Where buffalos roam and badlands deserve their name.
The section of the Interstate from Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the heart of North Dakota Heartland is fantastic if you love grain elevators and cattle. Otherwise, no one will mistake a walk on I-94 for one of America’s most scenic drives.
Then, out of the blue, it happens: About an hour east of the Montana border – and a seemingly endless four hours from Fargo – Earth falls from under the freeway.
Where endless grass once stretched on the horizon, steep, tree-strewn canyons line the road. Petrified forests and river waters stretch between them, and mountains somehow appear out of nowhere.
This is how you will know you have reached Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a plains paradise often forgotten in the world of Glaciers and Yellowstones. The three-unit park surprises not only with its grandeur, but also with its very existence in a condition few people know well beyond accents and outdated movie references.
But if there’s a reason to drive I-94 through North Dakota, it’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park is divided into three different units: North, South and Elkhorn Ranch. The latter is home to Roosevelt’s old ranch and nothing else. But the South and the North combine for one of the Midwest’s most unexpected experiences.
The best way to see the southern unit is along its 36 mile loop, which begins just after the Visitors center in the western town of Medora (come for the fork fried steak, stay for the musical!) and continues through most of the park. You’ll ride through fields dotted with prairie dogs, under mounds overlooking blue skies, and along ridges overlooking jagged badlands.
The best place to take photos along the 90-minute journey is at View of Boicourt, where a short walk on an easy trail will bring you to stunning views of the park. If you’re up for a bit of rock climbing, stop at Buck Hill for a half mile hike to the highest point in the south unit.
There’s a good chance your ride will be delayed by a herd of buffaloes, but remember that the loop ride is all about the trip, and sitting in traffic behind slow-moving bison is an experience you probably won’t see you again. .
For more active travelers, the South Unit offers the most trails from any part of the park. For something from another world, head down Coal seam trail, where you will pass smoldering patches of dark rock marking large reserves of coal. This is perfectly safe as the charcoal does not burn, but if you catch the trail after a rainstorm, steam is still rising from the ground. Think of it as a little piece of Iceland on the prairie.
For multi-colored views of the park’s iconic Painted Canyon, descend into the Painted canyon trail. The hike allows you to dive into rugged desert landscapes and only takes about half an hour. Although you can access it from Loop Road via a few other trails, it is always best to visit it by driving about 10 minutes east on I-94 from Medora and starting at Painted Canyon Visitor Center.
If you’re feeling strong and want to see some of the park’s more unusual offerings, drive 25 minutes from Medora to the Petrified Forest Loop start of the trail. The 10 mile loop takes you through the best scenery in the South Unit, past fallen petrified trees, past grassy meadows, over badlands, and up rivers deep in towering canyons.
The north unit is smaller than the south, but much more dramatic. Located about 45 minutes north, the Little Missouri River winds through deep verdant canyons, past golden cliffs and into picturesque rolling mountains. Stop at River Bend view and you will see the sight that inspired the Bull Moose to preserve the land to begin with.
The north unit has fewer trails and can be hiked in a single day. The Casting Caprock The trail is the Iconic Hike, a 4.3 mile getaway that begins right off the main park road. But do yourself a favor and go a bit past the official trail to the River Bend Overlook. Starting the trail here saves the best for last and makes the hike an experience that just keeps getting better as you travel.
The Caprock Flow begins at the top of the Little Missouri River and takes you through the foothills of the northern unit, inside a canyon, and into the mountains that overlook the badlands and the river valley. Each climb brings you to a more breathtaking vantage point than the last, so much so that you hardly notice that the walk takes you almost three hours. No trail in either unit comes close to the scenery you’ll see along Caprock Coulee, so plan to hike it early before the crowds (as it is) join you.
Along the main road, stop and see the Cannonball concretions a few kilometers away. The mysterious spherical rocks almost seem to have been pulled into the side of the mound and offer a questioning look at the geology of the region. They also sit right next to a prairie dog field, making this the best roadside stop in the North Unit.
To discover the whole of the North Unit on foot, go to the Buckhorn Trail. You can take the 11.4 mile loop right past the visitor center and hike it through all of the scenery that makes the northern unit so cool. The views aren’t quite what they are around Caprock Coulee, but if you are looking for a day hike this is the best.
There’s not much to stay in the North Unit, as it doesn’t have a fun western-themed town outside its doors like its sibling to the South. But you can take a day trip to the north and then top it off with a hearty steak and a cool sunset in Medora.