Drive the Scenic Loop at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Scenic Loop Drive

Take the Scenic Loop Drive through the broken landscape of the badlands. See abundant wildlife including wild horses, bison, pronghorns, and badgers and hike through prairie dog colonies.

Imagine you have been driving for hours through North Dakota. The landscape is uncompromisingly flat and there isn't so much as a tree to obscure the horizon in any direction. Then, with no warning, the topography transforms. The prairie around you crumbles, dropping down into a series of immense ravines, gullies, and hills. What was endless monochromatic grassland becomes a multihued dreamscape of rock spires and painted hills and where before you were lucky to see a stray cow, you now find herds of bison, wild horses, and pronghorns grazing along the side of the road. The badlands of North Dakota in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are unexpected and startling.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is consistently described as "lunar," "unearthly," or "alien" and for good reason - the broken landscape feels like something out of a sci-fi novel. It takes some warming up to, but its worth getting to know.

As cool as the park is, you can pretty much see the highlights in one day by taking the Scenic Loop Drive through the South Unit of the park. If you happen to be driving through the Dakotas (like from Minneapolis to Glacier for example), this is a must see, it's so remote, I'm not sure it's a destination park. You'll enter the park in through the town of Medora, ND, a town striving to reenact some sad frontier history that never actually existed. Skip the town and head right into the park. Follow the winding road from the town and past the campground on the Little Missouri River to hit the Drive. Keep your eye out for wildlife even on this entrance road since its not unlikely you'll see bison and horses immediately upon entering the park.

The 32 mile drive loops through the park giving you access to Skyline Vista, Buck Hill, and Wind Canyon Trail. Even taking the time to hike every short spur trail along the loop, it will still probably take only a half a day to do the entire thing. Spend the rest of the day hammocking along the river, check out the nearby Painted Canyon, or trying one of the slightly longer hikes in the park. Finally, camp overnight in one of the awesome walk-in tent sites along the Little Missouri - just be prepared to navigate around the bison that hang out in the same area.

Be Prepared: Weather is extreme in North Dakota. If you visit in the Summer, be prepared for the possibility of extremely hot days - there is virtually no shade anywhere in the park. Spring brings the danger of flash floods and the park is generally inaccessible by car in Winter. None of these things, however, are a problem as long as you come prepared.

Pack List

  • Plenty of Water
  • Hiking Boots
  • Binoculars
  • Camera
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
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Activities Chillin, Photography
Skill Level Beginner
Season Spring, Summer, Autumn
Features
Bathrooms
Family Friendly
Food Nearby
River
Scenic
Wildlife

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Petrified Forest Hike

If you take the West River Road +- six miles up the back side of the park you can go to a walkthrough gate and take the hike to the Petrified Forest. Unique spot when you can try to imagine what these 5 foot wide petrified tree stumps must have looked like when they were part of a forest! Earthcache is located at this site.

Under appreciated and starkly beautiful park.

Camped

Camping here is like the Las Vegas/NYC of nocturnal nightlife. After dark, the park buzzes with life -- owls, coyotes, and more. Say hello to all of the buffalo as they lazily munch on greens 10 feet away from you. Oh, and check out the Badlands view on your way out!


Please respect the places you find on The Outbound Collective.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More

Nearby Adventures

More Nearby Adventures

Camp at Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Nestled right along the Little Missouri River, Cottonwood Campground offers 76 camp sites (including pull-through, back-in, and walk-in sites).

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Hike to the North Petrified Forest

Make sure you swing by the Visitor's Center to get a map and a paper copy of directions to the trailhead as it goes through private property.

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Hike up Buck Hill, Theodore Roosevelt NP

Buck Hill is a popular stop on Theodore Roosevelt National Park's Scenic Loop Road.

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