The Elkhorn Ranch at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is extremely remote with very limited access. At the northwestern most corner of the Scenic Loop Road a dirt road heads north 20 miles to the rough vicinity of the ranch area. Visitors will have to ford the Little Missouri River and hike a short trail to the ranch. Nothing of the original ranch with exception to some of the foundations is left. The original building was 30 feet by 60 feet with a large porch built out of raw cottonwood. There is an interpretive bulletin board that explains the history of the area that Theodore Roosevelt called home while grieving over the death of his wife and mother. Be sure to check on conditions at the Medora Visitor Center before attempting a trip to Elkhorn Ranch.
Only one in ten park visitors makes it out to the remote North Unit. Unlike its southern sister with colored badland formations and coulees, the North Unit's topography is far less inspiring but certainly worthy of a visit. Visitors can take US Highway 85 north for 70 miles to visit this region.
Park visitors enter the North Unit from the east. The North Unit has a seven-mile long scenic road that ends at the Oxbow Overlook before returning via the same route to the North Unit Visitor Center. About 3-1/2 miles west of the Visitor Center are some massive slump blocks that slid off intact form the side of the canyon wall. One can study the layers of strata on the blocks carefully and figure out from where these massive stones fell. Another highlight of the road is the Cedar Canyon Scenic Overlook. From here visitors can gaze at the valley carved out by the Little Missouri over 350 feet below.
The Little Mo Nature Trail is an outstanding 1.1-mile loop, 7/10 of a mile are paved and handicapped accessible. Along this trail visitors can see forest, prairie and badland formations including rain pillars, formations of soft clays capped with hard stone. Eventually these formations will become hoodoos. Cottonwood, Missouri willow, wolfberry, and buffaloberry grow through the black lignite coal and blue-gray bentonite formations. In the evening beaver, hunted almost to extinction, can be spotted in Squaw Creek.
The Caprock Coulee Nature Trail is a 1.5 mile self guided loop through badland formations, coulees, gulches and breaks in the plain at the eastern base of Cedar Canyon. The trail provides access to the Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, a 3.3-mile continuation of the nature trail loop. The 11-mile long Buckhorn Trail loops through the eastern half of the park and passes by a prairie dog town populated by black-tailed prairie dogs, the only species found in the park.
The Juniper Campground provides 50 sites on a first come first serve basis along the eastern banks of the Little Missouri River. No hookups or showers are provided but potable water, picnic tables, fire pits and fireside ranger programs are provided during the summer months. Sites are $10 per night on a self-registration basis. Sites 25 through 30 are probably the best in the campground providing direct river access (a short trail is between sites 25 to 27), close proximity to both water and a comfort station, and being close to the exit of the campground. The campground also has extended quiet hours from 8 PM to 8 AM.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park can provide visitors with some of the best backcountry experiences in the United States. Open visibility, easily spotted landmarks and an excellent trail system allows backpackers with limited experience to range into new areas. Registration is required however backcountry permits are free. Horses are allowed on most hiking trails within the park, however mountain bikes are prohibited.
If you want to hike cross country across the badlands and prairies of the park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers this rare opportunity. Wildlife trails of roaming bison provide excellent tracks to explore and insight to river crossings. The park isn't without its dangers. There is no potable or even treatable water in the backcountry of the park so you will have to pack in a supply with you. The shy prairie rattlesnake calls the park home, although encounters are rare.
The weather in Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be extreme. Blizzards can blanket the area as late as May and as early as September. In the summer temperatures can soar over 100 degrees and severe thunderstorms can batter the area with wind, rain, intense lightning and large hail. Be especially wary of flash floods. Winter camping is popular and ranger led cross country skiing is provided when conditions allow. Frigid weather is possible with wind chills dropping to below -80 possible. Always know your limitations when out in the backcountry.
From April to June it is possible to canoe the Little Missouri River from Medora in the South Unit to the Long X Bridge at the North Unit. The total trip is over 110 miles and take on average four days to complete. The float trips passes through all three units of the park as well as through the heart of the Little Missouri National Grassland. There are a number of primitive campsites along the route, some on private land, but no potable or treatable water. The area between the South Unit and the North Unit is extremely remote so paddlers should carry everything they will need for the trip. River conditions can vary widely even from one day to the next and in April and May ice and mud can line the shores. Fences cross the river at a number of points requiring short portages, including a wildlife fence on the northern edge of the South Unit of the park. If you plan to paddle the Little Missouri be sure to check on the river conditions at Medora Visitor Center.
Whether it is surreal badland formations of the western prairie, the dense forest along the banks of the Little Missouri or the remoteness of the backcountry, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a wild wonderful place. Rich in history and home to an every changing and dynamic landscape the mystical terrain will creep into the edges of your mind, and beckon you to return again and again. Thanks for your vision President Roosevelt.
Just The Plain Facts
Name: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Location: North Dakota, Medora
Nearest Major Air Service: Rapid City, South Dakota, Fargo, North Dakota
Fees & Permits: Access to Painted Canyon is free. Entrance fee is $5 per person or $10 per vehicle at Medora or North Unit. Backcountry permits are free as is canoe access however entrance fee must be paid.
Why Visit: Surreal badland formations, relatively easy access to the South Unit from Interstate 94. Good opportunity to see wildlife in natural habitat.
When To Visit: June to September
Essential Gear: Varies depending on wide variety of activity. Sunscreen, hat, lip balm, sunglasses, camera, binocular, drinking water, and clothes you are willing to get muddy or dirty if you plan to hike.
You Should Know: Weather can be very extreme, be prepared even if your plans don't include leaving your car. Never approach bison, although they look slow and docile they are unpredictable and can charge at over 30 MPH. Check with park rangers or river conditions before attempting to ford. There are certain restrictions on the kind of feed you can bring into the park for stock. Bicycles of any kind are not permitted.
More Information: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, PO BOX 7, Medora, ND 58645, (701) 623-4466.