“This is unreal,” my husband Derrick says as he stands at one of the highest points in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, surveying the sweep of the Little Missouri River valley below us, the cottonwoods lush and green. “It’s like a painting.”
Everybody that’s visited a National Park can probably pick up a favorite. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in my adopted home state of North Dakota is mine.
It’s not just that it’s the closest park to my house. (Although that helps.) It’s also because Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the least crowded National Parks in the country. This is a place where you’ll see as many (or more) bison than humans.
Coming upon it always feels like a gorgeous surprise, even if you know what’s in store. One minute you’re driving along, lulled into complacency by rolling hills and an endless horizon and then — boom — your eyes is drawn to colorfully striped buttes that jut up into clear blue skies that seem to appear out of nowhere.
That’s especially true as you drive along Highway 85 to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Watford City. The South Unit benefits from its proximity to the heavily touristed western town of Medora. But since the North Unit is 50 miles north of Interstate 94, the main east/west route across North Dakota, it takes a little more effort for most people to get here.
But the extra effort is so worth it.
It’s still arid in the North Unit (the area only gets a few inches of rain a year), but the hills are greener, since the north facing slopes are covered in juniper. The contrast between the colorful stripes on the buttes — from the rusty red, iron-rich sandstone to the thin, black seams of lignite coal — look especially vivid. The air carries the vanilla-fresh scent of sweet clover in the stillness of summer.
Putting the “wild” in wildlife
The 14-mile scenic drive almost always yields a bison sighting or two. On this particular summer day, I stopped counting at 40. It was unreal. The largest of these gorgeous, lumbering beasts surveyed our motley caravan with regal indifference. The young ones, frisky and curious, ambled along the road, seemingly as amused by us as we were by them. Every once in a while, they’d leisurely cross the road and look back over a hulking shoulder, as if daring us to pass them.
No one did. They look clumsy and docile, but bison can run up to 40 miles per hour. Keeping a respectful distance seems logical, not just because they’re surprisingly quick, but because nobody really really wants to discover how much force their car door can sustain in a real life. We were tucked into a fuel efficient little silver thing we nicknamed “Zippy,” so it’s pretty clear a bison would win that fight.
The massive horns on the longhorn cattle just chilling in the grass look even more intimidating. Give these superstars plenty of space and they’ll reward you with some great photos. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll spot a bighorn sheep or two.
Some of the most scenic spots in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are easily accessible, since they’re right off the 14-mile scenic loop. The Riverbend Overlook (the image at the top of this post) is the spot that made my husband’s jaw drop. It’s also my pick for the best view in North Dakota.
But the Oxbow Overlook at the end of the route is gorgeous too.
The best part is that you can take the route at your own pace, hopping out for photos or a quick jaunt down the trails if the mood strikes. But I always recommend going deeper into the park on foot if you’re able.
Hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit
The inner loop of the Little Mo Trail is paved and just .7 miles long, so it’s a breeze for little hikers and those with more limited mobility. Brochures at the trailhead (located just off of the campground) detail the plants and landforms you’ll see along the way. The 1.1 mile outer loop had some steep spots, but some excellent views.
The Caprock Coulee Trail is an excellent longer hike. Instead of climbing up, you go down and hike along the coulees (small valleys carved by seasonal streams) at the base of the rock formations to learn about the erosion that shapes the badlands bluffs. Hike the nature trail portion in and back (a total of 1.6 miles) to learn about the geological features and some of the plants along the way. Be sure to touch the fringed sagebrush, my favorite plant and favorite smell in the badlands.
Yes, I have a favorite plant. And a favorite smell narrowed to a particular geographic region. I have just entered the highest echelon of hiking nerdery and I’m not even a little bit sorry about it.
If you want to go deeper into the Caprock Coulee Trail, you can hike the entire 4.1 mile route. You can also go right instead of left at the trailhead and hop on the Buckhorn Trail, which snakes by the very cool Cannonball Concretions. These smooth rock formations are really interesting to look at.
You probably won’t do the entire Buckhorn Trail on the same day, though, unless you’re an experienced hiker with a good sense of time management, since the entire trail is 11.4 miles long. Both trails are listed as moderately difficult.
Oh, and speaking of snakes, you might see some. Even North Dakota residents (myself included) are surprised to realize that the park’s microclimate makes it hospitable to hazards that don’t come to mind when you think of a prairie state like North Dakota. That includes cacti (which are often located at ankle height along the trail) and prairie rattlesnakes.
Yep. Rattlesnakes. In North Dakota.
But before you get too worked up, they’re extremely rare. Much more rare than the cacti. Watch where you step and you’ll be fine.
My husband grew up in Arizona and has harbored a deep and profound (and totally reasonable) hatred for snakes ever since junior high, when his dad most likely saved his life by shooting a rattler that reared up to strike him on a desert camping trip. Since I grew up in a place where snakes aren’t poisonous, I used to like to catch and cuddle adorable little garter snakes the same way one proudly displays a particularly handsome bullfrog. (Okay, maybe I still like to do this. Apologies to my brother-in-law, who I essentially chased around the yard until I realized he also has a snake phobia. Oops.)
What these two stories have taught me is that when hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you don’t have to be scared of snakes, but it’s probably prudent to be wary. Do not do what I did — smile and walk toward a snake that is longer than you are tall, cooing, “Hi little guy!” in the voice most people use to greet puppies and babies. My husband had scooped up our son, sprinted back to our car and gotten both of them inside in the time it took me to realize this might not be the best idea I’ve ever had.
To their immense credit, they both got out and tried again, despite that fact that we saw another snake in the coulee right after starting our hike for the second time. Although Eli did spend a significant part of the hike on Derrick’s shoulders after that.
But don’t worry. My trailside Googling was correct and both snakes we saw were bullsnakes. A park ranger confirmed it when we left.
But my advice still stands. The possibility of danger exists, but exists anywhere in nature. Don’t let that distract you from enjoying Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s secluded beauty.
Admission to National Parks is free on August 25 for the National Park Service’s birthday. It’s one of five free admission days, which also include Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, the first day of National Parks Week in April, National Public Lands Day and Veterans Day.
I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park as part of a sponsored trip from the good folks at McKenzie County Tourism. I could choose to do whatever I wanted and I chose to spend two days here, so clearly I love it and I think you will too.
What about you?
What’s your favorite National Park and why?
Which National Parks are on your bucket list?
What do you love about Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
Where are your favorite places to hike?
What kinds of animals have you seen in the wild?
How do you prefer to explore National Parks and other outdoor spaces?
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