Theodore Roosevelt National Park may be one of the most underrated National Parks but it may also be one of the most beautiful. Since few people visit this park, you don’t have to worry about crowds, traffic or any of the things that you go to the parks to get away from. (Note: this is part one: the Guide to the North Unit, see link at bottom to continue reading Guide to the South Unit.)
After our trip to Acadia National Park, where it took nearly an hour to park at any given trail head, this was a pleasant change. We were able to truly enjoy the beauty of the badlands.
How many days should you spend in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
We spent two full days at the National Park with a travel day before and after for a total of four days in North Dakota. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has two distinct areas called the North Unit and the South Unit. Many people only visit the South Unit, which would be a mistake.
The two units are not connected and it will take a hour of driving between the two. Another very important thing to know is that the park is in two different time zones. The North Unit is in the Central Time Zone while the South Unit is on Mountain Time.
Highlights of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park: North Unit
The North Unit of the park is an out and back scenic drive which is 28 miles long round-trip. There is a small Visitor’s Center with bathrooms at the gate. A short film plays inside and there are a few small exhibits.
Please note that there are no options for food around here so bring lots of snacks, pack a picnic lunch and bring plenty of water.
The first thing to check out are the Cannonball Concretions. There is a small lot to pull over. You don’t have to walk far to see these large rock formations jutting out from the landscape.
What are Cannonball Concretions?
The cannonballs were formed when sand grains from an ancient river deposit were cemented together by minerals dissolved in groundwater.
When mineral rich water seeps down through the porous layers that make up the badlands, it can deposit those minerals in spaces or gaps in the sediments. The minerals act as a kind of glue, holding these sediments together, often forming around a core. As more and more layers are deposited, the concretion builds outward like a pearl, before being exposed by erosion.
Caprock Coulee Trail
If you want to do a hike, I would recommend doing the complete Caprock Coulee Trail loop. It was a beautiful, almost alien landscape. We reached an overlook and realized that there was a herd of over 50 bison grazing below us. It was an incredible experience.
This trail crosses the park road and brings you by the River Bend Overlook, which looks out over the Little Missouri floodplain. The second part of the loop will give you Tatoine Vibes from Star Wars.
This hike was a bit strenuous in the heat with the steep inclines and declines but it is completely worth it. After the hike, we were happy to cool off with some air conditioning and drive the rest of the scenic route.
From this parking lot you can also hook onto the Buckhorn Trail out to the Prairie Dog Towns. Our attempts to visit these little characters were foiled by a sleepy bison who decided to take a nap in the middle of the trail. I would skip this trail for safety as you will see loads of prairie dogs in the South Unit.
River Bend Overlook
If you didn’t do the Caprock Coulee Trail loop past the River Bend Overlook, this will be your next stop on the park road. This is a short walk to the “view that launched a park.” The shelter here was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s a nice place to have a snack in the shade and take in the scenery.
The scenic road ends at the Oxbow Overlook where the Little Missouri takes a hard turn to the east. The river originally continued north to Hudson Bay. During the most recent ice age, continental glaciers blocked its way, hence the turn.
A note about bison safety: they are everywhere, and you are in their home. Do not approach or feed them. They may seem big and lumber-some but they can go from zero to 35 mph in 30 seconds. May people have been gourded and even killed by them. Bulls can be aggressive during the rutting season, mid-July through August.
As a perfect example, this trail looked clear until we spotted this cheeky bison peeking through the grass. We thought we wouldn’t bother him, but he quickly stood up and made his presence known. We just turned back and headed in the other direction. Just be prepared to give up on a trail as soon as it becomes unsafe.
Park regulations require that visitors stay at least 25 yards (the length of two full-sized busses) away from large animals such as bison, elk, deer, and horses. National Parks are generally safe places and many people visit every year without incident, but visitors must make themselves aware of potential hazards.
These were the highlights of our trip to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Click here to continue reading our Guide to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.