Five reasons to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota’s jewel near wild west town of Medora

In past trips to the Dakotas, we’ve driven by Theodore Roosevelt National Park and once diverted to drive a short scenic road so that we could boast about visiting another National Park Service destination.

Named after our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt National Park deserved much more love than we gave it during past vacations. During a recent trip in October, we finally devoted some serious time to hike and explore the park and we’re already looking forward to going back.

I don’t know what factors went into the decision to name the park after Teddy Roosevelt, but most historians agree that he was our country’s first conservation president whose activism (and executive power) preserved some of our nation’s most spectacular wonders. Authors have penned many books about Theodore Roosevelt – I enjoyed Leave It As It Is.

The park is split into two separate units; the main south entrance near Medora is about 70 miles from the main north entrance. In this article, I’ve picked five main reasons you should add it to your next vacation out west.

wild horses theodore roosevelt national park
Seeing wild horses takes visitors back in time to the wild, wild West.

Roaming wild horses and bison

We love spotting wildlife and include a daily drive either at dawn or dusk inside the parks we visit. The most interesting sightings at Theodore Roosevelt were wild horses. Yes, we see horses all the time without taking a vacation, but there’s something spiritual about watching the wild ones roam the prairie and landscape.

If it wasn’t for Teddy Roosevelt, we would never have seen any American bison. He’s credited with saving these huge roamers from extinction. Our nation decimated bison herds from approximately 50 million down to 24. That’s not a typo – just two dozen. That’s when Roosevelt led a group of conservationists in protecting them. As the bison sometimes blocked our paths while hiking or driving, we marveled at the small herds and couldn’t imagine them vanishing from the face of the earth.

We saw lots of other wildlife inside the park, including coyotes, prairie dogs, deer, pronghorn and raptors.

teddy roosevelt national park cannonballs geology
In the park’s north unit, the Cannonball Concretions fascinated us.
petrified forest trees theodore roossevelt national park best place see
A short hike took us to these 50 million-year-old petrified trees.

Interesting rocks and geology

 I’m not a rock jockey nor am I an avid reader of park signs and exhibits about geology. But I enjoy learning about how geology and weather shape the parks and their surroundings.

Theodore Roosevelt contains two of my favorite geology spots that we’ve explored during vacations: the cannonball concretions in the park’s north unit and the petrified forest in the south unit. The cannonballs are just plain “weird” because they look just like their name implies. A short walk from a pullout led us to these fascinating rocks, which are hidden from roadside view. So be sure to follow the park’s seasonal newspaper handed out at the entrance gate and walk around this area to discover different deposits of the cannonballs.

We hiked a three-mile out and back trail to reach the Petrified Forest. I was surprised by how well-defined some of the petrified stumps were. Again, we walked off-trail around this location and kept finding different trees hidden from the main path. Estimated age of these ancient cypress trees? Fifty to sixty million years old!

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Caprock Coolee was our favorite hiking trail.

Meandering Caprock Coolee Trail

We hiked a variety of trails inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but our favorite was the Caprock Coolee, a four-mile loop trail with plenty of great views, including a very short spur trail to the breathtaking Riverbend Overlook.

We enjoyed other scenic trails, including the short walk to Wind Canyon vista where photographers set up their tripods at dusk and dawn, and the Boicourt Overlook Trail.

where see pronghorn wildlife theodore roosevelt national park
At dusk, pronghorn galloped along the Scenic Loop Drive in the park’s south unit.

Breathtaking vistas without the crowds

Most parks are busiest in the summer months, which is why we planned this trip in late September and early October. Overall, about 700,000 people visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Both units feature scenic drives. The south unit’s 14-mile drive (28 total out and back) was our favorite, even though the second half was closed during our visit.  The north unit offers a 36-mile scenic loop drive where we experienced most of our wildlife sightings, but part of this road was also closed for erosion repairs, which the visitors center disclosed to us ahead of time.

Our visit to the north unit, where half of the scenic drive closed, annoyed us. And we are not easily annoyed. We respect the park staff, their mission and challenges. In this particular case, no one bothered to tell us about the closure when we checked in at the visitors center the prior day. Plus, I frequently check a park’s website during our visits for reports of any emergencies and last-minute road closures, and nothing was listed. And to make matters worse, when we entered the north unit entrance station on the morning of our drive, park staff didn’t inform us of the road closure ahead, which we learned had been a planned event and not an emergency.

We could have changed our daily itinerary and visited this part of the park before the planned road closure. The takeaway advice is this – ask a lot of questions at the visitor center each day before your planned activities. And thanks for listening to one of my infrequent rants. There, I feel better.

Theodore Roosevelt’s impersonator headlines Medora’s Old Town Hall Theater.
Theodore Roosevelt’s impersonator headlines Medora’s Old Town Hall Theater.

Entertaining Medora in summer and fall

Even though much of the town’s activities and businesses were closed during our late-season visit, we loved Medora’s western flair. We stayed at the Rough Riders Hotel, one of the better accommodations near a park that we’ve experienced, in addition to being one of the few indoor places in the Dakotas where we felt safe during the pandemic.

Not surprisingly, Medora is drenched in everything Teddy Roosevelt, where he lived and ranched for a better part of his life. His historic Elkhorn Ranch site is part of the national park.

The Old Town Hall Theater hosts a one-man show that guests describe online as highly entertaining and educational. Of course, it’s about Teddy Roosevelt. We were especially disappointed in missing the Medora western musical, the evening Pitchfork Steak Fondue and the Medora Gospel Brunch. Needless to say, COVID affected most of these attractions last year.

Overall, this vacation destination surprised us. When traveling feels safe again to you, add Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park to a Dakota vacation.

  • Jana Johnston
    Posted at 10:31h, 19 February Reply

    I love the TRNP! I joined my husband in Watford City, ND in March of 2013. He had gone there in December of 2011 for a job in the oilfields. I went to the North Unit often to escape the craziness of an oil boom town. Occasionally my husband was able to go with me. We did camp there one night and woke to find ourselves surrounded by about 50 buffalo, including calves. It was a highlight in our lives. We did go to the south unit once. That was beautiful also. I loved the buffalo & prairie dogs there. We went to the performance & the fondue dinner. I lost my husband in July of 2018. The TRNP holds a very special place in my heart & I will visit there again. 💙

    • admin
      Posted at 10:40h, 19 February Reply

      Wow. That is the experience of a lifetime for sure and a lovely way to remember a special time shared with your late husband. Sorry for your loss, but happy that you have this memory to help him live on in your heart. Thanks for sharing your story.

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