A Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Photo: Danita Delimont / Getty

Badlands are one of the trademarks of the west. You can find them in Montana and parts of Utah, as well as northern-central states like South Dakota, which famously has an entire National Park dedicated to them. Heavily eroded and mostly devoid of vegetation, these dry, pockmarked landscapes tend to be difficult to traverse, and certainly don’t lend themselves to easy foraging. Native Americans shrewdly kept their distance, referring to them as makosika (literally ‘bad lands’).

But Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a unique exception. Though technically classified as badlands, the 70,000-acre swath of prairie grasses, sagebrush, and vivid painted canyons is an exceptionally lush oasis amid the state’s typically brown and yellow plains. The park sits alongside the Little Missouri River, which provides an essential water source to the surrounding wildlife. Even Josh Duhamel loves this wild stretch of the west.

Wondering what to do on your next visit to North Dakota? These are the six can't-miss things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Lock eyes with a bison

No matter where you drive, your chances of coming within spitting distance of the shaggy-haired giants are pretty good: bison, wild horses, bighorn sheep, and deer all use the river as their main water source, and roam freely throughout the park. (If it’s wild horses you’re after, though, stick to the South Unit, where sightings are more frequent.) You can even ride a horse—not one of the wild ones—through the hills and splash across the Little Missouri River.

Go off-road in the canyons

One way to truly find solitude in this great wilderness is to hit up the park’s less-frequented North Unit. Set back 75 miles from the Interstate, it’s certainly more remote, but well worth the journey. Start with a 14-mile scenic drive to Oxbow Overlook before pulling over and following one of the many self-guided nature trails. Here, the maze-like network of paths will lead you past steep canyons and colorful coulees marked by vivid gray bentonite clay, baked red rock, and black coal veins.

Traipse through the woods

In the floodplains that hug the Little Missouri River, dense cottonwood forests have sprung up that are home to a dazzling ecosystem of wildlife. From white-tailed deer to great-horned owls, it won’t be long before you’re channeling your inner Snow White, and singing in call-and-response to all the woodland creatures. Did we mention the beavers?

Float down the river

Once spring comes, one of the best ways to explore the park is on water. Unpredictable rainfall can make the Little Missouri River's levels fluctuate wildly, going from knee-deep pools one minute to raging torrents the next, so prospective kayakers and canoers are encouraged to call ahead of their trip. But assuming the conditions are right, floating down this 107-mile stretch of river (or a portion of it) is like riding a conveyor belt through paradise. Just sit back, stare up at the clouds, and feel yourself recharge.

Step inside Teddy Roosevelt’s cabin

When Theodore Roosevelt first visited this land to hunt buffalo in 1883, no one (least of all him) could have predicted that in a mere 18 years, he would become the 26th president of the nation. But once he did, this beloved tract of ranch land took on greater significance. Learn about Roosevelt’s special connection to the badlands (and why they came to be named after him) by visiting his former dwelling, the Maltese Cross Cabin: a Ponderosa pine log cottage located behind the South Unit visitors center.

Pick your own campsite

In this remote part of the country, the night sky is quite a thing to behold. For a real adventure, request a backcountry permit at the visitor center. From there, you’ll have free reign to set up your tent anywhere within the park—so long as it’s within a quarter mile of the road. Watching the dark outlines of the hills fade into the night sky, and seeing the Milky Way appear in their place, is utterly enchanting.

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