North Dakota is home to three units of the National Park Service: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site and Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. While Theodore Roosevelt NP is located right off the interstate, the two historic sites are a little further off the beaten path. Still, these North Dakota national parks are all interesting and well worth a visit.
We first visited these three parks back in 2012 and then again in 2020. Yes, the historic sites are fairly small and can be seen in just an hour or two each. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, however, deserves the better part of two or three days. Please plan ahead and don’t cut your visit too short!
Way too often we hear of people allowing only one day for Theodore Roosevelt NP. While it may not have the same awe as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, its rugged beauty, wildlife and solitude will no doubt draw you in. If you’re in the area, you might as well visit the other park service sites. I can’t tell you how many interesting and uniques pieces of history we have discovered through our visits to National Historic Sites, National Monuments and other “smaller” units of the National Park Service. The North Dakota national parks are no different.
If you’ve got a week, you’ve got plenty of time to visit the three North Dakota national parks. Along the way, you’ll find out just why Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the area.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is split into three different units. The South Unit is located right off Interstate 94 in Medora. The North Unit is about an hour north, located 15 miles south of Watford City. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is in between.
This park preserves the land that inspired Roosevelt’s love of nature and shaped him into the man that would become President. As President, Roosevelt established the US Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allowed him to establish 18 national monuments. Roosevelt also worked with Congress to preserve over 230 million acres of land as national parks, national forests and other designations.
We’d suggest at least three days to visit this park. If you aren’t doing any significant hiking, you could see all three units in only two days. For those on a really tight schedule, you can stop at the Visitor Center located at the I-94 rest area just east of Medora for a nice scenic view of the South Unit badlands. There’s even a short hiking trail at the rest area.
Things to Do at Theodore Roosevelt NP
With three full days, we’d suggest spending one day at the South Unit and one day at the North Unit. For the third day, you can do some longer hikes, visit the Elkhorn Unit or drive out to the Petrified Forest area.
Both the North and South units have a nice scenic drive that is an absolute must. There are plenty of overlooks and you should stop at as many of those overlooks as time allows. Along the scenic drives you’ll see the rugged badlands, the Missouri River and grassy plains. While the landscape is quite rugged, it is beautiful.
You’ll also find plenty of opportunities for hiking, with a wide range of hikes in the North and South units. We particularly enjoyed the Caprock Coulee Loop in the North Unit, the Petrified Forest trails in the South Unit and the short, easy hike to the site of Roosevelt’s ranch home at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
Note: The unpaved roads to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit are prone to washouts after heavy rain. Check with a ranger before making the drive out, especially if you do not have four-wheel drive.
Also, be sure to keep an eye out for the many different kinds of wildlife that call the park home. You should have no problems spotting bison or prairie dogs. You may have to search a little but we’ve spotted the iconic wild horses several times on both our visits.
Where to Stay
The entrance to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP is located in Medora, making it the ideal place to stay. Medora is a tiny little town, with a population just over 100 people. That said, it’s full of charm and offers more restaurants and entertainment than you might expect.
As you might expect in a small town, there are only a handful of hotels and a couple of campgrounds in Medora. We stayed at the Red Trail Campground in 2020, which was nothing fancy but comfortable and convenient. There is also a campground in the park, which we stayed at on our first visit.
In the summer, be sure to get tickets to the Medora Musical, the most unique outdoor entertainment we’ve ever experienced. You can also find a great meal at Theodore’s Dining Room, which is where we celebrated our tenth anniversary!
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
Located on the Montana/North Dakota border, Fort Union Trading Post NHS was the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River from 1828 to 1867. Here, the Plains Indians and white settlers traded buffalo robes, guns, blankets and other items peacefully for many years. Today, you’ll find a full reconstruction of the fort in its original location.
You can tour the fort on your own. Rangers and volunteers are available around the fort to answer any questions you might have. Be sure to get the official park brochure, which includes a map and brief description of each building and rooms. In addition to trading goods, the fort provided meals, housing, a blacksmith shop and included defensive structures.
Fort Union Trading Post is about 2 hours northwest of Medora. You’ll only need an hour or two to visit the site. Depending on your route, you can easily stop on your way to or from Theodore Roosevelt NP. You could also visit as a day trip from Medora or combine this with a stop at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
I’d also suggest bringing a picnic lunch or snacks with you, as this area is very remote. The nearest town is Williston, ND, about 30 minutes northeast of Fort Union. There is virtually nothing between Medora and Fort Union Trading Post.
Finally, it’s important to note that the Montana/North Dakota border is the dividing line for the Central and Mountain time zones. The park is officially in North Dakota and on Central Time. When coming from Medora, you may cross into Mountain Time on your way there. Interestingly, the entrance to the parking lot is technically in Montana, while the trading post itself is in North Dakota.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is located about 2 hours northeast of Medora, in Stanton, ND. This site preserves the area that was once an earthlodge village for the Hidatsa people. Additionally, it was a major Native American trade center before becoming an important market for fur traders. The people who lived here hunted bison and other game. Unlike many other tribes, however, they were non-migratory due to their success at farming.
At Knife River Indian Villages, be sure to watch the orientation film and check out the museum at the Visitor Center before exploring the grounds. Outside, you’ll find a full-scale reconstructed Earthlodge (a must-see), a Hidatsa garden and a short trail through the old village sites.
The Earthlodge is an interesting look at how the Hidatsa people lived. Be sure to pick up a brochure with all the details on how the lodges were built and how the inside was organized. The Village Trail is an easy 30-45 minute walk. Along the trail, you’ll get a nice look at the small mounds that are all that remain of the former earthlodge village on the way to the bank of the Knife River.
You’ll only need an hour or two to see the highlights of this site. If you have more time, ask a ranger about the longer hiking trails.
Both times we visited this site it was just a quick stop on our way east from Theodore Roosevelt NP. You could also do it as a day trip from Medora.
Final Thoughts on the North Dakota National Parks
While there is only one designated National Park in North Dakota, we hope that you’ll take the time to stop at the other two sites. Yes, the Historic Sites are off the beaten path. That said, they both offer an interesting look into the history of this area and can be seen in a quick stop on your way to or from other sites.
Depending on your route, you can easily visit the Historic Sites on the way to or from Medora. If you’re not continuing east or west, the other site can be visited as a day trip from Medora.
While North Dakota may not be the “most popular” state, it is home to a rugged beauty and solitude that must be experienced to fully understand. The three North Dakota national parks provide a nice glimpse into the Native American history of the state and the landscape that people have enjoyed for thousands of years.
You can also combine a visit to North Dakota with South Dakota, Montana or other nearby states. In fact, we include Theodore Roosevelt National Park in our Ultimate Western National Parks Road Trip. Take a look to see how it fits into a longer national parks vacation itinerary and enjoy a summer on the road!