Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This region that enticed and influenced President Theodore Roosevelt consists of a park of three units in the northern badlands. Besides Roosevelt’s historic cabin, there are numerous scenic drives and backcountry hiking opportunities. Wildlife includes American bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and wild horses.


The story of the badlands begins over 65 million years ago during the Paleocene Epoch

Geologic Formation
As you drive or hike through western North Dakota, the gently rolling hills open up dramatically into the varied and colorful layers of the badlands. Curiosity might lead you to take a closer look at the rocks making up the layers. This closer look takes you back millions of years to an ancient world of swamps and forests.

The story of the badlands begins over 65 million years ago during the Paleocene Epoch. The dinosaurs had just become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The western half of North America was buckling and folding to create the Rocky Mountains. Large amounts of sediments were forming as water, wind, and freezing worked to break down the mountains. These sediments, mostly sand, silt, and mud, were carried off the eastern slopes by ancient rivers and deposited here in layers. Volcanoes in South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and across the west were also erupting during this time, spitting out huge amounts of ash. Some of this volcanic ash was blown or carried by rivers into North Dakota and accumulated in standing water. Over time, the sediments turned into the sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone layers now exposed in the park, while the ash layers became bentonite clay.

During the epochs that followed, the land continued to change. Deposition from the mountains in the west continued throughout much of the Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene epochs. Then as the Pliocene Epoch began, erosion dominated and the layers began to be stripped away. Rivers meandered through broad, shallow valleys across the western Dakotas and eastern Montana plains. Although the rivers changed their courses many times, when the Pliocene Epoch came to a close about two million years ago, one of these rivers existed in almost the same position as the modern Little Missouri River. This river flowed northward to merge first with the ancestral Yellowstone River near Williston, North Dakota, and then merged with the Missouri River, continuing northeastward through Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Hudson Bay.

In the Pleistocene Epoch, the time period of numerous Ice Ages, which began about two million years ago, great continental ice sheets advanced southward from present-day Canada and reached as far as the upper North Unit boundary in the park. The ice blocked the flow of the north-flowing rivers, forcing them to create new courses eastward and southward, causing them to empty into the Mississippi River instead of Hudson Bay. By the time the ice retreated, the northern portions of both the Little Missouri and Missouri rivers were entrenched in their new channels. The Little Missouri’s new course to the north followed a steeper course, causing the whole river to flow faster and begin cutting deeply into the land. Slicing easily through the soft sedimentary rocks, the river and its tributaries carved the fantastically broken topography that is today’s badlands.

The Fossil Record
You might wonder how scientists can tell how old the rocks are and what the environment was like when they formed. The sediments in the rocks give some clues, but the best clues are fossils. The North Dakota badlands contain a wealth of fossil information including bands of lignite coal and petrified trees plus fossils of freshwater clams, snails, crocodiles, alligators, turtles, and champsosaurs. Each fossil is like a piece in a giant puzzle that scientists have used to reconstruct the ancient history of the park. These clues indicate that the park was once on the eastern edge of a flat, swampy area covered with rivers that fanned out into a broad, sea-level delta. This swampy region contained dense forests of sequoia, bald cypress, magnolia, and other water-loving trees growing in or near the shallow waters.

Leaves and branches would fall into the still waters of the swamps and build up until they formed a dense layer of vegetation called peat. Over time, pressure from overlying sediments compacted the peat and caused chemical changes to transform it into a soft, woody-textured coal called lignite (from the Latin ligneous, meaning wood). When Theodore Roosevelt lived in the badlands in the 1880s, he and his ranch hands shoveled lignite coal from the hillsides to use in their stove.

Some forests were buried by flood deposits or volcanic ash falls. When a plant or animal is buried quickly, it is protected from decaying and has a better chance of becoming a fossil. Groundwater moving through the silica-rich volcanic ash and other sediments can dissolve the silica, or quartz. When this silica-rich water soaked into the trees, organic compounds in the wood were dissolved and replaced by very small crystals of quartz. In some cases, the quartz crystals are so small that much of the internal structure of the trees is preserved, including the growth rings. This process of quartz replacing wood is called petrifaction.

The Present Landscape
Geologic processes continue to shape the badlands. Yearly precipitation in the badlands averages 15 inches. Rain, though infrequent at times, usually comes in heavy, erosive downpours. Water running down slope forms gullies, while some soaks into clay-rich rocks and soils. The added weight of water sometimes causes portions of hill sides to break loose and flow downhill.

Lightning strikes and prairie fires can ignite coal beds, which then may burn for many years. When a coal bed burns, it bakes the overlying sediments into a hard, natural brick that geologists call clinker, but is locally called “scoria.” The red color of the rock comes from the oxidation of iron released from the coal as it burns. The burning lends both color to the badlands and helps to shape them. These hardened rocks are more resistant to erosion than the unbaked rocks nearby. Over time, erosion has worn down the less resistant rocks, leaving behind a jumble of knobs, ridges, and buttes topped with durable red scoria caps.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park preserves a wealth of geologic information that can be enjoyed by visitors and studied by scientists. Much of that information tells us about events that occurred long ago, while some small-scale processes can be seen occurring over days, weeks, months, or even years. Just a short visit here can give visitors insight into the past, instill wonder, and inspire questions and a desire to learn more.

You are welcome to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park and make your own discoveries about the rocks and fossils found here. Please remember, however, that each rock and fossil may be a clue to the geologic history of the park, and must be left where they are found for other visitors to view and for scientists to study. Collecting of any park resource is not allowed.

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Native American History

Home of the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples

A rich diversity of cultures utilized the badlands region during historic times. The most significant groups were the Mandan and Hidatsa, whose traditional bison hunting grounds included the Little Missouri River basin. West of the badlands, the Hidatsa’s close relatives, the Crow, also utilized the badlands at the eastern edge of their territory. Many other tribes including the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Chippewa, Cree, Sioux, and Rocky Boy came to western North Dakota in the early 19th century mainly for hunting and trading, often at Fort Union Trading Post. These groups did not necessarily seek out the badlands in the way the Mandan, Hidatsa, or Crow might. The Assiniboine occupied a large area of the Northern Great Plains north of the Missouri River. The Arikara entered western and central North Dakota and several bands of the Lakota (Sioux) expanded their range into western North Dakota in the 19th century. Each group has its own history, traditions, spirituality, stories, and uses associated with the badlands. Eagle trapping, bison hunting, and other spiritual purposes were among the traditional uses.

Eagle trapping was important to the Mandan and Hidatsa culture. The process of eagle trapping was intensely spiritual, following certain social, spiritual, and astrological protocols. Even today, many of the specifics of the ritual are known only to those who have the rights to the knowledge within the tribes. Traditionally, only men with rights to perform eagle trapping were allowed to perform the ritual, and then only during specific times of the year as determined by astrology and presumably to coincide with eagle migration. Preparation including fasting and prayer were essential prerequisites to the act of trapping an eagle.

To trap an eagle, a man built a pit in a location of his choosing and covered it with a lattice of brush and grass. On top of the covering he placed a skinned rabbit as bait. The man waited inside the pit for an eagle to come to the rabbit and then sprang up to grab the eagle by its feet. Typically, the man would take select feathers from the wings and/or tail and then release the eagle unharmed. If eagles were abundant, he might kill one to make use of an entire wing or the tail.

Bison were another critically important resource for traditional societies, and the badlands offered opportunities to hunt them effectively. The steep badlands terrain made it possible to hunt bison without firing a shot. All that was required of the hunters was to cause the bison to stampede over a steep drop-off. A few sites within the park are known to have been used for this purpose, including the remains of a bison processing area. Plains peoples had uses for every part of the bison. The most important parts were the meat for food and the hide for clothing, blankets, and tipi coverings. Other parts of the animal were used for tools, medicine, toys, decoration, rituals, and more.

People have come to the badlands for a wide variety of spiritual purposes. The buttes throughout western North Dakota served as waypoints for traveling tribes and these striking points on the landscape were important in their spirituality. For many groups, the buttes were the homes of animal spirits, and a journey to a specific butte might entail medicine-making rituals specific to that bluff’s animal spirit.

The badlands were also spiritually significant. Isolated, steep-sloped bluffs were excellent vision quest sites. Vision quests took many forms, but generally involved isolation, prayer, and abstinence from food and water while expecting a vision from the spirit world.

Springs were the preferred place to collect colored clays used to make paints for a warrior’s face, horse, and home. Paint was considered a powerful medicine. Some springs were used for very specific purposes: for drinking, to collect a certain material, or to perform a specific ritual or ceremony. Evidence from these activities is scarce and largely based on oral tradition kept alive by today’s tribal members.

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Park History

How Theodore Roosevelt became a National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park was established to memorialize this area’s importance in Theodore Roosevelt’s life and the key role it played in fostering his conservation ethics. While visiting the badlands for the first time in 1883, Roosevelt fell in love with the rugged landscape and became interested in the new business of cattle ranching. After talking with local ranchers, he decided to invest in a local cattle operation known as the Maltese Cross. His partners in the ranch were Sylvane Ferris and Bill Merrifield.

The next summer, following the death of his wife and mother in February, Roosevelt returned to the badlands. During his stay, he started a second ranching operation called the Elkhorn Ranch. He hired two acquaintances from Maine, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, to run the ranch. After its creation, Roosevelt considered Elkhorn to be his “home ranch” and spent most of his time there whenever he was in Dakota.

While Roosevelt was starting his ranching operations in the Dakota Territory, a French nobleman known as the Marquis de Morès was establishing the town of Medora, which he named after his wife. His dream of a meat packing empire proved ill-fated, but the town he founded survived.

Long before the cattle ranching period in the late-19th century, the badlands were utilized by a number of traditional peoples including the Mandan, Hidatsa, Crow, and many others. The Cultural History of the park extends back thousands of years. At the end of the 19th century, conflict between the US Army and the Sioux brought war to the badlands and involved many well-known historical figures: Sully, Custer, Sitting Bull, Inkpaduta, and Gall.

In the 20th century, the Civilian Conservation Corps performed work still visible today in the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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The best things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The park is comprised of three separate areas of land. The North and South Units feature scenic drives, wildlife viewing, hiking, visitor centers, ranger-led programs and much more. The undeveloped Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves the site of Roosevelt’s “home ranch” in a remote area along the Little Missouri River.

North Unit
South Unit
Elkhorn Ranch Unit
Walk to the secluded spot where Roosevelt found adventure, healing, and inspiration.
Visitor Centers
Check out exhibits, shop the bookstores, and get help planning your visit.
Find a campground that’s just right for you – no matter what time of year!
Nearby Places
There’s so much to do and discover in Western North Dakota. Here are some ideas for while you’re here…

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The topography of the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park provides for a surprising diversity in plant life

The topography of the badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park provides for a surprising diversity in plant life. From the sunny and drier south faces of buttes to their forested and cooler north slopes, from floodplains to grasslands, and in prairie dog towns, over 400 species of plants have been identified within the park. As many as 500 species of plants may inhabit the park. What will you discover?

The abundance of prairie plants provides for impressive wildflower displays in the late spring and summer months. The pasqueflower is the first to bloom, in April, portending the coming of spring. Soon after, from May to September, a broad range of flowers appear on the landscape. Many flowers bloom in June and July, the peak months for flower viewing. Some flowers, such as sunflowers, asters, and rabbitbrush, hold out for the late summer months of August and September. In late September, as the seasons begin to change, cottonwood leaves turn a brilliant gold color before falling to the ground.

The broad palette of plant life sustains a bountiful wildlife population in the park. Large grazing mammals including bison, pronghorns, and wild horses can often be found eating grasses. Deer and elk graze in the grasslands and browse on woodier plants. Smaller mammals like cottontail rabbits, least chipmunks, voles, and mice feed on the plants and the berries and seeds the plants produce. Prairie dogs have a noticeable effect on the plants near their towns, fostering the growth of fast-growing forbs over other plants because of the rodent’s continuous grazing.

A wide variety of birds benefit from plants, their berries and seeds, and the insects the plants support. Warblers eat insects attracted to the flowering plants, a wide variety of sparrows and other birds eat the seeds, and birds including cedar waxwings and Townsend’s solitaires eat berries.

The plants that provide food for many of the park’s animals must be protected from overgrazing and from being overrun by non-native plants. To do so, park officials study the effects of animals on the plant communities and initiate wildlife management actions when necessary. Park officials also track and combat non-native plant threats in order to protect the native ecosystem.

A native plant exhibit showcasing some of the park’s common plants is located in front of the South Unit Visitor Center in Medora. A similar smaller exhibit is located outside the North Unit Visitor Center. Plant identification field guides are available in the park’s bookstores.

Please practice Leave No Trace principles. Picking flowers or collecting plants are prohibited within the park.

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Animal Life

A wide diversity of animals make their home in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A wide diversity of animals make their home in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. An abundance of native grasses provide sustenance for grazing animals both large and small while the tapestry of different habitats attracts a great number of birds. The terrain of the badlands creates microclimates of warm, dry slopes, relatively cool and wet juniper woodlands, and riverbottoms.

Amphibians – Very few amphibians eke out an existence in the harsh North Dakota climate.

Birds – More than 186 types of birds may be found living in or passing through Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Mammals – Large grazing animals including bison, feral horses, elk, white-tail and mule deer, pronghorn, and small grazers such as prairie dogs share the range in the park.

Reptiles – Several varieties of snakes and lizards dwell in the semi-arid climate of western North Dakota.

Wildlife Management – The park works to keep the population of certain species balanced to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Hiking Trail

Round-Trip Time and Distance

Trail Description


Skyline Vista

South Unit

10 minutes

0.1 mi / 0.16 km

Feel the wind in your hair high atop Johnson’s Plateau. This flat, paved nature trail is perfect for those who want to step out for just a moment.

Boicourt Overlook Trail

South Unit

15 minutes

0.2 mi / 0.3 km

One of the most beautiful South Unit overlooks is accessible by this easy nature trail with slight grade. This overlook is a ranger favorite for sunsets over the badlands!

Little Mo Trail

North Unit

30 – 45 minutes

0.7 mi / 1.1 km (paved inner loop) 1.1 mi / 1.8 km (unpaved outer loop)

Explore the river bottom habitat along a paved nature trailwith slight grades. Take along a trail brochure, available at the trailhead, to learn as you adventure.

Buck Hill

South Unit

15 minutes

0.2 mi / 0.3 km

You’ll be on top of the world when you climb to the highest accessible point in the park. This is a short, but steep trail. The view from the top is worth every step.

Wind Canyon Trail

South Unit

20 minutes

0.4 mi / 0.6 km

Enjoy hiking this nature trail alongside a wind-sculpted canyon as you climb to the best view of the Little Missouri River the South Unit has to offer. Another ranger favorite for sunsets!

Easy to Moderate

Ridgeline Trail

South Unit

30 minutes

0.6 mi / 1 km

Explore the badlands environment along a nature trail with moderate to steep grades. Take along a trail brochure, available at the trailhead, to learn as you adventure. This trail has stairs.

Download the Ridgeline Trail brochure

Coal Vein Trail

South Unit

30 – 45 minutes

0.6 mi / 1 km (inner loop)

0.8 mi / 1.3 km (outer loop)

Although the coal vein is no longer burning, this nature trail is an excellent place to learn about badlands geology and ecology. Take along a trail brochure, available at the trailhead. This trail has stairs.

Download the Coal Vein Trail Brochure

Painted Canyon

Nature Trail

South Unit

45 minutes

0.9 mi / 1.4 km

The canyon looks amazing from the rim, but wait until you experience a hike down into it! Get up close and personal with the rock layers, junipers, and wildlife. Remember, every step down means a step back up on the return.

Caprock Coulee

Nature Trail

North Unit

1 hour

1.5 mi / 2.4 km

Hike through badlands terrain and dry washes as you experience a variety of habitats. Take along a trail brochure, available at the trailhead, to learn as you adventure. View the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail Guide.

Prairie Dog Town via the

Buckhorn Trail

North Unit

1 hour

1.5 mi / 2.4 km

Start at the Caprock Coulee Trailhead and follow the Buckhorn Trail to a prairie dog town. Be sure to plan some extra time for wildlife viewing; where

there are prairie dogs, there are often lots of other animals, too!

Sperati Point via the

Achenbach Trail

North Unit

1 hour

1.5 mi / 2.4 km

Begin at Oxbow Overlook. A gently rolling walk leads to an overlook of the Little Missouri River. Along the way, pay attention to the wide variety of forbs and grasses. The prairie ecosystem is one of the most diverse on the planet!

Moderate to Strenuous

Caprock Coulee

North Unit

2 – 3 hours

4.3 mi / 6.9 km

The first 0.75 miles of this trail consists of the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. The trail becomes more strenuous as it climbs to the top of a grassy butte, follows a ridgeline with incredible views, and descends back down.

Maah Daah Hey

South Unit

3 – 4 hours (one way)

7.1 mi / 11.4 km (one way)

The Maah Daah Hey Trail stretches 96 miles across the National Grassland connecting all three units of the park. This portion of the trail runs through

the South Unit.

Lone Tree Loop

South Unit

5 – 6 hours

9.6 mi / 15.4 km

You can begin this trail at Peaceful Valley Ranch by following the Ekblom Trail. To avoid a river crossing, access the loop via the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Thiswill add 3.2 miles round trip. Be aware of difficult stream crossings.

Petrified Forest Loop

South Unit

5 – 6 hours

10.3 mi / 16.6 km

Located in the remote northwest corner of the South Unit, this hike takes you through ancient petrified forests and badlands wilderness. The loop includes the North and South Petrified Forest Trails as well as the Maah Daah Hey.


North Unit

6 – 8 hours

11.4 mi / 18.3 km

Hike through prairie dog towns, sagebrush terraces, deep canyons, and high open prairies. Experience the diversity of plant and animal life in these distinct habitats.

Jones/Lower Talkington/

Lower Paddock Loop

South Unit

6 – 8 hours

11.4 mi / 18.3 km

This loop combines the Jones Creek Trail, the Lower Talkington Trail, and the Lower Paddock Creek Trail. Add it to the Upper Paddock/Talkington Loop for an epic adventure of 23.4 miles.

Upper Paddock/

Talkington Loop

South Unit

8 – 10 hours

15.4 mi / 24.8 km

19.4 mi / 31.2 km (Painted Canyon)

This trail combines part of the Lower Talkington Trail with the Upper Talkington and Upper Paddock Creek Trails. Accessing the loop from Painted Canyon will add 4 miles round trip to your hike.


North Unit

10 – 12 hours

18 mi / 30 km

Steep climbs and descents and two river crossings await you on a trail that leads deep into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness. Cross the Little Missouri River at daybreak and climb the buttes to greet the rising sun.

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