We’ve now been to Medora, North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park twice, and both times had an incredible experience because 1) the scenery is gorgeous, and 2) it’s not a very heavily visited national park.
Medora is the most convenient base for exploring the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is kind of a cutesy-cheesy tourist town–it has food and drink and a nightly musical revue (“the rootin’-tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the Midwest”). Our first visit we considered checking out the musical revue, since that’s the second biggest (second to the national park, of course) thing to do in Medora (like we tried to do in Branson for the full Branson experience). But we didn’t, and across two visits to Medora, we haven’t actually gone into a single establishment in town.
We’ve spent one night inside the national park, and a few nights in a commercial campground in Medora. For RV camping in the park, there’s one campground in the south unit, Cottonwood Campground, and one in the north unit, Juniper Campground. Neither has hookups, both have seasonal potable water, and both are peaceful and scenic.
Half of the sites in Cottonwood are reservable in advance. Be sure to check the max size on your selected site to be sure you can fit! Some of the sites are tight–including ours, a funny little spot parallel to the curb. We had to get our neighbors to move cars in order for us to squeeze in, but once we were set up it was a lovely spot.
Juniper Campground is the first-come, first-served campground in the north unit. We heard there were a lot of vacancies when we visited (but we left the Airstream in Medora), and the ranger said hadn’t been full all year.
Next time we want to stay at Juniper and not bother with the south unit, or stay in Cottonwood but at a spot along the river, and just hang out down there. We’re not interested in Medora.
As is the case at most national parks, dogs are not allowed on hiking trails at TRNP. So Bugsy didn’t hike with us there, but she was able to visit some overlooks. See our Medora post for a super dog-friendly hike nearby.
Big Plateau Loop
We loved the Big Plateau Loop and hiked it both visits! It combines the Big Plateau Trail, the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and the Ekbolm Trail for a 5.6 mile traipse through lively and hilarious prairie dog towns and past big badlands views. It was our first hike in the park both visits, and it was a perfect introduction.
Our second time we encountered a big bison herd near the end of the hike, when we were in a hurry to get home to Bugsy and dinner. All you can do is wait, and try to scramble to higher ground to skirt around them. They were fun to watch, despite our growing concern at the time.
Caprock Coulee is the only hike we’ve done in the north unit of the park. The trailhead was an hour and twenty minute-drive from Cottonwood Campground, which was a bummer, but we’ve really wanted to do the hike since our first visit. After a neat nature trail, then a slow stretch through the woods, it was a gorgeous loop, just over 4 miles.
Painted Canyon Trail
Most people just hike the short nature loop at Painted Canyon, but to really get up close with the vistas, actually descend into the canyon on the Painted Canyon Trail. When you hit Paddock Creek Trail a couple miles in, you can tack on some extra distance if you’re feeling inspired. The views heading down into the canyon are bonkers and the walk through the canyon bottom is pleasant and animal-filled. This trail, while scenic, is not nearly as pretty as Caprock Coulee and the Big Plateau Loop.
Overlooks along the scenic drive
Drive the 36-mile scenic drive in the South Unit and stop at the overlooks (remember, your dog can go anywhere a car can go, so pack a family picnic for the back of your car!). Our favorites stops on the drive were Buck Hill and Wind Canyon. Sunset at Wind Canyon is lovely, but very popular; we found a rock to perch on and toasted our good fortune with Junkyard beers from Fargo.
We cannot say enough good things about Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Dakota badlands. It made us want to go back to Badlands National Park and do a deeper dive there.