Theodore Roosevelt National Park has two distinct areas called the North Unit and the South Unit. The two units are not connected and it will take a hour of driving between the two. If you haven’t read Theodore Roosevelt National Park: North Unit, please start there. This is part two: the Guide to the South Unit.
Highlights of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park: South Unit
The South Unit is a 36 mile round-trip scenic loop drive. Part of the road was closed during our visit so it was an out and back drive instead of a loop, but we were able to finish most of it. From what we heard, the road closings happen quite regularly.
Painted Canyon Visitor Center
We started our visit to the South Unit at the Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center. Just as we entered the parking lot, a huge herd of bison moved in. We stayed between the cars as they quickly surrounded us. They were even blocking the entrance so the cars couldn’t leave. We we in their house, on their time.
Painted Canyon Trail
The Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center has a gift store, bathrooms as well as a water bottle refilling station. Take in the beautiful view before heading down on the Painted Canyon Trail. It’s good to do this hike in the morning before it is too hot. There is a steep decline at the beginning and end of the loop.
Prairie dog town
Next head into the cute little western town of Medora. This is where you will enter into the South Unit of the park. After passing the ranger station, we head up to the Prairie dog town. We sat here for quite a while just taking in the antics of these dramatic little creatures. Just watching them throw their heads back and yip at each other was hysterical. The prairie dog towns line both sides of the road, so you don’t even have to get out of your car to watch them.
The next stop is the Skyline Vista. This is a short 0.1 mile walk to a beautiful view. What made this stop incredible for us was the herd of wild horses grazing nearby. It was a sight that took my breathe away and will stay with me forever. They were just so beautiful and so… free.
At this point, you are going to head back into Medora for lunch before you get too far into the park. I would recommend the Farmhouse Cafe or the Cowboy Cafe. I highly recommend cooling off with some ice cream from the Fudge and Ice Cream Depot.
Wind Canyon Trail
After lunch, head back into the park to explore more of the South Unit. After passing through the prairie dog towns again, your next stop will be the Wind Canyon Trail. This trail is a short 0.4 mile hike that leads you to a view over the Little Missouri River.
The Wind Canyon Trail is an excellent example of how erosion formed the badlands landscape, Wind Canyon has been a popular destination for as long as the park has existed. It channels the wind, which rushes through before escaping across the Little Missouri River. The canyon walls contain hollows, carved by years of exposure, which now act as nest sites for Great Horned Owls and other birds.
Theodore Roosevelt described the Little Missouri Badlands as “a land of vast, silent spaces” and standing at Boicourt Overlook, you can understand what he meant. Stretching away toward the horizon, the broken rolling landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is utterly unique. From here, you can even see beyond park boundaries, where some of the larger buttes in the area stand, silhouetted against the horizon. Just beyond the overlook is the Boicourt Trail which is a 0.2-mile accessible trail offering the same incredible views.
It seemed as if most people turned back at this point on the loop. I was very happy we continued because just around the corner, we found another herd of wild horses. It took my breathe away the same way it had done earlier and we just sat and watched them peacefully graze.
Coal Vein Trail
We really enjoyed this 0.8 loop trail. It only took about a half hour and it was quite different from the previous hikes we had done in the park.
Beautiful layers of rock tell a story of the 60-million-year geologic history of the
badlands. From ancient swamps to recent coal fires, this landscape is constantly changing.
During our visit to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, this is where the loop road ended. Just as we hit the road block, there was a turn around area where we realized there was a giant heard of bison off in the distance. Be sure to pull over and take a look. They are very noisy animals, so even though they are far off in the distance, you can hear them quite well. Definitly recommend packing binoculars.
If the loop road was open, there are a few more stops of interest along the way. They are:
Old East Entrance Station
The original gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Old East Entrance Station was built as part of a 1938 relief project during the Great Depression. When Interstate 94 was built in 1968 and replaced US Highway 10, the park entrance was moved to Medora.
The Old East Entrance, situated in one of the park’s many active prairie dog towns, is a beautiful example of hand-hewn stone masonry. It harkens back to an earlier time in national parks, and is worth the 0.4 mile hike.
The views of the Little Missouri badlands are spectacular from anywhere in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but one of the best vistas awaits at Badlands Overlook. Located at the end of the South Unit Scenic Drive, Badlands Overlook offers a panoramic look at the broken and rolling badlands spread out below. Perfect for watching the sunrise or picking out elk or bison wandering through the buttes, Badlands Overlook makes for a great destination on a visit to the South Unit.
Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
For a guide to hikes in Theodore National Park, click here.
Lastly, the best way to end a day in Medora is to visit the Medora Musical. This musical revue is produced each summer at the open-air Burning Hills Amphitheater. It is considered “the rootin’-tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the Midwest. There’s no other show quite like it. It’s an ode to patriotism, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Great American West!”
I hope this guide to South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park was helpful. Click here to continue reading: Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park: North Unit.
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