A huge tract of multi-hued rock formations, rough grassland and brackish streams, Theodore Roosevelt National Park ($10/car) is split into north and south units approximately seventy miles apart. The park’s seventy thousand acres encompass desert, woods and mountains, and both units are at their most beautiful at sunrise or sundown – the best times to observe such fauna as elk, antelope, ever-present bison and closely knit prairie dog communities.
Your first taste of the larger, more popular southern unit is likely to be at the breathtaking Painted Canyon, seven miles east of Medora off I-94. Here and elsewhere in the park, the land is like a sedimentary layer cake that for millions of years has been beaten by hard rains, baked by the sun into a kaleidoscope of colours and cut through to its base by the erosive Little Missouri River and lesser streams. A mile-long nature hike, accessible in the summer months, begins at the end of the canyon’s boardwalk.
The southern unit’s main visitor centre in Medora (daily: summer 8am–6pm, rest of year 8am–4.30pm; t 701/623-4466, w http://www.nps.gov/thro) acts as park headquarters; it also offers tours, nature walks and lectures by campfire during the summer season. Behind it sits the simple Maltese Cross Cabin that served as Roosevelt’s first home in North Dakota during his early ranching days; also worth seeking out is the view from Wind Canyon, ten miles out of Medora along the park’s remarkably scenic 36-mile loop road. Peaceful Valley Ranch (t 701/623-4568), one mile from the park’s Cottonwood Campground ($10/tent site), arranges horseback tours between May and September; a ninety-minute ride is $30.
The park’s smaller northern unit, off Hwy-85 fifteen miles south of Watford City, receives only a fraction of the southern unit’s visitors, though it’s arguably more spectacular. Two highlights are River Bend Overlook, along the park’s fourteen-mile scenic drive, and Oxbow Overlook, at that same road’s end, while the demanding twelve-mile Buckhorn Trail winds through sage-filled terrain before following steep gulches up into lofty prairies full of grazing bison; look for the trailhead directly across from the Juniper Campground ($10) turn-off.
The northern unit’s visitor centre is open daily (April–Oct 9am–5.30pm, limited hours rest of year; t 701/842-2333). In an odd twist of raggedly-drawn time zones, the park’s northern unit is on Central time, while the southern unit is on Mountain time.