Located within the rugged badlands of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was named in honor of our 26th President. An avid outdoorsman, Teddy Roosevelt is widely known as the “conservation President” for the myriad policies he implemented to protect wildlife and public lands. During his time in office, Roosevelt doubled the number of sites within our National Park System, created the first Federal Bird Reserve (and went on to establish 50 more during his tenure), established the U.S. Forest Service, and created the Antiquities Act of 1906 – which allowed a sitting President to legally protect sites of historic, cultural, or scientific interest. Roosevelt first visited North Dakota’s badlands in 1883 on an expedition to hunt bison and, after falling in love with the area, had two ranches built on land that is now part of his namesake national park.
Today, Theodore Roosevelt National Park consists of three areas: the more accessible South Unit (just off I-94 near the town of Medora), the smaller and more remote North Unit, and Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt’s second homestead within the area. The North and South Units are separated by about eighty miles, with Elkhorn Ranch sandwiched between the two, and the three distinct areas are linked by the Little Missouri River and the 144-mile-long Maah Daah Hey Trail. In addition to its otherworldly landscape, the park is known for its abundant wildlife, including bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, feral horses, and prairie dogs.
Having spent a day in South Dakota’s badlands during our previous cross-country road trip, we decided this time to route a bit further north and visit TRNP. We ended up booking one of three ‘cowboy cabins’ at Boots Campground, just two miles south of Medora’s diminutive downtown. We hoped that by visiting well into the off-season, we’d have a little more solitude than we experienced at a couple larger national parks last fall. That said, we were unprepared for just how lucky we’d get. We had the entire campground to ourselves. Medora’s Main Street was a veritable ghost town. We saw not another soul during a ten-mile hike on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. And we only saw a dozen or so other cars as we took a late-day wildlife drive through the park’s South Unit. It may not have the most arresting scenery of the national parks we’ve visited, but our day of total solitude made it one of our favorite outings.
Maah Daah Hey Trail: South Unit to Sully Creek
Stretching for 144 miles north-to-south through the western badlands, the Maah Daah Hey Trail is one of North Dakota’s recreational treasures. They trail gets its name from a phrase from the Mandan Hidatsa Indian language that means “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” Indeed, the colorful rock layers of the region expose some 65 million years of geological history – from the muds and silts of primordial waterways to the solidified ash of ancient volcanoes.
The Maah Daah Hey’s extensive trail system is accessible to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders, and includes a number of unique trail segments, access points, campgrounds, trailheads, and points of interest. Beginning at the CCC Campground in Grassy Butte, just outside the North Unit of TRNP, the trail winds its way south to the Burning Coal Vein Campground, about 30 miles south of Medora. The trail crosses the Little Missouri River twice as it traverses vast swaths of the Little Missouri National Grassland as well as a small corner of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
With this scenic, dog-friendly trail running just outside our back door, it was an easy choice for a morning hike. We started from the access point at Andrews Creek, just off I-94 near the South Unit of TRNP, and headed south toward Sully Creek. We chose to hike this direction, rather than starting at Sully’s Creek Trailhead, because there’s a wet crossing of the Little Missouri River almost immediately after beginning northward from Sully Creek State Park. Not knowing how cold or high the water was, we weren’t keen to get soaked (or find the river impassable) right at the start of a ten-mile hike.
We parked just off the westbound ramp to I-94 and walked a couple hundred feet to the trailhead. It was a gorgeous morning in mid-March, and we were delighted to find ourselves alone in the parking area and then on the trail. After leapfrogging three times across a partially iced-over Andrews Creek, the path began to climb gently as it snaked away from the highway. Before long, we had our first views out to the vast expanse of chiseled badlands.
With signposts every few hundred feet, the trail is certainly well-marked and easy to follow. The Maah Daah Hey’s trail markers are emblazoned with the outline of a turtle – a symbol of patience, determination, and loyalty in the Lakota Sioux Indian tribe. The trail itself is not particularly steep through this segment (between mileposts 53 and 48), and gains less than 500 vertical feet over the entire five miles. The highpoint of this portion is near the intersection with the Buffalo Gap Trail, an alternate route that largely parallels the Maah Daah Hey but allows cyclists to continue on the trail system without crossing into the national park. While it’s only around 2,700’ above sea level, the few hundred feet of gain above the surrounding terrain here affords a pretty nice view.
The trail continues winding through desiccated pasturelands and rugged rock slopes until reaching the Little Missouri River crossing just north of Sully Creek State Park. The small floodplain is particularly scenic, with colorful buttes rising in either direction. We stopped here for a quick lunch before turning to head back to the trailhead. The water here was fairly chilly and at least knee-deep. If we were thru hiking, crossing wouldn’t have been a big deal. However, since we had to turn around anyway to return to the car, it seemed silly to get soaked for no reason. Had it been a hot summer day, though, it probably would have felt pretty refreshing.
Overall, we really enjoyed this hike. It was fairly scenic and extremely tranquil – in 10+ miles, we never saw another soul. Sanchez certainly had fun being back on the trail after an extended pause in snow-covered New Hampshire. She shoved her face in all the most interesting scrubby bushes we passed by, and showed off her athleticism by jumping on every boulder or stump within leash-distance of the trail. We thoroughly enjoyed watching her rediscover her love of the trail as we took in all the views. Altogether, we couldn’t have asked for a better day for a hike – sunny, mid-60s, light breeze, and no one on the trail besides us and a little Thai street dog.
Total distance: 10.6 miles
Elevation gain: 985 feet
Scenic Loop Drive
After spending most of the day on the trail, we decided to head into the national park’s South Unit for some late-afternoon wildlife spotting. Much to our delight, the park was nearly empty. We never expected to have the whole place essentially to ourselves, but it was amazing! We first stopped by a few of the prairie dog towns, watching excitedly as dozens of the curious critters darted from hole to hole. By the time we’d made a few stops, we’d seen an uncountable number of the burrowing rodents, much to Sanchez’s delight from the backseat. Personally, Sanchez and I could have sat there all afternoon and been beyond entertained, but Stephan was anxious to actually see some more of the park.
While we normally hate doing the scenic drives with the congestion of cars and RVs that abound in the national parks, having thirty miles of road to ourselves made this a really nice wildlife outing. In the few hours we were there, we spotted a few dozen mule deer, a herd of about ten feral horses, and close to a hundred bison. Many of the bison were alone or in pairs, but we did stumble upon four larger herds – one with around ten animals, one with fifteen, and two groups with around thirty individuals each. It was so nice to sit and admire them and photograph at our leisure without some moronic tourist attempting to approach the animal for a hurried cell phone snap.
Given the massive amounts of wildlife we saw, we barely gave a glance to the loop’s handful of viewpoints. Having spent most of the day enjoying the views on the Maah Daah Hey, though, we were content just to quietly observe the park’s majestic residents.
With the sun sinking lower in the sky, we decided to cap off the day with a sunset from Wind Canyon. Here, a short footpath leads about a quarter mile from East River Road to a small viewpoint, overlooking a scenic section of the Little Missouri River. With only a few other people stopping briefly to catch a glimpse of the setting sun, it was again pleasantly peaceful. As we watched the last rays illuminate the canyon walls, all we could hear was the cacophonous honks of a gathering of geese along the riverbanks below. It was pretty perfect.
Know before you go:
- For more information on the Maah Daah Hey Trail (FAQs, trail guide, links to river conditions for crossings), visit the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association.
- Bicycles are not allowed on the sections of the Maah Daah Hey Trail that pass through the national park. The 19-mile-long Buffalo Gap Trail allows cyclists to circumvent the South Unit of TRNP and easily rejoin the Maah Daah Hey.
- If you’re hiking during summer, be sure to carry enough water. The summer months are really hot here, and there’s virtually no shade on the trail. Additionally, rattlesnakes are known to frequent the trail, so be cautious – especially if hiking with your pup.
- The total distance of the scenic loop drive through Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit is about 36 miles. From the point where East River Road crosses over I-94, it’s about 4 miles to the intersection with Scenic Loop Drive. Scenic Loop Drive itself winds around 24 miles of the park before rejoining East River Road. From the intersection near Wind Canyon, it’s about 8 miles back to the highway. It takes about 90 minutes just to drive the full loop, so plan your time accordingly. If you want to stop and explore the short overlook trails or watch wildlife, it will likely take significantly longer.