When we were planning our Midwest road trip, I wanted to visit North Dakota but didn’t know where to go. I love national parks so I chose Theodore Roosevelt National Park without knowing anything about it, and I’m so glad we visited! It’s not as famous as parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite, but the landscapes are amazing and we saw so much wildlife. If you’re planning a short trip there like just, here’s my guide for a Theodore Roosevelt National Park itinerary for 2 days!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Itinerary
So before you plan your trip, there are some things you should know (that we didn’t really know when planning our trip). There are two separate parts- the North Unit and the South Unit. There’s also a third unit with Roosevelt’s cabin Elkhorn Lodge, but it’s very remote and you need a special type of vehicle to get there so it isn’t easy to visit it.
The North Unit and South Unit aren’t connected, and you have to drive on the highway to get to either one. You also cross time zones, which is crazy! So if you want an extra hour to visit both in one day, you could start with the South Unit and then go to the North Unit.
There are some bathrooms in the parks, and they’re your typical park bathrooms so you may want to bring some hand sanitizer and tissue paper with you. And this may be TMI, but the toilet goes into a deep hole in the ground, so when it’s super cold and windy, you will feel it, just a head’s up!
We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in mid-October in the off-season, which has its pros and cons. A pro is that it was not crowded AT ALL. They didn’t even have people to purchase a park pass from, so you had to do it on the honor system online or with putting money in a box. We did see some people, but there were very few cars on the roads and in the little parking lots, so it was really easy to get around. And we could park the car in the road to patiently wait for the prairie dogs to pop back up for some photos without worrying about cars coming behind us.
A con is that the nearby town of Medora is basically a ghost town in the off-season. There was a coffee shop open, but not much else was open and you may have to travel further for food and lodging. We stayed at the Spirit of the Badlands (pictured below), which was great! The land around the house was amazing in itself to explore, and we got to befriend some wild horses, who literally tried to eat our car (also pictured below). We had actual toothmarks on the front of the car.
And another con is that the weather is so unpredictable, which is why not many people visit during this time apparently. Because our road trip started in Philadelphia, we had to plan what to pack a couple of weeks before we got to North Dakota, and the weather changed wildly from what we originally saw. It was cold, incredibly windy, and snowy! We weren’t prepared, so we had to get a couple of things from Walmart (but they didn’t even have their winter clothes in stock yet, despite the snow).
The sun popped out a few times, but most of the time it was really cold and just so windy that it hurt your face. So plan your wardrobe better than us and be prepared for possible snow in October!
For our actual Theodore Roosevelt National Park itinerary, we were there for two days, which I think is just enough time to see the major sights (in the off-season when you don’t have to worry about traffic or parking at all). We didn’t do the major hikes (both because of the time crunch and because we did not have the right clothing), so if you’re into hiking, I would stay for a few more days at least.
The first day, we spent some time exploring the land around the house we were staying and then went into the South Unit. We tried to get a good spot for sunset, but it was really cloudy so we didn’t get great views. The second day, we spent the first half in the North Unit and the second half in the South Unit (and we did get a great sunset that day). We honestly had no idea about the time zone difference until our phones kept changing times, so we did it backwards of what we should have done. And make sure you also budget time for driving between the units if you’re going to visit both in one day.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit
For a bit of history on the park, after Roosevelt’s death, many sites were looked at to honor him and North Dakota was ultimately chosen. The Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge was made up of the South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch, and the North Unit was added on later in the 1940s. It was a memorial park for a few decades and didn’t become a national park until 1978.
We started our second day in the North Unit, which is a little smaller and doesn’t get as many tourists as the South Unit. The North Unit is said to be more rugged with more extreme canyons and cuts into the rocks. It’s also has a herd of longhorn cattle that the South Unit doesn’t have, but we didn’t see any this time (but we did see tons of other wildlife!).
One of the attractions in the North Unit is the Cannonball Concretions. It’s one area (right off the road so you don’t have to hike far) that has a bunch of round, smooth rocks. They really do look like cannonballs, and it’s a pretty wild sight to see! It’s also pretty different from the rest of the rock formations in the park, so I recommend stopping by and seeing them if you want to see something different.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit
So the first and last part of our Theodore Roosevelt National Park itinerary was the South Unit since we were staying close by. The South Unit does get more tourists since it’s off the highway and near the town of Medora, but when we were there, we didn’t notice more people in the South Unit vs. the North Unit.
We did see more wildlife in the South Unit, but that might be due to the weather. It was really windy and snowy most of the time we were in the North Unit, and the weather cleared up mostly by the time we were in the South Unit. The South Unit does have wild horses that the North Unit does not, so if you want to see wild horses (and we did see them), be sure to visit the South Unit.
We saw bison EVERYWHERE! I don’t think we would drive more than 5 minutes without seeing some bison. Probably 90% of my photos were taken from the car, so they would come right up to the road (or even in the road) and were unfazed by the cars driving by.
We also saw lots of prairie dogs! Their settlements are right along the roads, so you can’t miss them. But they are SUPER hard to photograph. As soon as our car came up, they would start chirping to each other and run into their holes. So we had to sit very patiently and snap a quick photo the second one would pop its head out of its hole to see if the coast was clear. They’re small and very quick, so I probably took a hundred photos of them and only a handful were decent. So just be prepared if you want some photos of prairie dogs!
We saw a few herds of wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park! One was fairly close to the road, and another was crossing a river down in a valley around sunset.
We took a wrong turn and went up a road to turn around, and at the end of the road was this lone bison just posing in the sunset for us! He stood perfectly still for photos for a while and then slowly wandered over to the grass for some dinner.
We did get an amazing sunset the second time we tried in the South Unit! Wind Canyon Trail said to be the best sunset spot, and you get great views of the Little Missouri River. There was a group of guys with massive telephoto lenses, so they must also agree that it’s a great spot for sunset.
Because it’s over a valley, we saw a lot of animals by the river and we heard even more. It was like each group of animals called good-night out to each other, the prairie dogs chirped, the bison bellowed, and the wolves howled- it was pretty incredible to experience. So even if you don’t get a great sunset, you may still get a really cool experience.
So our Theodore Roosevelt National Park itinerary covered a lot of ground in just two days! I do think another day would have been perfect, and if you enjoy hiking or go during peak season, 4-5 days would probably be a good amount of time to spend there. But even if you just have one day, try to visit both the North and South Units to see all of the incredible landscapes and wildlife!