis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland. It was moved to the state fair grounds in Fargo and then to the state capitol grounds in Bismarck. The cabin was relocated to the Medora Visitor’s Center at the South Unit in 1959.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.


MNN tease photo: Shutterstock