South Unit has the numbers. North Unit has the ruggedness

This summer, our trips to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park prompted us to ask which of the two park units you like most.

So, we polled our social media followers, asking them which they prefer, the South or the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

By almost a 3-to-1 margin, the North Unit is more popular. Now, of course, that was not a scientific poll, and it may reflect the geographic location of our followers more than anything. The North Unit is near Watford City, the South Unit is near Medora.  

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park pays off for the local communities such as Dickinson. Sydney Mook from the Dickinson Press covered the impact of the nearby Park.

In 2017, more than 708,000 visits were made to the two parks. Most of those to the south unit, thanks to its proximity to I-94, Medora and Dickinson.

In 2017, 708 thousand park visitors spent an estimated $43.9 million in local gateway regions while visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


The south unit is almost twice as large at the north unit. So, even though it attracts more visitors, they can be spread out over a greater area.  So far, this year, McKenzie County reports 73,000 visits have been made to the North Unit.

From the National Park Service:


Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects more than 70,000 acres.

South Unit 46,158.57 acres

North Unit 24,070.32 acres

Still, for those who like the rugged yet accessible outdoors with fewer people, the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is hard to beat.

North Unit TRNP

The Golden Hour, just as the sun sets from the top of the Achenbach Trail near the Riverbend Overlook.


The View

We love taking visitors, even young children to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).  (We met a bunch of our family there in the summer of 2017 when we got married in the North Unit, so it’s a personal favorite of ours.)

Wedding couple stand on a ridge at the Overlook at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park with the Little Missouri River below.

After we tied the knot near the Juniper Campground at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we headed up to the overlook for the obligatory wedding photos.


It’s on the very south edge of McKenzie County and is one of those features that makes McKenzie County a world-class destination.  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.

It is a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park 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. 

Even youngsters in their energetic elementary and preschool days can be free and safe to run, explore and challenge one another.

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. Sad.

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 pass a number of hiking trails. Some are self-guiding nature trails that have interpretive brochures to help you learn more about the park.

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.


north unit TRNP

A spring sunset changes the colors of the Badlands. You can see it easily at the North Unit.


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 the National Park System publication about TRNP

Our recommendation

The North Unit is eons younger than it’s twin in the southern part of the state, the South Unit near Medora. The North Unit is more rugged and challenging. It also has less tourist traffic since it is more remote than the South Unit. The South Unit is on Interstate 94 and easily attracts people to pull off the Interstate.

Our personal favorite is to hike all or part of the Achenbach Trial of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it 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. The full trail provides steep climbs and descents and two river crossings await you on a trail that leads deep into the heart of the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness. 

It’s tough to do in one day, so we recommend just taking the west end (also called the north 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 we saw

Last fall, we hiked the central portion of the Achenbach. We parked our Jeep near the bottom of the hill and hiked up over a ridge to the south to intersect with the trail. Once on the trail, we headed westerly.  It’s an upward grade, but we were fresh, so it was an easy hike up. 

A short history of Longhorns on the Long X trail ends here at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Longhorn Cattle move out to the Little Missouri River from the North Unit if the TRNP where 140 years ago, the Long X ranch ran as many as 11,000 of Longhorns.

A cool July morning gradually filled with sunlight and a herd of bison joined longhorn cattle and mule deer for a refreshing start of the day at the Little Missouri River at the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Here’s what you could see, especially in the evening or early morning like this was.  The bison and longhorns like to water at the river early or late in the day.

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


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

A bison sleeps at the entrance of the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


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

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 The North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National 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. There are three easy trails, each shorter than one mile and can be hiked in less than a half hour.

 It’s right 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.

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 Hiking Guide

When to go?

Time your adventure to coincide with events in the region. They’re on our Things to Do Page.

Downstream from the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a rugged state park that is extremely beautiful. 

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Do you have a preference between the North and South Unit? Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!


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