Each national park was created due to its unique beauty. Every national park has some incredible feature only found there that warrants its protection. Bryce Canyon for its hoodoos, Grand Canyon for its enormous canyon with incredible views, the Great Smoky Mountains for its never ending forested mountains. I could go on for each one with an unusual trait that every park is known for. One unifying feature for the national parks is all of them I have visited have fantastic scenic drives. Theodore Roosevelt National Park scenic drives are as good as it gets.
If you have never been you might be confused regarding the use of plural for the scenic drives. This is because there are two units to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and each one has its own jaw dropping scenic drive.
For me, the best part of each national park is the untouched beauty of the backcountry. The further you explore the more amazing the sights and experiences; however, I always reserve a day perhaps two for each national park that I visit to check out the views, animals, and experiences that can be found by driving around in the car. In fact, most people who visit the national park only do so from their car.
I sometimes think this is unfortunate as there is so much to see in each national park beyond the safety of the car. I do admit though that there is a lot to see from the car as well. Each national park does its best to make it easy for everyone to enjoy. After hiking 30 or 40 miles in a couple of days, I too prefer a little easier and convenient eye entertainment.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Scenic Drives
I entered the Southern Unit first and drove around the scenic drive. I arrived a little later in the day, so my strategy was to do the scenic drive in the Southern Unit and then camp for the night. Then I was going to wake up and go hiking in the Northern Unit. After I was done with my hike, I planned to drive the Northern Unit Scenic Drive. It seemed ideal to sandwich my hike between scenic drives.
Many good plans sometimes do not get implemented in the exact way they were formed. I did complete the Scenic Drive in the Southern Unit, but I was unable to camp there. It was difficult to make much headway as there were so many fantastic views and of course wildlife. I saw plenty of wild horses, bison, and a few deer as well. I also made many stops to take time lapse GoPro shots of clouds drifting past buttes and canyons (see a compilation video at the bottom). By the time I finished the drive, the Southern Unit campground was full.
I decided to drive back to Dickinson and get a hotel room and start over the next day. This turned out to be one of the wisest decision I ever made. The Northern Unit is over 50 miles off the interstate, and I did not want to risk showing up and having their campground fully booked as well and then have to double back another 50 miles. It was Saturday of Labor Day, so it was no surprise that the campgrounds were full.
While watching a college football game in Dickinson the whole hotel seemed to shake as a battering wind blew into the building. I walked toward the entrance and watched the rainstorm. The wind was blowing so hard the rain was falling almost horizontally. I was so glad I was not camping.
Read: Hiking the Achenbach Trail in Theodore Roosevelt
The next day I was going to hike the Achenbach Trail in the Northern Unit, so I drove in and got my permit. Due to the downpour from the previous night, I did not get too far. I walked half a mile when the trail crossed the Little Missouri River. For over an hour, I tried in vain to find a safe crossing point. The water was up to my chest in the middle of the river, and I could tell that the channel next to shore had even deeper water. I tried several other crossing points nearby with the same result. I gave up and decided I would hike the Buckhorn Trail instead. There are no river crossings on the Buckhorn. I was not sure the level would come down in time for me to hike the Achenbach before leaving.
Read: Hiking the Buckhorn Trail in Theodore Roosevelt
I got a campsite in the Northern section and decided to drive the Northern Unit Scenic Drive and then hike the Buckhorn the next day. Both units are beautiful, but I think the Northern Unit is a little more amazing. There are tremendous views on the Northern Unit with majestic river overlooks that are tough to beat. The River Bend and Oxbow lookouts are gorgeous, and I definitely recommend a stop here for sunset or sunrise. The campground is another great place for views as the sunsets right over the buttes in front of the Little Missouri River.
I did not see any horses in the Northern Unit as they are only found in the south, but I did see more buffalo, some beautiful deer including a couple of bucks and a doe with a fawn. The ranger said they had seen a couple of moose lately in the Northern Unit, but I did not get lucky. I did see a lot of ground birds along the drive as well including turkey, prairie chicken, and pheasants. Unfortunately, I did not spot any bighorn sheep or pronghorn.
No matter what your style for visiting this beautiful national park is, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Scenic Drives are worth a stop. Perhaps you will hike a wilderness trail, stay a few days in one of the campgrounds, or are just passing through on the way to Yellowstone. When you drive around this park you will quickly see why the New York Times listed this place as a must see in 2016.
Tips and information for Theodore Roosevelt National Park Scenic Drives
- The Southern Unit Scenic Drive is a loop and the Northern Unit is not. The Northern Unit dead ends at the Oxbow Overlook.
- The South Unit’s Scenic Drive is 36 miles. The North Unit is 14, which means it is 28 miles since you have to go back.
- Both units have a campground along the Scenic Drive. In the Southern Unit it is called Cottonwoods and is located just before the loop. In the Northern Unit it is called Juniper and is located five miles into the drive.
- The speed limit is 25 mph. It is best to carefully abide as I saw several rangers patrolling and a few unfortunate folks pulled over.
- The overlook highlights on the Northern Unit are OxBow and River Bend Overlooks.
- The overlook highlights in the Southern Unit are Scoria Point and Boicourt Overlook.
- There are many tremendous views along both roads not deemed an overlook.
- Early morning and late evening are the best times for lighting for photography and also for wildlife.
- The Southern Unit has two Prairie Dog Towns right along the road. The Northern Unit has two Prairie Dog towns, but it is about a mile walk from the road.
- If you are feeling adventurous, in the Northern Unit at the campground take the Achenbach Trail and cross the river (there is no bridge) and climb the hills on the other side. It is about a mile walk, but the view is well worth it.
- Last year there were multiple buffalo attacks in Yellowstone. Do not approach the animals especially the buffalo. If you see a buffalo with its tail sticking straight up it means it is agitated, so back away slowly as you are too close.
- The closest city to the Southern Unit is Medora and the closest city to the Northern Unit is Watford City that is unless you recognize Prairie Dog Town
- The Northern Unit is much more remote as it is 52 miles off the interstate and 15 miles from Watford City – Medora is only a few miles off the interstate
- If you are reading this and have any other tips, feel free to share in the comment section below
Part of my trip through North Dakota was sponsored by the North Dakota Tourism Bureau, but my stay in the park was fully funded by myself. Thoughts, opinions, views, photographs, video, and adventure are purely my own.
The goal of Traveling Ted is to inspire people to outdoor adventure travel and then provide tips on where and how to go. If you liked this post then sign up for the email newsletter. Notifications are sent out once or twice a month with what is new with Traveling Ted’s adventures. There is no spam and email information will not be shared. Other e-follow options include Facebook (click on the like box to the right) or twitter (click on the pretty bird on the rainbow above).
Nice post! I was here two years ago. It’s easily the most scenic place in North Dakota, and it’s fairly empty, too. Not many people or cars going by, just buffalo.
I was there over Labor Day weekend, but I stayed a few days after. It was amazing the different from Saturday to Tuesday. I had the trails to myself on Tuesday. The trails weren’t that busy even on the weekend as most people stick to the roads and lookouts.
This looks like a great area to explore. I love the rock formation, and the sunsets look gorgeous! And, the prairie dog is adorable!
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It definitely is an amazing place. There is a lot to see.
The loop road in the south unit and parts of the north unit road are not open in the winter. You can check out the Theodore Roosevelt National Park web site for road closings and maps. You can also call the park directly to find out if the roads are open.
Thanks Susan for including the additional tip. Definitely do not want visitors to drive all the way there and be disappointed. Thanks for reading.
Traveling Ted, I loved the article. I have lived near the south unit for many years. You gave great descriptions of the north and south units and the overlooks. The only other thing I would like to point out is that there are no wild horses in the north unit. The wild horses have been living in the southern part of the ND Badlands long before the National Park was established That is how they came to be included with the other wild animals in the park. I have heard some people were really looking forward to seeing wild horses in ND and visited the north unit.Although the north unit is beautiful and has a lot of wildlife, they were very disappointed.
I thought that was the case with the horses, but I was not sure. Thanks for confirming. I made a note in the post that they are only found in the Southern Unit. I can imagine people would be disappointed if they went all the way to the north only to see wild horses. That is a long drive off the interstate. When people have an expectation and it is not met, it can lead to disappointment even though the north has a little better scenery in my opinion.
This is so great! I remember following your trip and wishing I was there – thanks for putting it on my radar. I know that I will surely visit in the future. Hopefully, I will see a moose – I’ve always wanted to see one in the wild! Those prairie dogs are adorable and the horse are beautiful!
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I used to see moose quite frequently on canoeing and cross-country ski trips in Minnesota and Canada, but the population is down and I have not seen them for many years. I have been to a few places lately where moose live Colorado, Canada, and North Dakota, but no luck. Wish we had more time at TBEX to check out moose habitat in Minnesota, but it is pretty far north from the Twin Cities.
I just love seeing the animals, especially the bison, but the wild horses look beautiful too!
I was wondering about driving but it is the best way to see as much of the park as possible. One of these days, I’ll go beyond Central Park
New York is an amazing city, but the best thing about the U.S. is our amazing network of national parks. Hope you get to explore one soon. Theodore Roosevelt would be a good start.
Yer killin’ me, Ted! You know I’m dying to get to Theodore Roosevelt NP. Your photos really are gorgeous, and I’m glad you didn’t attempt that river crossing.
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That is one of the good things about being a river guide. I can read water and tell where it is deeper and dangerous. I was not going to risk it plus risk losing precious equipment like my GoPro.
WOW. Your photos here are incredible. I think I’d enjoy a visit to this National Park and part of our country.
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You can’t go wrong in any national park, but Theodore Roosevelt is definitely special and very accessible once you make it here.