While technically North Dakota only has one national park, Theodore Roosevelt, it has 4 national trails and sites that are maintained by the National Parks Service. North Dakota’s National Parks are some of the United States’ best-kept secrets due to their remote location.
On our family bucket list, we wanted to take a road trip to the national parks out West. Since our son was in fourth grade, we took advantage of the free 4th grade national park pass given to fourth graders and their families and took a national parks road trip. We visited six states on that trip, and also enjoyed the splendor of the mountains and gorgeous glacial lakes too. While our time in North Dakota was not very long, it was a state I never thought I would visit. We enjoyed this state specifically due to the fact that North Dakota national parks have much fewer visitors, and it was nice to be away from the crowds that were in more touristy national parks like Glacier, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone.
The Five North Dakota National Parks
While there is only one North Dakota national park, there are four other historical sites/trails that may catch your eye if you plan on visiting North Dakota.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt was key in establishing conservation efforts around the US and designating various areas into national parks. His namesake, located in the southwestern half of the state, is a beautiful testament to this. Theodore Roosevelt National Park often gets forgotten on the list of best national park vacations. While it is just as stunning as other national parks, few hear about it due to its’ remote location.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park lies at the edge of the National Grasslands, which combines two types of landscapes, the prairie, and the Badlands. This North Dakota national park is divided into three units, the North Unit, Elkhorn Ranch Unit, and the South Unit, which is the most popular. These units are divided by the Little Missouri River and it is 68 miles between the North Unit and the South Unit. If you are considering doing both units, you may want to do two days in the park. We only had a few hours to spend here, so we tried to make the most of our time. Our kids collected their junior ranger badges, we hiked a couple of short trails and drove around the park looking at the landscape and wildlife.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit is the most popular section of the park. There are two Visitor’s Centers, one at the town of Medora and the other at Painted Canyon. The Painted Canyon Nature Trail is the most hiked trail due to its’ ease and that it starts right at the Visitor’s Center. It is a one-mile loop that is a little steep as the trail winds down into the canyon but is doable with children. Our kids were 8 and 10 years old and did not complain much, only on the way back up. This trail kept them focused on their footing and provided some beautiful lookout points of scenery we are not very familiar with.
The views of the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit were gorgeous. In addition, no one else was on the trail. Each time we have hiked in the afternoon at other national parks, it is always hard to find parking and the trails are always filled with people. This time, it was just our family, which was quite nice. I highly recommend this hike if you are only going to do one hike in the area, as it is scenic, short, and you are a few steps from the Visitor’s Center.
South Unit Scenic Drive
The South Unit Scenic Drive is the highlight of Theodore Roosevelt NP as there are many scenic lookouts and hiking trails that can be taken from here. It is 36 miles and provides many opportunities to see wildlife. We had seen bison in Yellowstone, but it was still amazing to see them here too. We also stumbled into some wild horses and saw prairie dogs too.
Some of the main stopping points are:
- Scoria Point – A volcanic looking area where the topsoil has been stripped away by erosion
- Ridgeline Nature Trail – A short (.6-mile loop) hike with some steep hills
- North Dakota Badlands Overlook – Scenic landscape views over Paddock Creek
- Coal Vein Trail – A short (.8-mile) loop that allows you to walk through the scoria
- Boicourt Overlook – One of the best views of the badlands in the South Unit
- Wind Canyon Trail – A great little hike. This is a very short walk up to a ridge, where you’ll have a spectacular view of the Little Missouri River and the untouched wilderness of the South Unit.
- Prairie Dog Towns – there are many little areas where the prairie dogs have created homes here
Where to Stay
The most convenient place to stay near Theodore Roosevelt National Park is in the town of Medora, located right outside of the South Unit entrance. Options here are limited, as it is a small old West type town, so if you can, try to book early. We enjoyed our visit to the town and walked into a few local shops. While we did not have time to see the Medora Musical, it was highly promoted, and I had heard great things about it from people we spoke to around town. If you have extra time, you may want to consider checking it out.
While we didn’t end up spending a night in Medora, I did a lot of research on accommodations while I was planning our road trip, and narrowed it down to these two places. In hindsight, I wish we would have stayed in this town as it was much better than I had expected.
Amble Inn – located right in downtown, and has great reviews.
AmericInn – we had stayed in this brand of hotel in Michigan and loved the stay. While this one is not in downtown, it is only a couple of miles away, has a free breakfast, and an indoor pool.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit
The North Unit is much more rugged and remote than the Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit. It’s about 15 miles from the nearest town (Watford City), meaning fewer people make the 50-mile drive up from I-94 to the North Unit.
The North Unit is known as the Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri due to the way the river which cuts through the Badlands. There are many scenic overlooks and pristine terrain in this area. Check out more information about the North Unit on the NPS site. It is not too far from other North Dakota National Park sites. Check out the map below.
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail runs through eleven states. It begins in the corner of Illinois and ends at the point where Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean, about 4,000 miles later.
Even though the Visitor’s Center is located in Omaha, Nebraska, there are plenty of sights in North Dakota along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Some highlights include the Sitting Bull Visitor’s Center in Fort Yates, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, and many more. Two of the sites from the North Dakota national parks are on this trail, Fort Union Trading Post and the Knife River Indian Villages. Check out the North Dakota tourism site for all of the best places to explore along the trail.
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
This was a major fur trading post between the Northern Plains tribes and the Europeans in the mid-1800s. Located along the Missouri River, it shares a border with Montana. The fort has been partially refurbished and reconstructed for visitors and it was one of the earliest national historic landmarks to fall under the supervision of the National Parks Service.
Among the things to do here are self-guided tours among the fort, a Junior trader program for kids, a hiking trail, an Indian arts showcase, and in the summer, some living history re-enactments. Another plus is that is located near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Read more about Fort Union here.
North Country National Scenic Trail
This trail spans close to 4,000 miles from New York to North Dakota and is still being worked on. It crosses seven states across the Northeast and into the Great Plains starting in Crown Point, New York and ending in Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota. Although not yet completed, the eventual route plans to be the largest scenic trail in the country, even more than the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail. Efforts are currently being made to connect the Appalachian Trail and Vermont’s Long Trail.
The North Country National Scenic Trail connects more than 160 public lands, including parks, forests, scenic attractions, wildlife refuges, game areas, and historic sites. We drove through a portion of the trail on our road trip. To look at specific maps spanning through the seven states, check out the North Country Trail Association.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
While not an official North Dakota national park, Knife River Indian Villages was a nice stop on the road trip. The Northern Plains Indians called this area of North Dakota home for many years. There are three smaller settlements in the Knife River Indian Villages Historic Site, and with over 1,000 acres of land, it features a mixture of landscapes along the river.
There are a few hiking trails along the river bluffs and forests that would make for a good half day adventure. We just popped in to check out the area. The two-mile North Forest Trail Loop provides some forest and prairie views, while the Missouri Overlook loop provides sweeping views of the Missouri River. The Visitor’s Center also has educational activities, exhibits, and a short movie.
The North Dakota national parks are not well known in the US, and I believe that is part of their charm. There were not many people at any of the places we stopped, and when we visited the North Dakota national parks, there was silence on the trails. I would definitely like to return to North Dakota someday and spend more time exploring small towns and state parks. On our road trip, we crossed the entire state of North Dakota coming from Montana but did not have that much time to visit places for long because we had a flight to catch. If you are planning a future trip to this area, I would highly recommend visiting and staying in the town of Medora and exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
While most people do not make it up to North Dakota, it is actually not too far from the more popular Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park in South Dakota. If you’re planning a South Dakota road trip, taking a couple of extra days to visit the North Dakota national parks would be a great idea.
Other Great National Parks to Visit
There are 61 US National Parks, and while we have only visited a few, check out our reviews of why they should be on your radar of national parks to visit.
- Acadia National Park
- 10 Best National Parks Vacations
- Glacier National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Grand Teton to Yellowstone
- Mammoth Cave
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