Due to COVID-19, our bigger international travel plans we had for this year were put on hold. So we decided to stay closer to home for a quick summer getaway. After all, doing more Midwest travel (in our own backyard) is one of our family’s travel goals. So off to western North Dakota and the Black Hills of South Dakota we went for a week of hiking, outdoor adventures, and family bonding. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is an underappreciated gem of a national park. And its North Unit, which is about an hour north of the more accessible South Unit, is simply beautiful.
I’d briefly been to the South Unit (in the purple oval above) during a visit to Medora last summer. The entrance to the South Unit is right outside Medora and also right off Interstate 94. As a result, the South Unit gets a little more love from visitors. But the smaller North Unit (in the pink oval above), about 70 miles from the South Unit, is not to be missed. Its scenery is stark and the wildlife sightings are plentiful.
Note: There is also an Elkhorn Ranch Unit located between the North and South Units of this park. For you history buffs, this is where the remains of Roosevelt’s ranch are located. I have not been here, but it sounds fascinating.
Why the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
Backing up, in case you’re wondering why we went to North Dakota…Shake off any preconceived notions of a visit to western North Dakota. This area of the state is not flat prairie. It is full of badlands, bison, and beauty.
And this part of North Dakota is also rich in US history. The park is named for Roosevelt because of the formative time he spent in this area as a young adult. Later in adulthood, Roosevelt came back to the badlands as a place to find solace after the death of his wife and mother…both of whom passed on the same day. Roosevelt has been quoted as saying that his time in this area helped him become president. After a visit to this area, it’s not hard to see why.
It Helped Us Meet Family Travel Goals
A trip to a neighboring state seems like it could be a little anticlimactic for a travel loving family, but visiting North Dakota actually fulfilled a few of our other travel goals as well.
- We have a family travel goal of visiting all 50 states. This trip helped us work toward that goal in several ways.
- Despite living in a neighboring state, my husband and kids had never been to North Dakota before this trip.
- On the way from North Dakota to South Dakota, our second destination on this road trip, we took a scenic route stopping in Montana at Medicine Rocks State Park.
- Later in the trip we briefly visited Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
These side trips crossed a couple more states off of the kids’ state bucket lists.
- We also like to see as many national parks as we can when we travel, and to add stamps to our kids’ National Park Passports. Because this national park has lower attendance than many, social distancing was easy here! And even when you’re not traveling in the middle of a pandemic, it’s great to not experience massive crowds at a national park in the summer.
Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit really packs a punch. This smaller Unit has so much beauty and wildlife to enjoy. It is definitely worth driving a little out of your way to get there.
Shortly after we arrived at the park we were treated to a bison traffic jam. It is thrilling (and a little un-nerving) to have such massive, majestic creatures thundering past your vehicle. As we were leaving, we saw longhorns just grazing away.
There are also prairie dog towns in the North Unit. The downside is that you have to hike about .8 miles 0n the Buckthorn Trail to see them (unlike the towns right along the road in the South Unit). But the upside is that you are right there in with the prairie dogs, which I found to be a super fun experience. It was all we could do to keep our teens from smuggling one home with us. (Don’t worry, we did not.)
Drink In the Scenery
Have I mentioned yet just how beautiful this part of the national park is? The badlands are stark, but they are nestled in among green grasses, yellow wildflowers, and blue skies. The Little Missouri River carves a beautiful niche within the countryside.
In addition to the short hike to the prairie dog town on the Buckthorn Trail, we hiked the absolutely gorgeous Caprock Coulee Trail. Follow the link to read more about it and take in the views. I cannot overstate how lovely this hike was. There were a bunch of overlooks, in addition to just the lovely scenery along the trail. I highly recommend this hike!
Where to Stay
There are a couple of options for home bases when exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park:
- Medora: For the experience of staying in a small, charming western town, Medora is the place for you, with lots of lodging options. On my first trip to the area, I stayed solo in Elkhorn Quarters. Rooms there are cozy but very adequate for two people. For a family, you might want to try other more traditional lodging options.
- Dickinson: If you prefer to stay in a larger town, choose Dickinson, which is about 30 minutes east of Medora. Because we wanted lodging with a full kitchen and a little more space to stay for two adults and two teens, we stayed at TownePlace Suites on this trip.
If you’re looking for a spectacular national park that is off the beaten path, look no further than the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. One of the US’ best kept secrets!
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