Bison are up close and personal at the North Unit.

It’s a rugged hike up here in the north


On this trip, a sleeping bison welcomed visitors at the entrance of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Because the North Unit is smaller than the South Unit, you’re more likely to get closer views of the bison at the North Unit.

If you’ve spent much time at the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you have a good idea of the landscape. So, head to the North Unit for a completely different experience. It’s younger and is still evolving.  That makes it more rugged.

We love taking visitors, even young children to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). It’s on the very south edge of McKenzie County and is one of those features that makes McKenzie County a world-class destination.

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In classic North Dakota style, the TRNP under-promises, and over-delivers.  You’ll be amazed when you put on your hiking shoes and explore the park

Good for families

It’s a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails to suit all types of hikers. That’s why, when we visit the park, we don’t stay in the car, we get out of the car and into nature.  When my three kids were in their energetic elementary and preschool days, they could be free and safe to run, explore and challenge one another.

One of the most popular areas for families and kids is the Cannonball Concretion trail.

Sure, some people just drive through the park, a 14-mile Scenic Drive that leads from the entrance station to Oxbow Overlook, with turnouts and interpretive signs along the way. Drive-by tourists look for bison, park at the top loop and the lookout post, then drive away.  They don’t know what they are missing.

You can see the Little Missouri River from the far end of the park, near the Overlook Shelter

The park is there for you to experience, not merely view. So, along the 14-mile drive, you will see bison, deer and longhorn steers.

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 (The Longhorns are a particular favorite of ours because of their history in the region.)  You will pass a number of hiking trails. Some are self-guiding nature trails that have interpretive brochures to help you learn more about the Badlands.

The Caprock Coulee nature trail is an easy jaunt with good photo opportunities. It does not have the rugged climbs and overlooks that the Achenbach trail has.


The idea for a park was evolutionary.  It started to be just an idea for a memorial to President Theodore Roosevelt in about 1919 shortly after he died.  Eventually, in addition to a connection with a president, the land was recognized for its diverse cultural and natural resources. On November 10, 1978, the area was given national park status when President Carter signed the bill that changed the memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Some of the bison herd from the South Unit were transported to the North Unit.  They’ve done well up north, and will likely see them in several locations. So, take your camera.

Here’s the history of the park

When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.  –from the National Park System publication about TRNP

Our recommendation

As we mentioned above, the North Unit is eons younger than its twin in the southern part of the state, the South Unit near Medora.  Another distinction is the North Unit is off the beaten path of I-94.  So, it has less tourist traffic.

Our personal favorite is to hike all or part of the Achenbach Trial. This 18-mile long trail can be extended into a two-day hike. If you intend 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.

No matter what portion of the Achenbach Trail that you take, you will find it provides steep climbs and descents. The full version includes and two river crossings on the trail that leads deep into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness.

Since it is tough to do in one day, so we recommend just taking the west end of the trail down the hill from the Oxbow overlook.  The map will show where to get on and off. 

Family Tip

If you have children, try the Caprock Coulee or Cannonball Concretions for a couple of hours.  If you keep it short, you won’t get as worn out, and the kids will look forward to returning.

See what you can see

Look for a way, on a trail, or off a trail to get to the top of a hill. When you start out, you’ll be fresh and full of energy.

We’d stop every so often to look over the hills or look back to see how far we’d come. 

At one of the highest points on the Achenbach Trail, near the west terminus, a look back at where the trail started.

It doesn’t seem like much until you look back to see where you started.  There are attractive/amazing/impressive spots along the trail where we got and exercise climbing over, around or through rock formations.

The Riverbend Overlook is one of the most photographed buildings in the state.

How to get there

The North Unit is a 50-mile drive north from Interstate 94.  Or a 15-mile drive south of Watford City in McKenzie County.  It’s a good highway into the park from either direction.  The highway in the park is well-maintained.  Motorcyclists often make it a day ride to and through the park.

The 14-mile loop in the park attracts motorcyclists and others who ride through the canyon floor up to the overlook at the end. The highway is below some of the higher points on the trail.

Stop in the visitor center when you pay the entrance fee to get maps. We don’t want to scare you into thinking the whole region is like the Achenbach Trail.  You’ll find on the maps some very easy trails, each shorter than one mile and can be hiked in less than a half hour.

You’ll enjoy the drive on Highway 85, a modern two-lane highway 50 miles north from Belfield and Interstate 94.  Or you can come down from the north, about 14 miles south of Watford City on Highway 85.  Note: the further north you go on Highway 85, the more oil field truck traffic you will encounter.

Can you recommend a hike in the North Unit?

What to read more?  Here’s a link to read more about the Achenbach Trail  

Here’s the link to get the Park Guide

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