Ahead of my first trip to visit North Dakota, I tried not to have a lot of expectations. ‘Could it be that cool,’ I wondered, thinking about the places to visit in western North Dakota, including the things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. But, of course, you get a bit spoiled when you live in Seattle and have the stunning PNW scenery in your backyard.
Instead, I had to separate the beauty I’m surrounded by from other beauty. If you don’t compartmentalize vastly different locations, you’ll never be able to experience and enjoy where you’re at fully.
So, I left behind my jagged mountains, green forests, and alpine lakes and ventured into the Dakota Badlands with an open mind and a lust for wildlife, vistas, and empty prairies.
And I was impressed.
Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (and Beyond)
By visiting in August, the drive on I-94 from Bismarck to Theodore Roosevelt National Park was lined with stunning sunflower fields, some taller than NBA players. While some fields are hard to access, many are available for tourists to visit and take photos respectfully.
North Dakota Tourism has a great tracker to find fields at peak bloom. As usual, please practice Leave No Trace Principles and respect the land.
After checking out the fields, I headed to the South Unit of TRNP near Medora, ND. The cute town would be a great base while exploring the lower unit. It was definitely one of my favorite places to visit in western North Dakota.
Planning your trip to North Dakota
Where to Stay In and Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Medora seems a little more touristy-focused of a town vs. Watford City – but not in the wrong way. I was impressed they had a place open to eat dinner at 9 pm after catching the sunset inside the park. I’d recommend one night here and one or two in Watford City.
I called Watford City my home for three nights for my trip and loved the small-town vibes. Everyone was super friendly, and it seemed like most people knew each other. For a town of 6,000, it doesn’t surprise me! It’s only a 15-minute drive to the North Unit’s entrance.
Additionally, I found this gave me an awesome ability to tackle the many things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park without having to drive too far.
Camp Inside the Park’s North and South Units
There’s also camping in both sections of the park. Half of the campsites are reservable in the South Unit, with the rest (in the South and North Unit) being first come, first serve. Do note none of these have RV hook-up capabilities. But they do have drinking water.
Cottonwood Campground – South Unit: 76 campsites available
Juniper Campground – North Unit: 50 campsites available
How many days do you need in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
I would say give yourself three days to see both units. This will help account for the drive time between the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Can you drive through Theodore Roosevelt National Park?
You cannot drive through either section of the park. Both have dead ends or are a loop. The drives take between 45 minutes and two hours to complete, with the south unit being longer.
Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit
This unit is home to tons of wildlife, so as you drive, remember to keep your eyes alert as bison tend to walk along the road. The drive is usually a 24-mile loop, but some of the road was closed. In all, expect the round-trip drive to take two hours – and that’s without stopping at the gorgeous overlooks.
What you need to know – South Unit:
- Two hours from Bismarck.
- Open 24/7, but National Park Pass is required.
- The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is in the Mountain Time Zone, while the state capital, Bismarck, is in the Central Time Zone.
- Incredibly accessible, with many overlooks. The Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are endless.
- Hikes are short but numerous.
- Medora offers plenty of restaurants and lodging. There were at least two restaurants open past 9 pm, which is excellent for those who want to watch the sunset.
- Low amount of crowds vs. other National Parks.
- For this type of trip, the best time to visit North Dakota is during the long summer days, when you can enjoy hiking, boating, and photography.
My Favorite Spots at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit
Buck Hill offers 360-degree views of the park and is perfect for sunrise or sunset. The hike is about .25 miles, and the pictures won’t disappoint you.
This is where the road currently ends, but it is a must-visit in my mind. You have tremendous views looking north into the Dakota Badlands.
Another gorgeous overlook, Boicourt, is excellent for sunrise as the early light will illuminate the hills and scenery before you. There are so many things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, with this as one of my favorites!
Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Unit
I loved how accessible the North Unit was from Watford City. Less than 20 minutes after leaving the hotel, I was in the park, enjoying the jaw-dropping views of striped hills and mingling bison. While the road is shorter than the South Unit, it’s just as pretty.
It might even be more diverse, showcasing endless prairie grass blowing in the wind and deep canyons highlighting former glaciers and the power of erosion.
What you need to know – North Unit:
- Watford City is 14 miles from the park entrance. It’s a wonderful city to call home and one of your must-see places to visit in North Dakota.
- I stayed at The Watford Hotel, which had everything I could have wanted. Its long breakfast hours were perfect for returning after sunrise and getting food.
- The road is 14 miles one way, with plenty of overlooks and hiking available.
- Just under three hours from Bismarck.
- The North Unit is in the Central Time Zone – the same as Bismarck and most of the state.
- Stay aware of wildlife as they are present throughout.
- Low amount of crowds vs. other National Parks.
My Favorite Spots in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit
River Bend Overlook
I fell in love with this spot and came here around sunrise and sunset. The unique views of the Little Missouri River and the wood building make for some great photos! Plus, it provides sights in multiple directions, so it never gets old.
The final stop on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park drive, I enjoyed the quiet and serenity here. The views are also gorgeous, and short and long hikes start here. So lace up your boots and get going!
Lake Sakakawea is a dammed portion of the Missouri River and used to be the largest manmade lake in North America before the Colorado River was dammed. It’s a beautiful lake surrounded by grasslands, high cliffs, and more striped hills that are an extension of the badlands.
If you’re looking for a great place to stay – RV or tent – the Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina is a must. You’ll be minutes from the lake and get a chance to enjoy the fresh air and scenery without the crowds.
When you’re doing with the things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, make sure to pop up to the lake and cool off with these beautiful views.
What you need to know – Lake Sakakawea:
- 40 minutes north of Watford City
- The Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina is a great place to stop for a snack, gear, or dinner.
- Birnt Hills is a lovely three-mile walk with views of the lake. There are also some lovely historical plaques about Lewis and Clark’s trip west.
- There are no boat rentals available. You must bring your own.
FAQ: Visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park and North Dakota
What is Theodore Roosevelt National Park famous for?
It’s well known for its rock formations, natural beauty, and wild animals. It’s a gem of a place, and for those who enjoy a slower pace, but still at a National Park, I highly recommend a trip out to Western North Dakota.
Is theodore roosevelt national park worth it?
Most definitely is. It’s a unique park that’s unlike any other – save Badlands National Park to the south. Plus, this gives off Yellowstone vibes with how rugged and untamed it is, with animals free to move around as they please.
Why is Theodore Roosevelt so important to US history?
Roosevelt was a passionate advocate for conservation and environmental protection. Under his leadership, the federal government set aside millions of acres of land as national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges.
He believed in responsible land management, resource conservation, and preserving America’s natural beauty for future generations. His efforts laid the foundation for the modern environmental movement in the United States.
Final thoughts on Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to North Dakota. There were plenty of places to visit in western North Dakota, and things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park kept me busy! Furthermore, the people were great, the views surreal, and the wildlife always kept me on my toes!
So for those looking to get away from the hectic world and trade it for a quieter pace, plus knock off another National Park, visiting North Dakota is for you.
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
Subscribe to my blog!
Check out my favorite Washington hikes.
Are you an outdoors brand or tourism board and would like to work together? Please take a look at my photography portfolio here.