Yeah, I don’t want to freeze my face either in negative temperatures – and especially not if the wind is blowing. Yikes! So, let’s consider a winter road trip.

Believe it or not, it is a “year round” activity, even in North Dakota’s winter.  We do it in the summer, as you can read here. 

Get the horsepower warmed up in your trusty warm weather carriage, then go for a drive in the Badlands. 

Take a look around on a sunny day. Notice that on a sunny day, when it is bitterly cold and there is no wind, the sunlight is brilliant. Colors pop. The contrasts are stark. It seems the air has squeezed out any remaining molecules of moisture, so the sun is less diffused.

A sunny crisp winter day, The sun is bright and the sky is blue.

TR National Park Scenic Drives

North Unit

Black Longhorn in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Black Longhorn in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

This in and out road follows the bottom ground and then curves up frozen hillsides to native grasslands. Allow about 45 minutes to go from entrance to the far end at Oxbow Overlook.  More if you stop to watch wildlife. Along the way, you may see bison, longhorns, and even bighorn sheep.

Near the end, to the south of the road are some of the steepest deepest gorges in the Badlands. I’ve often spotted elk here.

TIP: Go late in the day and you have a good chance to see elk or mule deer on the ridges above or beside you. Year round, as we wrote here, you are most likely to see wildlife in the early morning or evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South Unit

Two elk make their way up a hill late in the daylight hours, after sunset in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

Two elk make their way up a hill late in the daylight hours, after sunset in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

It used to be a loop and it will be again. But for now, you can drive in, head north up West River Road past the Peaceful Valley Ranch.  Allow about 90 minutes to drive from the entrance to the far end of the accessible loop.  As you can read here, it’s under construction now, so wildlife will be rare there. But if it’s quiet, wild horses, deer, elk and bison are often grazing.

In the wooded area near the west end of Jones Trail or Paddock Creek, you can spot mule deer grazing near the road. I’ve seen elk crossing the road here.

four mule deer on hill south unit golden hour

Last week, I drove out of the south unit, headed south and there above my window these four deer paused in the last bit of golden sunshine to hit west-facing slopes

Last week, when hiking the south unit, it was easy to see elk on hilltops and mule deer grazing nearby.

 

Near Wind Canyon, bison like to roam, even wander down the road.

 

 

 

 

 

bison theodore roosevelt national park sundog

A faint sundog overhead, bison stroll down the road like it’s a summer day, but its not. They were on the move in the South Unit, long before snow moved in, but it was cold – below zero.

 

Custer Trail, the ultimate Winter Road Trip — just ask George

You can get out of your car if it’s warm enough to take a peek over the hills along the Custer Trail.

Ready to learn something about American history from the comfort of your car?  Take a drive on either the east loop or west loop of the Custer Trail. The west loop starts on West River Road at exit 23 on I-94. (That puts it 23 miles inside North Dakota from Montana.)  

Follow the signs and envision the 7th Cavalry marching through here. They suffered through a June snowstorm, camped along the way, built bridges to get wagons across, and scouted for meals such as bison, elk, and deer.

Roadside markers tell the story.

 

 

After the trip

When you get back to civilization, it’s time to warm up with a hot meal in Dickinson. Or try one of the restaurants in Belfield.  We like Burly’s.  burlys ad menu

 

 

The owner tells us a new menu is out, and the new offerings refine the selections that locals rave about.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it dangerous to breakdown on a winter road trip in the Badlands

It can be, yes.  Cell phone reception is sketchy.  Tow trucks are very expensive because they may have to drive 50-75 miles to a broken down vehicle. Convenience stores do not exist at every intersection.  So, be in a trustworthy vehicle for a winter road trip, and do not stay out after sunset.

Are the Badlands open in the winter?

Yes, since “the Badlands” is a region of ruggedly beautiful ranch country.  When there’s not been a lot of snow, even the National Park is wide open.  If there’s been a lot of snow, the National Park restricts some access on the scenic roads.

Can you see wildlife in winter?

Yes, they like to stay in protected areas — (who wouldn’t?). But they are hungry, so they will go to where the grazing is good.  The park does not provide additional feed. They’re on their own, just the way they’ve been for centuries.

Where are the North Dakota Badlands?

The North Dakota Badlands is a geological and topographical oddity along the western edge of North Dakota. Starting in the far southwestern corner of North Dakota, west of Marmarth, the first hints of Badlands are visible. Follow the Little Missouri River north from Marmarth and the Badlands get more and more rugged. At the north end, between Killdeer and Mandaree, they are most steep and deep.

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