Seeing Big Vistas at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.

Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s visiting new parks while closely adhering to best safety practices.

Five minutes after starting on a trail at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I nearly stepped on a prairie rattlesnake. Wait, let me rephrase that. I nearly stepped on the rattlesnake, then recoiled, tripped, nearly stepped on it again, rolled my ankle, and ran back to my boyfriend, who was laughing at how flushed my face and chest had become.

I’d heard that the wildlife sightings would be pretty outrageous amid this 70,448-acre expanse of rugged badlands cut through by the Little Missouri River. I just didn’t realize how close I would actually get.

The park is full of big wildlife, from wild horses to bison
The park is full of big wildlife, from wild horses to bison (Photo: Emily Harrington)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was founded to commemorate the death of the conservationist president and to preserve a little-known corner of western North Dakota that first inspired his love of the outdoors. The 230 million acres of public land that Roosevelt helped create in the U.S. forever shifted the way the world would think about and protect its natural wonders. But it’s important to note that his legacy is very controversial—he’s been legitimately criticized for his support of the Indian allotment system and the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.

I slept off my tussle with the rattler and woke up refreshed and ready to explore. Turning onto the park’s most popular attraction in its South Unit, the 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive, I was immediately met with more wildlife. A thundering coterie of chirping prairie dogs darted chaotically around the grasslands. Meanwhile, in the distance, a group of wild horses ran right across the road as a coyote slunk out from a nearby ditch. At one point, I pulled over to hike the short but sweet half-mile Wind Canyon Trail, stopping to take in the dozens of distinct birdsongs fluttering about in the morning air. Though it was a busy summer weekend in July and visitors abounded, the place was still teeming with animals.

By lunch it was time to scoot over to the park’s less visited North Unit. But as I hugged the curves along the winding park road, I was abruptly met with a traffic jam. To my right was a herd of enormous bison with bright, rust-colored calves sprinting across the road. Not a single car dared to move. The mood was tense.

After a 30-minute standstill, we were able to drive two miles per hour between the huge beasts, cautiously proceeding so as not to disturb them. Mothers were nursing their young in the road as my van crept past. Given the fact that a full-grown bison cow can weigh 1,200 pounds, it was equal parts adorable and unnerving.

We capped it all off with an easy two-and-a-half mile out-and-back hike to Sperati Point, tramping through a diverse ecosystem of grasses and wildflowers bursting up in every direction. There wasn’t a soul around, and I began to see how Roosevelt may have felt here. A remote expanse of badlands and prairie that humbles the ego instantly. Ragged, dynamic, wild.

62 Parks Traveler Theodore Roosevelt Info

Size: 70,448 acres

Location: Western North Dakota

Created In: 1935 (Roosevelt Recreation Demonstration Area), 1978 (national park)

Best For: Bird-watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, scenic drives, and car camping

When to Go: Summers (50 to 86 degrees) are hot, bustling, and an excellent time to visit the park. Spring (19 to 68 degrees) and fall (19 to 74 degrees) offer milder temperatures and chilly nights. In winter (5 to 33 degrees), the park’s scenic drives stay open as weather conditions permit.

Where to Stay: Cottonwood Campground, in the park’s South Unit, has views of the badlands and easy access to the most popular outings. Each site comes equipped with a picnic table and grill. Just watch out for curious bison poking around camp!

Mini Adventure: Drive the South Unit’s 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive and hike the Wind Canyon Trail. The winding road will take you through some of the most exquisite painted badlands that this park has to offer, while providing excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing. Once on the trail, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views of the Little Missouri River.

Mega Adventure: Thruhike the rolling prairie on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Derived from a local Mandan Tribe phrase meaning “an area that will be around for a long time,” this 144-mile singletrack connects the park’s three units and is an unforgettable way to explore the rustic wilderness that first inspired Roosevelt.

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Lead Photo: Emily Pennington

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