THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK
AND COTTONWOOD CAMPGROUND
Named after the 26th President of the United States, who came to the area in 1883 to grieve the death of his wife and mother, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is often overlooked and underestimated. Bison, feral horses, prairie dogs, and a rustic feel reminiscent of the late 1800s provide a truly unique and historically interesting experience.
The park was the first stop on our two-week family road trip. It is located on the far west side of North Dakota, just off of Interstate 94, which makes it very accessible and simple to get to – if you happen to find yourself in far western North Dakota. Despite the ease of access, many people are not familiar with or have not heard of this park; perhaps due to its relative isolation or due to being overshadowed by its sibling park, Badlands National Park, in South Dakota.
The park is divided into two separate sections; the North Unit and the South Unit, which are separated by 68 miles. We stayed at the South Unit and didn’t venture to the North Unit simply due to the fact that we only had one full day at the park. You can see more by viewing the official Theodore Roosevelt National Park maps provided by the National Park Service.
After a 9 hour drive from my brother and sister-in-law’s home in the Twin Cities, we rolled into the Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center, just off Exit 32 of I-94. The visitor center is set up as an interstate rest stop that overlooks the park and provides an impressive view of Painted Canyon. Due to this proximity and ease of access, it is fairly busy and has a good number of people stopping by.
We took the traditional photo with the kids by the entrance sign, stopped into the visitor’s center for our cancellation stamps, and picked up a hiking stick badge for our collection. The building was modern and well kept but didn’t spend much time here as we were eager to get to the campsite and get set up so we could relax after the long drive.
We made reservations in February for Cottonwood Campground – the only campground in the South Unit of the park. When doing so, I was surprised to find that all of the reservable tent sites, which are all on the same loop, were already booked so I reserved a non-electric RV site. It turned out to be a great choice with excellent privacy and it had a little trail that led through a small meadow to the Little Missouri River, about 50 meters away.
After setting up our shelters, we explored the campground to get a “lay of the land” and figure out where the bathrooms and water spigots were. We always like identifying and noting what we feel are the campsites in case we decide to come back. We agreed that the tent loop offered drive-in sites that were on the raised banks of the Little Missouri River and offered an excellent view of the river and surrounding hills. They had fewer trees around them when compared to the RV loop and were a little less private but they weren’t right on top of each other and had more breeze than ours. There were also a few walk-in tent sites at the far end of the loop that were also right on the river and only required about a 20-40 meter walk to get to.
We found a short trail on the tent loop that led down to the river so the kids checked it out. The water was laden with milky beige silt, which is why it is nicknamed the “Little Muddy”. The kids waded in it for a while but I wouldn’t consider this a “swimming river”
Bathrooms were clean and very well kept in the RV loop. Actually, since almost all of the people in our loop were in RV’s that had bathrooms, I never saw anyone but our family using it. Everyone was respectful of the generator and quiet hours and we had a few nice conversations with the camp host. One interesting note was that the park does not allow anything to be hung from trees. The host came by and let us know when they saw that we had hung one of our dromedary/water bags from a limb.
At dusk, we had a solitary bison walk directly past our campsite as it made its way through the meadow along the river. That was an unexpected surprise and the kids thought it was exciting but little did we know that it was only a taste of what was to come. As we drifted off to sleep, I noticed the only real critical thought I had about the campground – I could hear the sound of traffic on I-94 in the distance as it reverberated up the river valley. It wasn’t terrible but it was noticeable in the calm of night.
Scenic Loop Drive
When doing my research, I found that there aren’t many hiking trails in the park, at least compared to other parks. There is a 44-mile long trail that connects the South Unit to the North Unit, called the Maah Daah Hey Trail that sounded interesting but wasn’t going to happen on our timeline. I found that one of the South Unit’s main attractions is the Scenic Loop Drive, which is a 36-mile route that starts just to the NE of Cottonwood Campground and meanders through the park past a number of short interpretive hikes and overlooks. It’s worth noting that the North Unit also has a scenic drive, which is a 28-mile out-and-back drive.
Since we were only had one day in the park, we decided to do the drive and stop at some of the hikes or notable spots along the loop. When we awoke in the morning, we found the skies overcast and rain was imminent. Thunder could be heard in the distance so we decided that we might as well do the loop right away since we weren’t going to be doing much in a downpour.
We loaded into the van and headed north for the loop. Not more than 2 minutes into our drive, we came upon a large herd of Bison that were standing on and around the road so we eased up to the herd, wary to keep some distance between the car and them, and stopped. We sat here for 5 minutes or so as the bison walked slowly around and eventually surrounded us and a few other cars that had arrived. We’ve been in close proximity to bison in other parks like Yellowstone and Badlands, but never this close to this many at one time. It was really an exciting experience for us as we rolled down the windows, despite the rain, so we could hear their numerous, loud, distinctive grunts.
Eventually, the herd made their way past and it was time to keep moving. Perhaps we got lucky and were simply in the right place at the right time but, based on other reviews and feedback we have seen from other visitors, this is not an uncommon sight. This encounter was something that really set Theodore Roosevelt NP apart from other parks we have been to. Being surrounded by so many at such close distance made us feel like we were on a National Geographic safari – and there were so few others to see it. After this entire bison event, there were only about 5 cars on either side waiting to move on. It made us think of our visit to Yellowstone where we were in a traffic jam of 50+ cars whenever a bison was on the road.
Dances with Wolves
As we departed our encounter with the bison and began to make our way to a higher elevation on the loop, we gained a more wide-open perspective of the parks many vistas. All of this reminded Nat and I of the movie, “Dances With Wolves” – we love the score from the movie – so we put it on, the kids protested, and we smiled as we drove along.
Fun Fact – Dances With Wolves was primarily filmed in South Dakota. Specific locations included Badlands National Park, Black Hills National Forest, Sage Creek Wilderness Area, Belle Fourche River, and areas around Fort Pierre, South Dakota.
Predictably, the drive takes much longer than its mileage indicates as it is a winding road that you will want to enjoy and make multiple stops along. I would have preferred clear and sunny skies for photography but the storm did make for some unique lighting, even if it was a bit challenging. By the time we made it to the end of the loop, the skies were clearing and since we had no plans, we decided to turn around and drive the loop the opposite way so we could stop at some of the spots that we had passed in the rain and gain a different visual perspective.
Horses & Hiking
As we headed in the opposite direction, we read into a small group of feral horses, which are another of the unique experiences to be had in the park. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. where you can see freely roaming feral horses. According to the National Park Service, they have been there since the mid-1600s, when the Spanish reintroduced horses to North America.
After seeing the horses, we made our way to the Coal Vein Trail, which is a short, (0.8 mile), easy hike that offers an optional self-guided brochure of landmarks and geology. The trail is named after the naturally ignited coal fire that burned continuously underground for 25+ years at this location, leaving a large depression where the coal once existed. The trail is lined with numbered posts that we stopped at and the kids read aloud the corresponding description in the brochure that we picked up at the trailhead. The hike only took about 15 minutes but it was interesting and fun and the kids enjoyed it and we passed the brochure on to another family that didn’t realize they were available at the beginning of the trail.
Next, it was on to Buck Hill, which is the second-highest point in the park at 2855 ft. After parking in the circular parking area (more of a wide road), we made the short hike to the top of the hill, which provided a nice view of the Painted Canyon and surrounding area. There was an NPS employee at the top of the hill answering questions about the park and he was kind enough to take our photo.
Another Storm & More Bison
While at the top of Buck Hill, we heard the faint rumble of thunder in the far distance and we could clearly see storm clouds forming to the NW. We had strong data coverage so we checked the radar and, sure enough, there was another line of thunderstorms approaching. We decided to try and make it back to our campsite before the rain started up again so we piled into the van and headed out.
Fun Fact – According to the National Park Service, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a dry climate that does not get much annual precipitation. We were unlucky!
Along the way, we ran into another smaller group of Bison lingering on the road. This time, with the weather being much better than it was earlier in the day, there were more cars lined up (but still nothing compared to Yellowstone and other parks), so we came to a stop and waited for the Bison to pass. I have to admit, after the long and intimate encounter we had that morning, this wasn’t as exciting as it probably should have been.
The bison eventually made their way off the road and the line of cars dispersed. We arrived back at the campsite to the sound of consistent approaching thunder and dark skies. We made sure the guy lines on the tent were tight and waited for the rain by playing some Sushi Go, one of our favorite travel games.
After a few rounds of Sushi Go, the thunder stopped rumbling and the rain never came – the storm dissipated just as quickly as it had formed just a mile or two north of us and the clouds were clearing and the sun was peaking. We decided to make dinner and Nat and I had a glass of wine as our day wound down.
An Underrated Park
Based on the erratic weather we had experienced, we went to bed thinking that we wouldn’t be surprised if it started storming in the middle of the night. Fortunately, that didn’t happen and we all slept quite nicely. We awoke early the next morning to the sounds of bison grunting in the distance but we couldn’t see them. I walked out into the meadow thinking that I might be able to glimpse them in the morning light but it was not to be. We figured that they must have been out of sight below the banks leading to the river – they sounded much closer than they obviously were.
We started packing up pretty quickly as we had another 8-9 hour drive to Missoula, Montana ahead of us and wanted to get on the road as early as possible. Truth be told, we would have liked another day to explore more of the park in better, (or at least more predictable), weather and explore the North Unit.
Ultimately, we felt that Theodore Roosevelt NP is an underrated and often overlooked park that has a number of very desirable qualities that we were pleasantly surprised by.
What We Liked
- It was not crowded at all compared to other parks.
- It offered opportunities to see more bison up close than we have ever seen anywhere else.
- It had a very unique and historic feeling to it that harkens back to the mid/late 1800s.
- All Visitor’s Centers had lots of good information, interesting exhibits, and the Rangers were helpful. The Painted Canyon Visitor’s Center in the South Unit is very accessible and easy to get to via I-94.
- Its campground was clean and quiet and wildlife roamed through it. The restrooms were modern and tidy.
- The Scenic Loop Drive is an easy way to get a very good view of much of what the park has to offer visually.
- Quick, short interpretive and self-guided hikes that are interesting and informative.
- It is a great “layover park” for a family as they pass through. If you are going to be nearby, it is worth going a little out of your way to stay overnight or drive the loop.
- If you are looking for a longer stay at a park with lots of wildlife, a rich history, and few crowds, you will want to spend several days here.
- Not as much hiking as we typically prefer. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we just like doing lots of hiking – some people don’t.
- Can hear the Interstate traffic at night (Rick was the only one to notice this).
- Probably not a “destination park” for our family that we would spend several days at (but still a great park to layover at).
While we prefer parks that have more hiking diversity and options, TRNP was a great experience that our entire family enjoyed. I don’t see it being a destination for us for more than 2-3 days but we found it to be an excellent, “layover”, park on our way further west to Fish Creek Campground at Glacier National Park.