The first (and only) time I’d been to Theodore Roosevelt National Park was on a road trip I took with my dad in 2018. Prior to that trip, I’d never heard of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We visited the park for a few hours and drove the scenic loop drive (before part of it became closed) and we were able to see wild turkeys and bison.
When Teddy and I were planning our 14 day Western Road trip, we added this park to our list. While it meant almost a full day’s drive across Montana the day after our visit to get to Glacier National Park, we decided it was worth it. We drove the 3 or so hours North from our previous stop in the Badlands to the town of Medora which is where the park is located. On our visit, it was in the 90s and quite humid. We had a few short hikes on our list we wanted to check out while we were there but only ended up doing 1 of them because of just how stinking hot and humid it was.
This park technically has 3 units, the North Unit, South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch unit. The south unit is most accessible. It is right off of Route 94. The Elkhorn ranch unit is in between the North and South Units but back on a different set of roads so if you were to drive from the South, to Elkhorn Ranch, to the North unit, it would take about 3 hours one way. I’ve only visited the South Unit but would love to get to the other two on my next visit. It just requires a bit more planning and time in the area which we didn’t have this trip.
We arrived at the park around 1 PM and visited the Painted Canyon Visitor Center first. We checked out the maps and options of what to do and then drove into the park with our National Park Pass. Immediately after getting into the park, we saw a very large herd of bison in the grass along the scenic drive near the Cottonwood Campground and Picnic Area. We took a few photos and then continued on until we saw quite a few cars stopped to see wild horses. They were a little further off in the distance but still incredible to see. We took in the view at a few more overlooks and then continued on to the Burning Coal Vein Trail parking lot. We fully intended to to do the hike, but decided to have a car picnic first. We had lunch meat and PBJ sandwiches and were getting roasted by the sun while we stood outside making them. There wasn’t really much shade in the park, and so while we wanted to do a hike, we both were beat and decided to check out another one later on our drive.
We headed back the way we came in since the drive is no longer a loop due to a landslide a few years ago. On our way back we drove up Buck Hill and took in the views and then stopped at the Wind Canyon Trailhead for a very short hike to see the overlook of the river running through the park. It was worth it in the heat.
After exploring a bit more of the park we went into town to check out some shops. While we had wanted to stay for the well-known Medora Musical, if we did, we wouldn’t get to our hotel about 2 hours away until late at night, and since we had about a 8-hour drive the next day, we decided to pass on it this time.
This is one of those National Parks where you appreciate it most when you do research ahead of time and more planning. If you plan a trip here, I’d recommend finding a way to learn about Teddy Roosevelt and his presidency through a book or podcast as well as about General Custer and the Sioux before coming. Knowing the people who lived in these areas, those who fought there, and those who have tried to protect it makes the experience in the park much more worthwhile.
Sample 1 Day Itinerary
- Painted Canyon Visitor Center
- Hike The Painted Canyon Trail – 4.3 miles
- Or the Painted Canyon Nature Trail – 1.1 Miles
- Drive the Scenic Drive Through the Park
- Hike the Coal Vein Trail – .6 Miles
- Enjoy a Picnic Lunch in the Parking Lot
- Ridgeline Nature Trail – .7 Miles
- Visit Buck Hill
- Wind Canyon Trail – .5 Miles
- Or the The Big Plateau + Ekbloom Trail Loop – 5.2 Miles if you’re up for a challenge and have the time
- Head into the Town of Medora
- Hike the Point to Point Trail – 1.5 Miles
- Get your tickets and dinner at the Medora Musical
- Stay overnight in Medora
“I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.” – Teddy Roosevelt