The backcountry of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Backcountry hiking can be more challenging than hiking one of the marked hiking trails at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  With 46,000 acres in the South Unit, there is a lot of backcountry to explore.

The South Unit is the larger of the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The short trail to Buck Hill is an example of the visual reward even a short hike on a marked trail can yield. Last spring, we used Buck Hill to get this shot of the area to the north. The South Unit is the larger of the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s about 75 square miles.

We do both, trail hiking and backcountry hiking. We find the personal physical challenge of a backcountry hike to be very rewarding.  You will undoubtedly benefit from a challenging backcountry hike.  So, today (and next week with a second story), we’ll spur your imagination with a couple of ideas to see and do things most people who visit the Park will never see or do.  They’re part of our remedy to relieve seasonal stress as we talked about here in this article.

This December’s weather is unusually warm and dry.  That’s why we made the unusual commitment to exploring as much of the South Unit of the TRNP as we could while the weather cooperated. In December. In winter.  Temperatures in the 40s and ’50s, light winds, brilliant sun are perfect for hiking.

We made four trips to visit the South Unit and Medora in one week.  The first two short hikes, about a half-mile each. They were easy and rewarding. Maybe these will give you ideas to the short jaunts on a marked trail into the Park. The photos we got were very remarkable and very popular with our social media friends.

wind canyon trail little missouri river yellow cliffs

Wind Canyon Trail, a short half-mile hike runs along the cliff overlooking the Little Missouri River.

Off the beaten path

A couple of days later, we took two longer backcountry trips into the interior of the South Unit.

Mid December in the Badlands of North Dakota

Snowfall had been sparse by the middle of December. Although snow and ice remain on northern exposures, and in places protected by dense vegetation (which means very slippery!), the south faces of the hills and buttes are without snow.

When we hike backcountry, we like to pick a distant point and plot a route to that point.  Our best successes are when we can follow a ridgeline as far as possible.

Near Scoria point, this red rugged burned clay hill (scoria) showed off its colors and ruggedness.

We see where we’re going and make better decisions when we’re on top, and not in a valley. (Kind of like life, isn’t it?)

Admittedly, we’re not in real good shape this time of year.  So, we limited our time to only two or three hours.  You can see and do a lot in just a couple of hours off the beaten path.


A 3.5 -mile loop

Winter Hike on Scoria Trail

Though the snow and ice had melted on the south faces of the badlands formations, we discovered the protected northern surfaces were extremely slippery, not only from visible ice but from the greasy clay beneath the seemingly dry dirt.

The first day of getting off the beaten path, we parked in a pull-out area between Scoria Point and Badlands Overlook.  This is where a couple of months ago, we had a wonderful engagement with three wild horses at this point.  Perhaps we would be lucky again.












Oval marks the short backcountry hike area.

To pick a destination, we needed to survey the landscape. So, we scaled the first highpoint. From there, we picked two hills about one-and-a-half miles away. It looked like a moderately challenging goal. We were sure it would provide a physical challenge that would push our out-of-shape selves.

Hike to a High Point in the Badlands

We set our course through the backcountry by climbing to a high point, then choosing a distance point to hike towards, very often plotting our course on a high ridge.

The yellow arrow on the horizon points to the gap between the two hills that is our goal. We’ll follow the ridgeline we’re on, prepared to cross to any other ridgeline that gets us to our goal.

Two Hills

To get to the two hills, we found a ridgeline that meandered that direction.  

badlands prairie grassland

Getting close to the goal, looking back at Mary coming across the flat prairie toward the hills.

There was some up and down navigating across saddles in the ridge, and around smaller hills. However, the ridgeline saved us from major up and down climbing.  At the end of the hike, we took a comparatively easy “stroll” across a prairie flat to the base of the two hills. We parked ourselves on a caprock and rested.



The caprock behind Mary was evident from a long way away. We made that our resting point where we’d turn around and head back.

Backcountry hike can exercise more muscle groups than marked trail hiking.  Climbing or descending uncertain ground means you are using all your major muscle groups in your legs and back, but also the minor stabilizing muscles that help you maintain balance when the ground is uneven.

two hills golden hour badlands

Before we got too far back to our starting point, it was obvious we were going to run out of daylight. It was the golden hour, the last minutes of daylight.

If the day had been longer – remember it gets dark about 4:30 in the Badlands in December – we would have wound our way to the top of the hills to see what we could see.  Instead, we headed back in the general direction toward our starting point. We made a wide loop that extended the hike another half-mile or more. 

Clumsy but fun

Once again, we followed a ridgeline back to where we wanted to go. It took us in a generally southeasterly direction which was not quite where we wanted to go, but we were not up to scaling the steep hills.  Admittedly, we took the path of least resistance. The ridgeline gave us beautiful views of the endless landscape of the Badlands. We were confident the ridgeline would get us where we wanted to go.

We were wrong. The ridgeline ended in a sharp steep hill. What do we do?  Do we retrace our steps or do we go straight down?

We went down

Hillsides shaded from the winter sun are covered with ice.  Any time there’s a bit of melting, it quickly cools to create a sheet of ice on north-facing hills.  So, we scouted the end of this ridgeline until we found a south-facing hill free of ice that was not a complete death-defying, gravity-energizing slide to the bottom.

We knew what to expect

At the end of a long hike, our legs are tired and are not as nimble as our minds think we are.  Good hiking boots, (we wear Vasque, Keen or Red Wing boots) with good tread helped us find catch points on our descent. 

Near the bottom, a quick stumble and we were horizontal!

Slippery Slopes in the Badlands!

Although the ground appeared dry and stable, the moisture after recent snows still remained beneath the surface. ‘Oily’ and ‘Greasy’ describe the badlands under such circumstances. On a slope, you will slide!

It actually felt good to lay there a moment. We laughed and checked out how much mud we collected on our jeans, then navigated carefully to the rest of the way to the bottom.

End of Our Sunset Hike at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Nearing our Jeep as the sun began to set, we were thankful we had turned back when we did on this December day hike. Daylight hours are limited in North Dakota this time of year.

Violating our own rule

Our loop on the return ridge we followed took us further east than we had planned. It was getting dark. The sun had already set.  We had just violated one of our most inviolate rules, we hiked too long. We hiked past sunset.  If anything calamitous were to happen, we’d be stuck in the park in the dark.  Bad move.

We ended up farther from our Jeep than we anticipated. So, we climbed up to the paved scenic road through the park and strolled back to our parking spot.

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The reward is hard to express.  The fresh air and strenuous exercise pumped our endorphins so that we were nearly giddy.  Self-imposed limits were smashed. Nature’s limits were overcome. We had set a physical challenge and met it – and more. That’s the kind of reward you cannot buy over the counter.

Hiking To The Jeep At Sunset

Our hike was a bit longer than we had planned. The sun was already setting before we reached our vehicle. It’s easy to get lost in the moment while hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. In the far distance Square Butte, Sentinel Butte, and Camel Hump are discernible.


Our legs were tired. Our bodies sore from falling.  We were happy. Holiday stresses were gone.  Bill-paying pressures forgotten. 


We had a slow hour drive out of the park back to Medora. We started planning our next interior backcountry adventure – hopefully in a few days if the weather held.

Coming up– more backcountry

Coming up, a second backcountry hike with a surprise discovery of just how wild nature can be.  That’s next week. Sign up in the upper right to get a note in your inbox when that story is published.

People who are addicted to the beauty of the Badlands have been shopping here for wall decor, and keepsakes such as key chains, mouse pads, coffee cups, refrigerator magnets — all that remind them of the North Dakota Badlands.