Theodore Roosevelt National Park is probably not on your list of travel goals. We admit, until we looked at a map of parks near Yellowstone and Badlands, we didn’t even know it existed! However, after our visit, we can confidently call Teddy Roosevelt one of our favorite parks. It is a rugged landscape, filled with massive bison, chattering prairie dogs, wild horses … and almost no tourists.
Seriously – we hardly saw anyone else while sightseeing or camping, and backcountry permits were remarkably easy to obtain (especially compared to busier parks like Yosemite). In this way, Teddy Roosevelt benefits from being off the beaten track (we’d call it a “hidden gem” if that term weren’t so overused in travel blogs).
Park History and Geology
Theodore Roosevelt traveled to North Dakota in 1883 to hunt bison – 18 years before assuming the presidency – and returned the following year to seclude himself, after the deaths of his sister and mother. Inspired by the “perfect freedom” of the western U.S., and hardened by the “strenuous life” of living and hunting in the badlands, Teddy started the Elkhorn Ranch – 35 miles north of present-day Medora, in southwest ND.
He brought his love of nature to the White House – Teddy is known today (among many other monikers) as the Conservationist President because he protected over 230 million acres of public land, including 5 national parks. After his death, the area around Elkhorn Ranch was protected itself – first as a “Recreation Demonstration Area,” and eventually as a National Park, in 1978 – the only National Park named directly after a person.
The word “badlands” stems from the Lakota people, who called the region “mako sica” – meaning either “eroded land” or “bad land” – referring to its high temperatures and rugged topography, which limit travel.
“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
Today, the term has a geologic definition: a type of dry terrain with soft sedimentary rocks that have been eroded by wind and water. For those of you who aren’t rock-jocks, sedimentary rocks are formed when layers of sediments (sand, mud, ash etc.) are compacted and hardened – a process which takes several million years.
The rocks in Teddy Roosevelt National Park were formed with sediments that eroded from the newly-formed Rocky Mountains (to the West) and ash that spewed from volcanoes (to the East) – about 65 million years ago! Today, the colorful layers have been exposed by several different ancient rivers flowing through the landscape.
Don’t Forget Your Units
The park is actually broken up into three geographically distinct “units” – the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
The Elkhorn Ranch Unit, as you might recognize from above, is where Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch used to be! Only the foundations remain, and there are no visitor centers or campgrounds in the area. In fact, you have to drive on some gravel roads to reach the remote site, so a 4×4 vehicle (or a car with reasonable clearance, at least) is recommended. We did not visit Elkhorn (because we were a bit bummed that Teddy’s cabin wasn’t still there) but we wish we had taken the trek.
The South Unit is the largest and most popular region of the park, though still not busy. It sits just north of the town of Medora, which has a few shops and restaurants. One park ranger we spoke to described the South Unit as more “user friendly,” probably referring to the scenic loop drive – a 36 mile road that circles most of the park. The North Unit also has a scenic drive – and both of these units have a visitor center, similar wildlife, and a campground. In fact, even the campgrounds are quite similar! Both are situated along the Little Missouri with shade from cottonwood trees, no hookups or showers, and ample opportunity to view bison (from a distance).
So which unit(s) should you visit? The answer might simply depend on driving time, and whether or not you do plan to stay in one of the campgrounds. The North and South units are separated by about 80 miles (so 2 hours at Laj’s highway speed, about an hour otherwise). We hit both in one day, but built our driving itinerary to do exactly that – if you are coming up from the South, you can definitely get away with only exploring the South Unit (for example). Some people have complained about hearing highway sounds from Interstate 94, while sleeping in the Cottonwood Campground (South Unit). If you’re looking for a more remote experience, the North Unit might be for you.
Reservations for Backcountry Permits
The good news is, there’s another way to get away from highway noises, even in the South Unit: camping in the backcountry! This is a unique experience, unlike anything we had done on previous trips or in other parks – mostly because there are no designated backcountry camping “zones.” You can set up your tents anywhere in the park – as long as you follow the rules and restrictions.
The first requirement is procuring a permit. These are free, and can be obtained by calling the park rangers. Before you call, you should have the following information on hand:
- Year, make, model, color, and license plate of your car(s) that will be left at any trailhead overnight
- Entry and exit points (trailheads) of your trip, your general plan for hiking and camping (i.e. trail names) and where you’ll leave your car(s)
- Start and end dates
- Number of people in the group
- An emergency contact name and phone number
As we said, you can camp almost anywhere – but your campsite must be at least ¼ mile from any road or trailhead, at least 200 feet away from any water source, and not within view of any road or trail! There are a few other rules and restrictions to keep in mind, many of them specific to Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
- There is nowhere to obtain or filter water in the park (the water quality in streams and rivers is poor), so you must bring your own water supply for the entire trip. You can fill up water at either campground (Cottonwood or Juniper), even if the campgrounds are closed to overnight visitors.
- You cannot reserve your permit more than 7 days ahead of your start date. This was a bit frustrating for us, since we like to plan so far in advance. But the ranger assured us that, because of the nature of the camping (dispersed, with no actual slots to fill up), you should never really have a problem obtaining a permit. Trips are limited to 10 people, and 14 days.
- No campfires are allowed – cooking must be done over a contained stove. There is good reason for this: the park has a pretty dry climate and would probably burn instantly from a single stray spark.
We’ll have some specific recommendations (stemming from our own trip) below. Trust us, this experience is worth it – we truly felt alone.
Traveling Through Montana
We left Yellowstone National Park on Tuesday, July 14 (a bit earlier than intended – check out our article on our experience there!) and headed north into Montana. Billings is 4.5 hours away from the North Entrance to Yellowstone, and was a convenient target for us that day: along the route towards Teddy Roosevelt, full of hotels, and home to the Montana Rib and Chophouse – which was incredibly appealing after hiking 50 miles in the past 3 days.
At the chophouse, we all had massive ribeye steaks and tall beers. It was awesome. We definitely recommend checking this place out if you’re into being happy.
After crashing (did we mention all that hiking?) at our hotel, we had our second massive, delicious meal in less than 12 hours at Bernie’s – which has breakfast skillets with elk sausage and alcoholic milkshakes. Alex and Eric took advantage of the alcohol opportunity, while Laj took one for the team and took the first driving leg.
The route from Billings towards North Dakota takes you on a scenic highway along the Yellowstone River, with 80+ mph speed limits (always appreciated) and the cleanest rest stops in the entire country. Seriously, the rest stops are super nice – it sounds weird to say, but it stood out.
We drove past Pompey’s Pillar which is a rock formation where William Clark (of Lewis and Clark) carved his name, on his way west – a “road” trip not too unlike our own, minus the comfortable car, GPS navigation, hotel service, and ability to use toilet paper everywhere. It is one of the smallest National Monuments in the country, with a few exhibits about the expedition – which were unfortunately closed to COVID when we arrived.
One of our goals for the Montana leg of the journey was to enjoy a beer in a Montana bar. What does that mean? We didn’t even know – we just kept our eyes peeled for cool looking saloons. Eventually, we found the Iron Horse Saloon in Forsythe, which checked all our boxes. No more than 3 beer choices? Check. Attached casino rooms, with people glued to slot machines at 2pm on a Tuesday? Check. An absolutely hammered local regaling Alex and Laj with stories about why you need to respect wild animals? A 20-minute long CHECK.
Seriously though, the Iron Horse was pretty cool, and we recommend a quick beer if you can afford one.
The Tongue River Winery
We never would have found the Iron Horse if we weren’t constantly looking on our phones for things to do in towns that we would soon pass on the highway. This is an essential tip for road trips: keep some time open in your itinerary, for fun things you might stumble upon while driving! Eric found one of our favorite stops on the entire trip in Miles City, as we approached along the highway: the Tongue River Winery.
Everyone knows that wine tastings are fun, and Tongue River advertises them on their website. We weren’t sure whether the tastings would still be running because of COVID, so we called ahead of time – always a good idea, you should do the same. Not only were we able to visit, we were the only customers there, and received a truly personalized experience!
Upon arrival, we were given a small piece of paper with the name and short description for each wine currently available – probably 20 in total. We assumed we’d choose 5 or so to try – but that was not the case. We tasted every single one! This was probably because we were the only customers, and developed a good rapport with our host – but either way, it was a very generous and enjoyable experience. Make sure you come up with a good rating system as you try different wines (to write on your tasting sheet) because there are a lot of great options (and you might get a bit buzzed!). Some of their drinks are distilled from fruits other than grapes, so please keep an open mind. We ended up buying a few bottles of the “Warm Front” and “Cherry Pie” so apparently the tasting marketing worked! The Warm Front was our favorite, it’s ready to be made into mulled wine, straight out of the bottle. They also ship to several states – give it a try!
Watford City, North Dakota
Towards the end of the day, we left the valley around the Yellowstone River for the extensive grasslands and rolling hills of western North Dakota. Although not quite in the heart of shale country, we saw some rigs flaring off natural gas as we entered Watford City – our destination for the night because it’s one of the larger towns near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Pizza sounded good after a long drive, so we pulled up some stools at Stonehome Brew Pub – a lively brewery/restaurant with big TVs and specialty pizzas. We parked next to what seemed like the largest High School in the world, which was attached to a rodeo arena. Rodeo stadium? Colosseum? We are not experts here. Either way, the “Lucky Charms” beer was very good – we’ll let you figure out what flavors it contains.
We conked out at the Roosevelt Inn & Suites, a modest hotel with lots of Theodore Roosevelt memorabilia, a pool, and a GIANT statue of the Bull Moose’s head in the middle of the parking lot. Unfortunately, the hotel was also the site of a malicious attack by Laj.
Through all our journeys, Alex and Eric have collected national park stickers from every destination – in the hopes of someday plastering a garage refrigerator or game-day cooler with memorabilia. Of course, they had both purchased stickers at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – carefully procured and subsequently protected within the Bug Slayer 2. Nevertheless, Laj decided to throw away Eric’s stickers that next morning, at the Theodore Roosevelt Inn & Suites. You will understand when we say that Eric has leveraged a Casus Belli to declare on Laj for the foreseeable future.
The North Unit
The entrance of the North Unit is only about 30 minutes south of Watford City along Route 85. We stopped to purchase stickers (which Eric hid in a safe place) and then started driving along the “Scenic Drive” road, which meanders through the park. Although we spotted some bison in Yellowstone, this was our first experience with bison being … everywhere.
“Bison can weigh up to 2,000 lbs and sprint at 30 mph – about 3 times faster than you can run. These animals may appear tame but are wild, unpredictable, and dangerous. Do not approach bison!” – A sign warning stupid tourists
Bison are huge, and you don’t really appreciate it until you see one in person. Please don’t approach the animals, even if you want a really good picture for your Instagram. The rule is to stay at least 100 yards away.
About ⅔ of the way along the scenic drive, we stopped at the River Bend Overlook – which has a very short walk to an amazing view over the Little Missouri river, its surrounding floodplain, and some severe badland canyons. There is a little hut at the overlook which provides some shade.
Next, we ventured to Sperati Point, which is 1.2 miles along the South Achenbach trail, leaving from the parking lot at the very end of the scenic drive. This is a pretty short hike with little elevation change – although the number of bison patties indicates that it is sometimes crowded with them (in which case, you should just turn around). We spoke to a Park Ranger in the parking lot, who told us to beware rattlesnakes on our hike (“These are the badlands after all!”). This turned out to be terrible advice, because every shrub we passed was filled with some sort of cricket that sounded exactly like a rattlesnake rattle.
So that was terrifying. Also, make sure you sign your name into the logbook near the parking lot, so that the rangers will know your names if you get lost and die. In the end – the views from Sperati are well worth the terror.
If you are looking for a multi-day trek, you can continue along the South Achenbach trail for the Achenbach Loop (18.2 miles) which is very well reviewed, and features a few crossings of the Little Missouri. And when we say “crossings,” we mean you have to literally wade across the river. One crossing is about 3.5 miles from the parking lot we mentioned above, and the other is near the Juniper Campground. The best rated trail in the North Unit is the Caprock Coulee Loop (4.3 miles), which provides great wildlife viewing and diverse geography.
Overall, we really appreciated that the North Unit wasn’t crowded with people. We got one couple to take our picture near the entrance, and saw another family at the parking lot for Sperati – and that’s it!
The South Unit
We stopped in the town of Medora on our way towards the South Unit to grab lunch at the Little Missouri Saloon. Eric and Alex both tried bison steaks, while Laj got something less adventurous (think salad and water). The bison was only OK – not the fault of the restaurant, it’s just not as tender as beef! We wanted to grab some ice cream (you can afford these calories when you’re hiking as much as we did) but the shop closed literally one minute before we pulled on the door, and apparently they didn’t want our money enough to stay open for one additional minute.
The South Unit is home to some diverse wildlife, including wild horses (which we saw just a few hundred yards into the park) and prairie dogs (which are literally everywhere). We drove along the “Scenic Loop” road, and were again amazed by the lack of crowds – especially jarring after our experience at Yellowstone.
Our first stop was the Boicort Overlook – another short walk to an amazing view, probably our favorite in Teddy Roosevelt. Note that, while the tails in the park are easy to follow, there are no fences or guideposts to keep you on track. This does provide some cool opportunities to explore (like we did while finding our campsite, discussed below), but also means you have to be responsible – both for your own safety, and for the integrity of the landscape and ecology of the park.
Finally, we stopped at the Wind River Overlook – the top rated trail in the South Unit, although it’s only a few hundred yards long. Again, you’ll probably be tired of us saying this, but the overlook has amazing views.
Camping in the Backcountry
For our backcountry experience, we knew we wanted a one-night trip in the South Unit – simply because that fit best into our overall itinerary. We parked at the Jones Creek trailhead that evening (as it started to cool down, it was over 90 degrees that day) and started to gather gear into our overnight backpacks.
A ranger drove by and stopped to chat for a bit – making sure that we had registered for permits, and wondering if we had any questions. We asked about bison in the area, hoping we’d be able to view a big herd from a safe distance. The ranger wasn’t able to help in that respect, but still gave us some great advice: apparently bison like to roll around on the ground in areas called “bison wallows.” It’s important to not set up your tent in one of these wallows – which can be identified as small (approximately 10 feet on a side), flat, sandy areas. There are no natural flat, sandy areas in the park. They look like ideal tent spots – but beware: if a bison wanders by and decides he wants to roll around, he will crush you in your tent.
The bison also like to scratch themselves on things – and might identify your tent as a handy scratching-spot. If this happens, the best thing to do is not panic (although admittedly this seems very difficult) and wait it out.
You might recall from our introduction to backcountry camping above, that in Theodore Roosevelt National Park you are supposed to set up your tent at least ¼ mile from any road or trailhead, 200 feet from any water source, and out of view from any trail. We set off that evening along the Jones Creek Trail, stuck to the trail for ½ mile or so, and then set off into the backcountry in search of a good site.
This was incredibly fun – we felt like we were explorers, stepping where no man has before. After about 30 minutes of adventuring, we found a nice flat spot on top of a small plateau (and not in a bison wallow). Unfortunately, we found out the next morning that, while we were definitely out of sight of the section of the Jones Creek trail we departed from … the trail apparently meandered around, and passed within 100 feet of our “isolated” campsite. Oops.
We didn’t make any dinner that night, still full from our meal earlier in the day, and unfortunately were not allowed to make a campfire. Instead, Laj poked around for fossils while Alex and Eric enjoyed the fact that there were no mosquitoes – which felt like an actual miracle after camping in the Tetons and Yellowstone. Just as we were getting ready for bed, we heard an ominous noise rolling across the badlands: a pack of coyotes yipping and howling. This evoked a kind of primal fear, so we quickly got into our tents – although we concede this is only psychological safety, akin to a child hiding from monsters under a blanket.
The stars that night were incredible – and we all took advantage of the good weather to take the rain fly off our tents for better viewing. And as luck would have it, comet NEOWISE was in the sky that night! It was actually bright enough to wake Alex and Laj up (Eric can sleep through anything – he has slept through two separate earthquakes).
There is no other way to say it: Theodore Roosevelt is a totally underrated National Park. Although a late addition to our itinerary, it was one of our favorite parks we’ve visited so far. The North and South units are similar in a lot of ways – but have unique hikes and aren’t too far separated, so you can definitely hit both in a single day. Just view the bison from a distance!