Incredible colors, rolling hills, and craggy ridges await you in the badlands of North Dakota. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit encompasses thousands of acres. And one of the most dynamic territories in the park is the south unit. 

A diverse array of wildlife grazes across these valleys. And you’ll see picturesque bluffs painted in deep purple and red hues under the wide sky. You can listen to birds chirping as you meander across miles of trails, pausing to take a dip in the refreshing water. 

Also, there are a variety of activities you can participate in while exploring the park and a lot to learn as you do it. 

What exactly will you find here and how can you make the most out of your trip?

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park south unit

Buffalo at Theodore Roosevelt National Park south unit. Image CC by SA-2.0, by Eric Fredericks, via Flickr

Hike the Trails at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

Hiking the trails at the park will take you through some pretty breathtaking scenery. You’ll get to experience the badlands up-close and personal when you take on the hiking trails here. 

Fortunately, there are trails suitable for everyone. Hikes range from 10 minutes to 12 hours and vary in difficulty from easy to quite strenuous. 

To find the perfect hike for you, check out the park’s hiking page. Here you’ll encounter information on length, duration, and difficulty, as well as directions on how to get there. 

Winter Hiking? No Problem

The badlands get around 30 inches of snow every year. Though trails are covered with snow in the winter, you can ski or snowshoe around the badlands at your leisure. 

Be aware that hiking trails are generally not used as ski paths. Those traversing this winter wonderland will blaze their own trail across the bluffs. 

You’ll have to bring your own equipment if you wish to participate.

Get in the Water at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is situated along the scenic Little Missouri River. There are a few ways to enjoy everything the river has to offer you:

  • Take a canoe or kayak trip: You can float for days down the river in a canoe or kayak. The park recommends that you take sufficient water, food, and gear along with you. Much of the river is remote, which provides a great way to get back to nature — but it also limits communication and narrows your safety net should anything go wrong. 
  • Fishing in the river: Grab your rod and reel. Fishing is permitted in the Little Missouri River. Channel catfish abound here, as do goldeyes and sauger. In order to make sure all your permits are up-to-date, check out the North Dakota government’s fishing regulations guide.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit map.

U.S. National Park Service, restoration/cleanup by Matt Holly [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

See the Wildlife at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

The Badlands’ wildlife is something to behold. You have the chance to see bison, deer, longhorns, bobcats, and golden eagles, along with a plethora of other animals. 

Only in the south unit will you be able to gaze upon the famous wild horses that occupy the land. These majestic animals are descendants of the horses utilized by the Plains Native American tribes during the 1800s. 

Make sure to pay a visit to the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center, as the visitor center has all the information you need. Here you’ll find a small museum with exhibits relating to the geology and natural history of the badlands. 

You’ll be able to visit the Maltese Cross Cabin, President Roosevelt’s temporary home during his time in North Dakota. The cabin has a rich history, which you’ll be able to explore through a tour. You’ll step back in time as you view items which once belonged to Teddy. His trunk and desk sit in the cabin today.

Where to Stay at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit

Though no lodging is offered, you’ll have the option to camp in the South Unit. 

Cottonwood Campground is just 6 miles away from the South Unit park entrance. Some sites are available by making reservations, while others are set aside for walk-in campers. 

The rates vary between summer and winter. More specifically, during the summer months, rates are $14 per night. In the wintertime, prices drop to $7 per night. 

Drinking water and a latrine are available year-round, though flush toilets are only available during the summer. 

Stock up for camp at the nearby town of Medora, North Dakota. You can also choose to stay at any number of hotels in Medora. Because of its close proximity to the park, this town is the perfect place to make your home base at night as you explore the park by day. 

Why Theodore Roosevelt

The park is named after the nation’s youngest president because of his intimate history of the area and his deep and abiding love of the American West. At the age of 24, Roosevelt escaped the tragic death of his wife and his mother and left for the Badlands in 1884. While he initially went the year prior to hunt buffalo — technically “American Bison” — he decided to settle and ranch there after his mother died of illness and his wife died in childbirth on the same day. 

While raised in an upper-class home and a Harvard graduate, Roosevelt fancied himself a bit of a cowboy. Despite a history of asthma, he developed a bit of a reputation for “the strenuous life.” He and his hands followed cattle thieves through the winter cold for three days to bring them to justice. He got into a fistfight with a gunslinger. A life in the saddle turned this somewhat pretentious New York patrician into a hard-bitten rancher. 

His investments in cattle in his two Badland ranches ended in financial ruin after winter storms killed off most of his livestock. However, he kept some investments in the area’s main industry until he became the Vice President. Even after he became the 26th U.S. president when William McKinley was assassinated after only six months in office, Roosevelt continued to visit the Badlands until just a few months before his death at the age of 60.

The Conservationist President

Because of his interest in natural history and the preservation of wildlife, many have called Teddy Roosevelt “the conservationist president.” His influence in the formation of our National Parks system and his institution of the U.S. Forestry Service have helped preserve our natural resources.

After becoming president, Roosevelt formed 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, five national parks, and four national game preserves. He also created 18 national monuments and added 230 million acres to the public land holdings.

He’s also known for signing the Antiquities Act, a move that permits a president to declare historical and pre-historical sites as National Monuments for their preservation.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit Offers Education and Adventure

Visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit to explore the badlands. Step back in time and examine the history of this dynamic land as it pertains to our culture. 

You’ll find the Badlands don’t exactly live up to their name — there’s nothing “bad” about them. You’ll certainly feel good about yourself and your history as you discover all that the North Dakota bluffs have to offer.

Featured Image: CC by ND 2.0, by Amy Meredith, via Flickr

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