6 easy Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails for kids or beginners

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Enjoy majestic views overlooking the badlands and prairies of North Dakota on these stunning and easy Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails. This trip was sponsored by the North Dakota Tourism Board

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the more impressive, yet somehow underrated national parks in the United States. Located in the southwestern region of North Dakota, this scenic park encompasses tens of thousands of acres of vast sweeping grasslands and rugged badlands. The diverse combination results in dramatic landscapes that will leave you in awe. 

This guide to the easiest Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails includes gentle walks to scenic vistas overlooking prairies where wildlife roam as well as short climbs to the top of tall buttes.

mother and daughter walking along one of the scenic Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails along the side of a cliff.
There are a lot of scenic Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails that are easy enough to do with kids!

About Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Perhaps overshadowed by other northern national park such as Yellowstone or Glacier National Park, Theodore Roosevelt averages about half as many annual visitors as Yellowstone or Glacier. Still, it draws a fair share of visitors to North Dakota. In fact, roughly 600,000 people visit the park each year. 

The only national park in the US named after a person, Theodore Roosevelt not only preserves and protects vast areas of grasslands, prairies, and badlands, but it also pays tribute to the 26th president who is widely remembered for his conservation efforts. 

History of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt became a national park in 1978. Prior to that, the area in western North Dakota was a national memorial dedicated to the former president, who had a deep love for the American West and particularly this region of North Dakota. 

President Roosevelt first visited North Dakota on a bison hunting trip. During that trip he made the decision to buy land and start a ranching career. Four months later, he lost his wife and mother on the same day. It is said that during his immense grief he sought peace in the solitude on his North Dakota property and found comfort in the natural beauty of the area. 

It is fitting that Roosevelt is the only president with a national park named after him. Celebrated as a conservationist and nature lover, during his presidency Roosevelt doubled the size of the national park service. He is credited with establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments!

Geography

Covering more than 70,000 acres, Theodore Roosevelt is not as expansive as some of the other parks in the national park system, but it is large enough to find the same solitude that Roosevelt himself found here. It is easy to explore the park in just a couple of days. 

The national park is divided into three distinct units, the north unit, south unit, and Elkhorn Ranch.

Each unit has its own entrance and the three units do not connect. In fact, the north and south units aren’t even in the same time zone! The north unit is in the central time zone and the south unit is in the mountain time zone. 

The park’s varied landscape is thanks to centuries of weathered sandstone, mudstone, and clinker that form the mesas, buttes, hoodoos , and even the cannonball concretions you’ll find in the north unit of the park. 

Cannonball concretions - a unique, perfectly round geological formation you'll find in the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP
Cannonball concretions are a unique, perfectly round geological formation you’ll find in the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP. Image by Steppinstars from Pixabay

The broad prairies, rivers, and grasslands stretch between the tall buttes and other geological features providing a distinct contract across the terrain. 

How to get to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The closest commercial airport to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is in the town of Dickinson, North Dakota. Flying into Dickinson to visit Theodore Roosevelt NP is just as easy as flying into any other airport. 

The airport sees twice daily service from Denver on United Airlines. Dickinson Airport is a small airport, which makes it extremely easy to get in and out. Bags are dropped off in the mountainous looking terminal in under 10 minutes and you can be on your way in less than 15 minutes after landing. 

All major car rental agencies can be found at the airport. Rental car inventory is limited so making reservations early is important. 

You will absolutely love flying into this airport. It is small but fast and you can get on your way to exploring Western North Dakota quickly! From the airport, it is roughly a 30-40 minute drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

Family photo at the entrance to the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The entrance to the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

You can buy a park pass for $30 at either entrance or if you plan to visit more than one national park in a year, you can save money and buy an America the Beautiful Park Pass online before your trip. 

When to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park

As a northern state, some of the coldest towns in America are found in North Dakota. 

The intense winds, open land, and cold temperatures makes the winter time fairly brutal. Although the park is open year round, winter naturally sees the fewest visitors to the park. Winters in North Dakota are long. But, after the last freeze, temperatures can warm rapidly.

June through August can see highs into the 80s during the day and at night, into the 50s. This makes for great camping weather when southern states are experiencing intense summer heat. September is when the weather can fluctuate the most with one day in the 90s and the next day in the 60s. And some of the nicest weather can occur in September with cool nights and comfortable afternoons. But, be aware that most stores and shops in Medora, the gateway town to the park, begin to close by late September. 

It’s important to pay attention to the weather in the park as severe thunderstorms can move in during the summer months. Storm season peaks in the summer in North Dakota.

Snow

Theodore Roosevelt National Park only has 3 months of the year when snow is rare (June, July, and August). Snow is not uncommon in western North Dakota, however big snowstorms are. Given the dry air, snow events that exceed 3″ are rare.  On average, only 1-2 snow events exceeding 3″ occur each year. 

Rain

The rainiest months are June, July, and August when the western park of the state receives about 2″-3″ of rainfall. July is the rainiest month with over 11 days of rainfall on average. There are 10 days of average rainfall in June and 9 days in August. September and October see a big drop in average rainfall with only 6-7 days of rainfall on average. 

Wind

The wind is very common in North Dakota. And there are few things around that can block it. Just know it is windy more times than not.

The easiest Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park plays host to a number of great hikes, many of which are easy to do even if you are new to hiking or traveling with kids. 

There are dozens of marked trails in the park that range in length and difficulty, so figuring out which trails are best for you can take some research. So, we’ve narrowed down the top seven best Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails for families, beginners, or those who have a limited amount of time to explore the park. 

All of these Theodore Roosevelt National Park hikes are located in the south unit. While there are easy trails in the north unit also, it is a bit more remote, so we stuck to exploring the south unit. 

Wind Canyon Trail

One of the most popular Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails, Wind Canyon is an easy hike that offers jaw-dropping views. It has only a slight elevation change, and it is less than a half mile long round-trip. The hike can be done in as little as 30 minutes, even if hiking with kids or walking at a leisure pace. You’ll want to take it slowly anyway, simply to enjoy the views.

Wind Canyon Trail - one of the most popular Theodore Roosevelt National Park hikes
Wind Canyon Trail – one of the most popular Theodore Roosevelt National Park hikes

Wind Canyon takes you along the edge of a deep canyon overlooking the Little Missouri River. Although the trail isn’t directly along the edge of the cliff, there are portions of the hike with steep drop offs nearby. For this reason, you’ll want to hold hands with any young children to prevent them from trying to get too close to the edge. 

From the parking lot along the south unit’s scenic drive, you’ll walk up a few man-made steps, then follow a dirt trail for a few minutes until you get to the canyon. The trail then turns and takes you along the edge of the bluff. You can walk up a small hill for a higher view or opt to walk around it to the main overlook. This hike would be incredible at sunset as the overlook faces west, so you would get a great view of the sun setting over the canyon. 

Boicourt

Boicourt is one of the shortest and easiest Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails. It is just .3 miles on a paved path. Although it’s just under a mile if you continue off the paved portion of the trail. The hike is more of a leisure walk, as it is a straight route out to the overlook and back. Although the best views typically come after the most challenging hikes, Boicourt actually boasts one of the best views of the North Dakota badlands within the park. On a clear day, you can even see beyond the park’s boundaries. 

The first .3 miles of the path is paved, and there is very little, noticeable elevation change. You do walk along a ridge, so this is another trail that you will want to watch little ones carefully, particularly if you continue beyond the paved portion of the trail. For those with mobility issues or if you are pushing a stroller, you can take the trail to the end of the paved path without continuing onto the more rugged unpaved portion of the trail.  

The view from the end of the unpaved section of Boicourt hiking trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The view from the end of the unpaved section of Boicourt hiking trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Jeff DeWitt on Unsplash

If you are looking for an easy hike that offers a big “bang for your buck”, Boicourt is the hike for you! 

Buck Hill 

Buck Hill Trail is another one of the shortest hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. At just .2 miles, Buck Hill is just a quick walk up to one of the highest points in the national park. However, this hike will get your heart rate up briefly, as the walk is straight up a 2,855-foot tall hill. There are man-made steps part of the way that you climb to get there, so the hike isn’t that bad at all. 

At the top, there is a large natural stone platform that you can stand or sit on for panoramic views looking out toward the area of the park known as Painted Canyon. 

Although slightly more challenging than the two aforementioned hikes, this short climb is well worth the effort! 

Father and daughter sitting at the top of Buck Hill - one of the shortest hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Enjoying the view and a quick break at the top of Buck Hill – one of the shortest hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Old East Entrance

Another easy Teddy Roosevelt National Park hiking trail, the Old East Entrance is a great hike with kids. Slightly longer than the trails mentioned above, the Old East Entrance Trail is roughly .8 miles long. It is an out-and-back hike that is really fun for families. 

The trail gets its name because this point was once the east entrance to the national park. The best thing about this Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trail is that it gets you up-close and personal with the cute prairie dogs that live in the park. The hike takes you through a prairie dog town to an old stone building that once served as the gateway to the park. The prairie dogs will let out a little squeal as they see you before ducking back into their holes.

prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
A curious prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Devan Freeman on Unsplash

Coal Vein Trail 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a very unique park. When driving through Western North Dakota, all you see are grasslands and buttes. But suddenly you enter into an area that is unlike anything else you’ve seen. Coal Vein nature trail is a wonderful way to learn about how the park and its interesting topography were created. From ancient swamps to natural coal fires that have helped shape the landscape, there is a lot to see in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

Coal Vein Trail is a great way to learn about the natural rock fires that often burn for decades in the park. These are not the same kind of fires that force evacuations and create smoky skies. These are underground fires that smolder for years before finally burning themselves out. One such fire burned from the 1950s to the 1970s. And now another fire is burning in the park. The rock is flammable and the fire was started years ago from a lightning strike.

The latest Coal Vein fire currently smoldering in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The latest Coal Vein fire currently smoldering in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is not actually along Coal Vein trail. Instead, it is burning close to the scenic drive.

Getting to the trail head is easy. On busy weekends, the small parking lot can get full. But, given the short hike, cars are frequently leaving. The trail is not paved but well marked. With not much elevation change, the hike is excellent for kids. At .8 miles long, it can be done in about 45 minutes. 

Painted Canyon

Painted Canyon nature trail offers some of the best views in the national park. The 1 mile loop down into the canyon gives hikers a panorama of color and topography.  

You cannot reach the Painted Canyon trailhead by car from the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This area of the park has its own entrance and its own unique Painted Canyon Visitors Center. 

The Painted Canyon trail boasts some of the most iconic views in the national park. This hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park takes you down into the canyon. But remember, if you hike down, you also must hike back up. This makes the second half of the hike more challenging than the first. Even if you don’t want to hike, the views from the top of the trailhead are actually the best. You’ll get a great perspective of the various, colorful rocks and geological features in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and some pretty incredible photos.

Painted Canyon
Painted Canyon is beautiful even from the highway!

This is a nice final stop on your way back to your hotel if you are staying in the town of Dickinson, ND

Other things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers more than just hiking. Both the north and south units have beautiful scenic drives. In the south unit, the scenic loop drive is roughly 34 miles long, while the lesser visited north unit has a 14-mile long scenic drive. 

Bison, deer, wild horses, and prairie dogs are found throughout the park. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the only places in the United States where wild horses roam.

The south unit is the better place to see the park’s prairie dogs, as there are several prairie dog towns along the scenic route. But both the north and south unit offer great opportunities to see the animals in their natural environments though. 

wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt NP
Theodore Roosevelt is one of the best places in the world to see wild horses roam. Image by Jessica Rockeman from Pixabay

As a memorial park, this is also a great place to learn about the beloved president that gives the park it’s namesake. In the south unit visitors center, you can read all about the history of the park and about Teddy Roosevelt, himself. 

And at Elkhorn Ranch, you can visit the area that Theodore Roosevelt called his “home ranch”. This remote area of the park sits between the south and north unit and gives you a true sense of solitude. In fact, cell service is weak if not non-existent here. In this part of the park you can also visit the spot where Roosevelt’s ranch cabin originally stood in the late 1800s, and appreciate the views that brought him peace and made him fall in love with North Dakota.

How much time do you need in Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Quiet and unassuming, Theodore Roosevelt is a breath of fresh, clean North Dakota air. Even during peak season, you don’t have near the traffic congestion on the roads within the park or half the crowds on the trails, like you might experience in parks like Zion or Yellowstone

We were able to hike all through the south unit and Painted Canyon in one day. But if you want to explore all three distinct areas of the park, give yourself at least two days. 

You won’t regret spending more time, if you have a few extra days to add to your Theodore Roosevelt itinerary. The park is a serene place to explore and discover a diverse and unique environment, see different landscapes, and enjoy some solitude in nature. 

What to bring if hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Since many of these trails are short and located right off the scenic loop, you don’t have to bring as much hiking gear with you. However, there are a few things you should have on any hike to be safe and prepared. 

Water is the most important thing you should bring with you while on any of these Theodore Roosevelt National Park hiking trails. The park can be harsh with little shade and full exposure to the sun. To stay hydrated, be sure we bring plenty of water. We always bring a couple reusable water bottles rather than disposable bottles.  

Hiking or walking shoes are another must have, even for short hikes. Many trails have uneven terrain. A quality pair of hiking shoes will protect your feet from blisters or injury. If hiking with babies or young kids, it’s also a good idea to wear your baby in a baby carrier or framed child carrier.

Finally, a small day pack is helpful to carry your water bottle, phone, camera, park map, or even a lightweight jacket, in case you need it. We recommend dressing in layers, particularly if visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in spring or fall when the weather tends to be cooler.

Where to stay near Theodore Roosevelt National Park

There are lots of several places to stay around Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

The tiny tourist town of Medora, North Dakota sits at the entrance to the park’s south unit. 

In Medora, there are a couple charming western-style hotels that will add to your experience in North Dakota. For a luxury experience with a western feel, stay at the Rough Riders Hotel. Or for something more rustic, stay at the Maltese Ranch Cabins that will make you feel like you are truly home on the range.

The town of Dickinson, located about 30 minutes east of the park is another option, particularly if you plan to explore both units and other parts of North Dakota, like the Enchanted Highway.

In Dickinson, we recommend La Quinta Inn and Suites, which is located right off the highway. There are a lot of fun things to do in Dickinson, ND, as well. If you make Dickinson your base, be sure to give yourself a day to explore the town, too. 

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Have a question or comment about hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park or about any of these specific Theodore Roosevelt hiking trails? We’d love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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