Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be harsh and demanding, fully exposing you to the sun, though you can find a peek-a-boo type experience with patchs of scrubby forest providing some shade during the height of summer. Whenever you go, though, you'll be rewarded with some great views of the park and its badlands.
Despite its size -- not quite 70,500 acres -- the national park's number of signed miles of trail is not too far beyond 100. Most of the hikes in the park are short nature strolls.
But the hallmark trail easily is the Maah Daah Hey Trail, which runs 96 mostly north-to-south trails through the South and North Units of the park and touches the border of the Elkhorn Unit.
While many mountain bikers look longingly at this route, park regulations ban them from riding the trail within the park. As a result, bikers may use the Buffalo Gap Trail as an alternate route around the South Unit of the park and must connect with existing roads to bypass the North Unit of the park.
Backcountry campers within the national park must obtain a free backcountry permit and follow park regulations for backcountry camping, listed below. For additional information on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, visit the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association website.
Hikes featured on the Traveler
Upper Caprock Coulee
The best vantage points to take in the grandeur of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are, quite understandably, up high. The Upper Caprock Coulee Trail takes you there, and along the way shows off some incredible badlands that so captivated Theodore Roosevelt.
The Ridgeline Nature Trail
Badlands sprawl out in every direction I look. East, west, south, or north, from the Ridgeline Nature Trail in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park it is easy to understand how the "badlands" term was coined.
Here's a breakdown of other hiking opportunities in Theodore Roosevelt National Park courtesy of the park staff:
South Unit Hiking Trails
Coal Vein Trail - 0.8 mile loop - From 1951 to 1977 an underground fire burned here in a coal seam. The intense heat baked the adjacent clay and sand, greatly altering the appearance of the terrain. The trail guide is available at the trailhead.
Buck Hill - A short walk leads to the top of this high point, an elevation of 2,855 feet above sea level. As you scan the landscape, notice that only shrubs and small plants grow on the warmer and drier south-facing slopes and trees dominate the cooler, wetter north-facing slopes.
Wind Canyon - .25 mile loop - A short trail up the ridge leads to an overlook of a graceful bend in the Little Missouri River and the wind-sculpted sandstone of the canyon.
Painted Canyon Nature Trail - 0.9 mile loop - The trail begins and ends near the picnic shelters at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. The trail drops down the canyon wall to the bottom of the canyon before looping back to the starting point.
Jones Creek Trail - 3.7 miles one way - This trail leads through the heart of the badlands and is accessible from the Scenic Loop Drive at two points. The trail crosses the creek twice, but the creek is often dry. The trail is relatively flat with a series buttes on either side.
Lower Paddock Creek Trail - 4.4 miles one way - This trail is accessible from two points on the Scenic Loop Drive. The trail crosses the creek several times. The creek is usually dry but may be seasonally wet. The trail also passes through prairie dog towns.
Upper Paddock Creek Trail - 7.7 miles one way - This moderately difficult trail follows Paddock Creek east of the Scenic Loop Drive, intersects the Painted Canyon Trail (which leads to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center), and continues to the southeast corner of the park where it connects with the Upper Talkington Trail.
Painted Canyon Trail - 2.0 miles one way - The trail starts at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and ends at the Upper Paddock Creek Trail. To access the trail, go to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, walk east to the end of the parking lot and continue on the service road. You will find trail markers on the left that head toward the canyon. The Painted Canyon Trail is a very steep trail that heads down the canyon wall.
Upper Talkington Trail - 4.0 miles one way - This moderate trail follows a flat area on the park's east boundary to the Scenic Loop Drive. The trail crosses a creek twice within the first 1.5 miles. The trail also leads through the edge of a large prairie dog town just below the east rim of the badlands. Atop the rim, the trail intersects the Upper Paddock Creek Trail.
There are over 20 miles of hiking trails west of the Little Missouri River in the Petrified Forest Wilderness Area. One trailhead is at the Peaceful Valley Ranch, which requires crossing the river to reach the wilderness area. Check with rangers at the visitor center for directions to other access points for the Petrified Forest and the wilderness area.
North Unit Hiking Trails
Little Mo Nature Trail - 1.1 mile loop, 0.7 miles wheelchair accessible - This self-guided nature trail begins at the Juniper Campground and winds through river woodlands and badlands. Trail guides are available at the trailhead.
Achenbach Trail - 16 mile loop - Climbing from the river bottomland at the Juniper Campground through the Achenbach Hills, then descending to the river again before climbing near the Oxbow Overlook and returning on the north side of the river to the Juniper Campground, the Achenbach trail traverses the spectacular scenery of the North Unit's wilderness area. The trail requires crossing the river; consult with rangers at the visitor center before attempting to cross the river.
Caprock Coulee Nature Trail - 1.6 miles round-trip, 5.7 miles when connected with Upper Caprock Coulee Trail to form a loop.
Buckhorn Trail - 11 mile loop - Starting at the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail.
Sperati Point - 1.5 miles round-trip - From the Oxbow Overlook, follow the Achenbach Trail south to this landmark.
There are no approved drinking water sources in the backcountry! There are springs and wells, which supply water for wildlife, but none are certified safe for human consumption. Plan to carry in all your drinking water.
Park animals are wild! Although most species may appear shy and stay clear of hikers and riders, the park is their territory and even small creatures may react to protect their home or young. Do not approach wild animals. Be especially wary of bison. Always stay at least 200 yards away from these animals and give them the right-of-way. Do not ride horses within 100 yards of any bison.
There are prairie rattlesnakes in the park. Ticks and poison ivy are also present.
Weather can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous! Both summer and winter backcountry users must be prepared for rapid and often violent changes in the weather. Both winter storms and summer thunderstorms can build rapidly and be upon you in a very short time. Choose campsites wisely, flash floods may occur. Be prepared to protect yourself in severe weather, or plan on a hasty evacuation to a place of safety or shelter. Be prepared for high temperatures during the summer, and protect yourself from the sun and the possibility of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Watch your footing! Backcountry trails are not routinely maintained. They may be rocky and their surfaces uneven, and during wet or freezing weather they will become extremely slippery. Wear boots with soles that grip and do not scramble on the steep badlands slopes unless you are sure of your footing.
Know where you are and where you are going! If you plan foot or horseback travel into the backcountry of the park, know your destination and the route you plan to follow. Although some trails are marked, you could possibly confuse a designated trail with a wildlife trail. Carry a park topographic map and compass. Do not rely solely on GPS units. Leave your trip itinerary with someone so they can contact the park if you are overdue.
"Water is a commodity not by any means to be found everywhere...When found, it is more than likely to be bad, being either from a bitter alkaline pool, or from a hole in a creek, so muddy that it can only be called liquid by courtesy" -- Theodore Roosevelt
Cross Country Travel
In addition to the established trail system, hikers and horseback riders will find the opportunity to travel crosscountry in the park. Topographic maps of the North and South Units are available for purchase at the North and South Unit visitor centers and will aid crosscountry travelers. Wildlife trails are also frequently followed by hikers and horseback riders and are especially helpful in rugged terrain and in crossing creeks with steep banks. The openness of the terrain, along with easily identifiable features, is also a boon to those traveling crosscountry.
Remember! Whether traveling crosscountry or on an established trail, it is best not to travel alone in the backcountry. In the event of an accident or sudden illness, one or two members of a group can go for help while the others remain awaiting assistance.
"...the loneliness and vastness of the country seemed as unbroken as if the old vanished days had returned - the days of the wild wilderness wanderers..."
It is this very quality of experience described by Theodore Roosevelt that should be preserved in the park's backcountry and wilderness areas. As a backcountry user, you can help. Observe the backcountry use regulations, which were designed to minimize user impact. Whether you are crossing a grassy plateau, a juniper forested slope, or a barren clay butte, be aware of the impact you are having and try to lessen it. - Think before you act. Ask yourself, "Is this the way in which I am most likely to leave no trace of my presence here?"
River and Stream Crossings
There are no bridges across the Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and trails that cross the river may be inaccessible during periods of high water. Although the Little Missouri River is often low and slow enough to be waded across, at times the river may be too high and fast to ford safely. The river is typically the highest in the spring and early summer. Hikers or horseback riders should use caution navigating areas with soft bottoms and deep channels or holes. Consult with rangers for river conditions and safe crossing sites. See Hydrologic Activity for more information on the Little Missouri River and for links to current river monitoring data.
Exploring the park's backcountry in the winter can be an exciting and rewarding experience. It also offers new challenges in meeting the environment on its own terms. To ensure that your winter experience is as safe and pleasant as possible you should be well prepared for your trip, whether it be a day hike or an overnight stay.
Between October and April sudden storms and low temperatures can result in hypothermia and frostbite if hikers are not properly equipped and knowledgeable about winter survival. Group leaders should verify the adequacy of their party's equipment for survival and personal safety. Special attention should be given to footwear and outer clothing. Plan your trip. Know your limitations. Keep your group together.
It is especially important during this time of year to let others know of your planned route to ensure that someone knows where to start looking for you should you not return when indicated.
All plants, wildlife, natural, and cultural features in the park are protected. Do not disturb or remove them. Collection of skulls, antlers, animal parts, or any other natural or cultural items is not permitted.
Hunting is prohibited, as is feeding or disturbing wildlife.
Chasing or harassing wildlife including approaching wildlife on horseback is not permitted.
Pets, bicycles and motorized equipment are prohibited on all trails and in the backcountry.
Fireworks are not allowed in the park.
Open fires (wood, charcoal, etc.) are not permitted in the backcountry.
All trash and other materials packed in must be packed out including toilet paper.
Anyone intending to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free backcountry permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers.
Human waste should be buried in a hole 6-8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from any water source. Toilet paper must be carried out.
Be considerate of others. Keep noise low. Hikers must yield the right-of-way to horseback riders.