Exploring the Hidden Gem: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

I recently took a cross country road trip with my youngest son to get him settled into his new home in Grand Forks, North Dakota where he is studying commercial aviation. When I was chatting with friends about our trip, I had at least a handful of people tell me that we needed to make it a point to stop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Had we not had the National Park game, I would not have even known there was a national park in North Dakota, let alone one named after a president {the only one!}. I think the general consensus of those who told me about the park was that they didn't have high {or any} expectations and then they got there and they were blown away! After taking a detour to Teddy Roosevelt National Park, I'd have to agree. This is THE most underrated National Park that literally no one seems to know about! I've never had so many wild animal encounters at a National Park, seen such diverse and rugged landscape and in the end felt like I stumbled on a true hidden gem! You are going to want to read this and then book a trip immediately before the secret gets out!


Exploring the Hidden Gem: Theodore Roosevelt National Park


A Little Historical Background about Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Before delving into the park's natural wonders, it's essential to know a little more about the historical significance of this place. Shout out to the woman we met in the Best Western hot tub who knew far more about Teddy Roosevelt than any other human I've ever met!. 

Theodore Roosevelt National park, you can call it Teddy Roosevelt because I know you're cool like that, was established in 1947 to honor the 26th President of the United States. The park preserves both the rugged landscape that shaped Roosevelt's character and the legacy of conservation that he left behind.

You see, Teddy Roosevelt was a young cattle rancher in the Badlands in the late 1800's. He actually sought solace in the area after his mother AND his wife died within hours of one another on Valentine's day! He developed a great appreciation for the natural world and the need for conservation. His experiences in North Dakota influenced his efforts to protect and preserve America's wild places, which led to the creation of the National Park System.

Today, visitors to the park can explore the same landscapes that inspired and ignited the passion in Roosevelt for conservation, giving you the unique opportunity to connect with history while experiencing the great outdoors.


It was only fitting that while on our road trip, we had a Damn, Man's Cowboy Starter Kit to snack on. We especially liked the beef sticks and the Memphis BBQ almonds. It's a mother/son duo that started the company, so we were in good company enjoying the snacks on a mother/son road trip. They make great gifts, especially for those hard to shop for guys in your life. But I digress...

Fun Fact: You can visit Teddy Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin at the entrance of the park behind the visitors center. The cabin was his North Dakota respite that was actually located about seven miles away on his ranch. The cabin was moved during the World's Fair, and traveled from Missouri to Portland, then back to Fargo, ND before settling at the National Park where you can take tours of the home. 

Some people are interested in venturing out of Medoro to the original location of the first of Theodore Roosevelt's two North Dakota ranches, but I'm told by a local {my new hot tub friend}, that there's not much to see anymore other than some open land, so don't bother.


About Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park doesn't cover quite as many acres as some of the other National Parks in the area {I'm looking at you Yellowstone}, and it receives about half as many visitors each year. It really is one of the lesser visited parks...for now!

The park is actually made up of three separate units. There is a North Unit, a South Unit {this is the one that we visited}, and the Elkhorn Unit. The North and South Units are a little more than an hours drive away from one another and the South unit and Elkhorn is another hour plus drive from that. They are actually not connected and you can't drive from one to the other through the park. 

The South Unit is most accessible and only a few miles off of the main interstate. I've heard that the North Unit is much more rugged and untouched, though I must say the South Unit felt pretty darn rugged, so I'm not sure what you'd get on a visit!

The Best Time to Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota is a northern state with some of the coldest temperatures in America. The open land allows whipping winds that can be intense and the cold can be brutal. North Dakota is known for their long winters, and while the park is open year round, there aren't many visitors in the winter months. Want the park all to yourself? The winter might be the best time for you to plan a trip!

June to August seem to have the most steady temperatures with average highs in the 80's, making those whipping winds not quite so bitingly cold. The local gateway of Medora is a quaint town with shops and stores. Many of those close down in late September.

During the summer months, you will need to pay attention to thunderstorms which are quite common. And did I mention the wind? There's not a whole lot in the landscape of North Dakota that blocks it, so it can be aggressive.

We visited in August and it was the perfect temperature. There were winds but the temperature was warm enough that it didn't feel too cold.

Visiting the South Unit Entrance at Teddy Roosevelt National Park

We were on a mission when we stopped on our cross country drive. We had driven across all of Washington, some of Idaho, all of Montana and would finish crossing all of North Dakota. We saw signs for all kinds of National Parks, including the big one everyone has on their list, Yellowstone. However, anytime I'd look up how far away we were on a map in case we wanted to detour, it was about a three hour drive to any of the entrances of the parks.

Teddy Roosevelt was actually the most accessible from the highway as we crossed the states. And the South Entrance was just a few miles off the highway. It was an easy detour that only added a few hours to our trip time. 

Painted Canyon Rest Area

There is also a Painted Canyon Rest Area that feels like a bonus addition to the National Park. It doesn't require a parks pass and yet when we stopped, there was a National Park Ranger watching over a herd of bison who had wandered over. There are also a few trails leading from the rest area that are worth checking out so you can stretch your legs. If you don't have time to drive all the way into the park, but you want a little glimpse of it, stop at the Painted Canyon rest area.

This is also a great place to stop if you want to get a picture of the National Park sign. There's an easy to access one at the entrance if you like to snap a shot when you visit.

Best Way to Explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park


Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt National Park

One of the best ways to experience the beauty and diversity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is by hiking its well-maintained trails. Here are a few trails in the South Unit that you shouldn't miss.

Painted Canyon Nature Trail 

This is a short hike {.9 mile loop} with nice views of the badlands. It does go down, and you know that what goes down must come back up! This trail is often rated moderately difficult because of that. You can add on some miles {about 3.5 more to be exact} and take the Painted Canyon Trail {4.2 miles total} further into the park and away from the road noise. 

Skyline Vista 

This is called a trail on the map, but I think it's more of a paved overlook area. It's worth stopping and getting out and walking over to see a complete view of the area.

Ekblom Trail and Big Plateau Loop

We drove up to the parking area by Peaceful Valley Ranch where we watched bison feeding. We then wandered on the trail towards Ekblom Trail where we were met with a lone Bison getting a drink in the Little Missouri River. We gave him his space and then looked around thinking we'd see a bridge that crossed the river since the Ekblom Trail was on the other side.

Apparently, the water level was up and we'd need to cross through the water if we wanted to keep hiking. We did not. However, from the couple we heard that crossed back over, it seems like the trail is definitely worth it in terms of how much wildlife spotting they had. 

Petrified Forest Loop

Had we had more time, this 10.3 mile loop trail would have been the one we would have taken. Millions of years ago, North Dakota was a swampy area all under water. The trees that lived here were submerged in water and over thousands of years, they became petrified. Keep your eyes peeled for mule deer, antelope, wild horses and bison. 

Scenic Drive in Teddy Roosevelt National Park

Having been on a several day long road trip already, adding more driving on a 36 mile scenic road didn't really interest us. However, it was worth taking the drive up to the prairie dog down {there is a pull out so you can stop along the road} and stepping out of your car to spot literally hundreds of prairie dogs. They will chirp at you if they feel like you are getting too close! We could have watched them all day!

underrated national park in the us

Wildlife Encounters in Teddy Roosevelt National Park

One of the park's biggest draws is the opportunity to witness a wide range of North American wildlife in their natural habitat. Here are some of the top animals you might encounter during your visit.

American Bison: These are often confused with buffalo, and in fact, I used the term interchangeably when I spotted them. However, these are bison and they are part of the bovine family and graze the park's grasslands. You will need to keep a safe distance from them. 

Wild Horses: I didn't know it until after we left the park, but Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually known for its population of feral horses. They had attempted to round them up many years ago and a few stragglers remained and continue to make the area their home. They are skittish and will often keep their distance, but we were able to observe a few from one of our hikes.

Prairie Dogs: There are numerous prairie dog towns in the park. It's so much fun to watch these small social mammals as they wander around doing their daily activities. They will chirp and squeal if they feel like you are getting too close. 

Pronghorn Antelope: Pronghorn antelope are a common sight in the park. They are known for their speed and agility, making them a fun species to watch if you spot them. They are more difficult to spot in the North Unit, a little easier to spot in the South Unit.

Elk: Elk are mostly spotted in the South Unit usually in the grasslands near the Buck Hill area. You can usually spot these early or late in the day.

the most underrated national park

Where to Stay Near Teddy Roosevelt National Park

There is no lodging available inside the National Park. You can camp. We don't camp. We stayed in the nearby town of Dickinson about a 25 minute drive from the park. We had reservations at the Roosevelt Grand Dakota. It was fine. The pizza from the restaurant was delicious. The hotel itself had older rooms and was comfortable but nothing special.

You can also stay close in the town of Medora. Or look into a few of the other neighboring towns of Beach {25 miles} or Belfield {15 miles}. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a hidden gem you are going to want to uncover! You'll find a diverse range of experiences for nature enthusiasts, history buffs and wildlife lovers! Whether you hike the picturesque trails, admire the iconic bison or learn all about Teddy Roosevelt and his legacy, this park is sure to leave a lasting impression. Plan your visit and let the rugged beauty of the North Dakota Badlands carve a special place in your heart.

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