Which one is which?
What’s your pleasure? Nature? History? Quick access? Solitude? Exercise? Fresh air?
You can find a bit of all those things at the three units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park — in different proportions.
One trail links all three: The Maah Daah Hey trail. Open to hikers, horseback riders and bicycle riders. And extreme athletes know it to be one of the top 10 single track trails for mountain bikers.
The three units:
- The south unit off of Interstate 94, about 25 miles inside the state line at the tourist town of Medora. It’s the most popular and busiest of the three units because access is so easy. That’s a main part of the mission of the south unit — local economy. It works with the tourist town of Medora to draw larger numbers of people.
- The Elkhorn Ranch Unit about 25 miles north of Interstate 94 on gravel roads and is outstanding for its seclusion and separation from the rest of the world.
- The north unit 15 miles south of Watford City on Highway 85. The Administrative History of the TR National Park distinguishes the mission of the north unit as preserving the natural historic environment of what used to be known as the Dakota Territory. Click here to read more about the north unit.
Here are 5 differences:
It’s the terrain that draws people to the Badlands. From Marmarth to Mandaree, the Badlands terrain is a wow factor for many people. There are differences in that “wow factor” at each of the three units.
One of the reasons we like the north unit is the extreme depths of the cuts, canyons and valleys.
The distance from prairie top to valley floor is about 600 feet — (and even deeper if you go to the Little Missouri State Park north of Killdeer).
Geologists and archeologists say the northern end of the Badlands, including the north unit, is younger than the southern end, and so it isn’t as worn down. That’s at those times when we want to challenge ourselves and get a good workout, we head north.
At the south unit, the depth from the prairie top to the valley floor is about 250 feet deep. The terrain of the south unit is much older and more smoothly eroded than the north unit. The south unit includes some challenging terrain — like the wildlife trails off of Scoria Point. A challenge for anyone to hike. Heart-pounding.
A moderately challenging trail in the south unit is to the highest point — Peck Hill. Here’s what it took for us to go beyond the East Entrance to conquer Peck Hill.
Then there’s the easy terrain at the middle unit, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. This is ranch country, grazing abounds here along the river floodplain, and on the grasslands that run up to the breaks down to the river. The main trail at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is a mowed grassy path, marked with sign boards leading to the remains of Theodore Roosevelt’s home ranch.
Everyone likes to see the wildlife, and the visible menagerie varies south to north.
The North Unit has all the critters of the south unit, but it does not have wild horses. Instead, it has more bighorn sheep and the park’s only herd of longhorn cattle.
We enjoy spotting the herd of longhorns. Their 6-foot wide tip-to-tip span is impressive — even the one we call “twisted.” His horns go both ways.
The longhorns are a story all to themselves, and represent the history of the region from when there were no fences, no barb wire.
The South Unit has bison, elk, deer, prairie dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes, porcupines and wild horses. The herd of some 150 wild horses in the south unit draws people to the park. We love to spot them from time to time, and do not disturb them.
They are wild, you know. However, I have had the surprise of laying on a hill top watching a band below me, when another band came up from behind and walked up to me.
Though the Elkhorn Ranch got its name from elkhorn racks Roosevelt found nearby, it’s rare to see any elkhorn here. You may see some mule deer, or snakes. Bird watchers like to sit quietly here to watch the hawks, meadowlarks and other birds.
The north unit is 24,070.32 acres, about half the size of the south unit. The Easter 2021 wildfires on the far eastern edge of the north unit closed some of the longer trails to hike. The scenic drive is still open, though.
The scenic drive is in-and-out, not a loop. (Well, the south unit will be a loop when the slide area is rebuilt, connecting the now broken ring around the inside of the park.)
We think the more compact size of the north unit gives it a more “intimate” feel. You’re more likely to spot bison and mule deer in the north unit.
The South Unit is almost twice as large as the North Unit. The South Unit: 46,158.57 acres. North Unit: 24,070.32 acres.
It takes a bit more time to explore he South Unit because of its size. We found it provides a lot of variables.
Park rangers remind people that the interior of the park is yours to explore. So we do.
Our next big jaunt will be the “donut,” the lower valley below Boicourt that extends nearly the entire width of the interior, the center of the scenic loop.
The Elkhorn Ranch unit is a tiny fraction of what Roosevelt claimed as his ranch 100 years ago. At about 150 acres, it’s a pleasant Sunday afternoon stroll. The world class single-track trail, the Maah Daah Hey, skirts right along side the Elkhorn Ranch unit. So, though the unit itself does not have restrooms, you can access vault toilets nearby on the trail and at the Elkhorn Campground.
Unless you are a bicyclist crossing the U.S., or on foot or horseback, ya gotta drive to the three units.
(A large number of people like to experience the great outdoors comfortably seated in their car. We send them to the south unit because the drive is longer and the window to the wild is more varied in the south.)
The North Unit has less traffic, but as Watford City grows, traffic increases with people from town who want to take a pretty drive. But that means it’s about 40 miles north of the Interstate, so few people take the drive north.
There’s more traffic in the South Unit because it is more easily accessed at a the seasonal tourist town (Medora) and it is on I-94. Expect delays when road work is underway. Sometimes you may have to sit 10 to 15 minutes to wait your turn to pass through a construction area.
Traffic also backs up when tourists stop to watch bison or horses.
We found the drive to Elkhorn Ranch is part of the attraction. We think you would like it too, if you’re up for an hour drive on exciting gravel roads — and then a drop down into the valley on a hilly decline.
It’s a set of long, meandering gravel roads that pass through open grazing. So, you may have to stop for a herd of cattle or ranch horses on the road.
Along the way, you’ll come to places where the grasslands will be on the west side and the badlands on the east. It makes it easy to tell the difference.
Fresh air is abundant at any of the three units. We’ve found ample solitude at the north unit and Elkhorn. However, if you’re up for a hike, to find the reward of solitude, exercise and fresh air, head north. The North Unit provides many scenic overlooks of the Little Missouri River cutting through the Badlands from south to north.
Because it’s a bit more rugged, the North Unit has at least one challenging trail — a two-day trail. But you can take just a part of it for an afternoon. That’s the Achenbach Trail.
Because of the spring 2021 wildfire, one of our favorite trails is closed. We love the Caprock Coulee Trail.
We access five marked short and easy trails at the south unit when time is short: Boicourt, Buck Hill, East Entrance, Ridgeline and Wind Canyon. Any of these can be extended if you go beyond to explore the park interior.
Our favorite challenging trail in the south unit is not a marked trail. It is the challenge to follow wildlife trails north and west of Scoria Point.
The grassy mowed path from the parking lot to the historic ranch house site is easy enough to almost be considered wheel chair accessible. If it’s wet, however, a wheel chair may get bogged down.
For a bit more of a challenge, get on the Maah Daah Hey trail that runs past the Elkhorn unit. Unless you have a self-provided shuttle service to return you to your starting point, it is an out-and-back hike, either to the north or the south. The trail is in good shape, and the effort is minimal. The reward is fantastic.
The Sequoia Forest of the Badlands
Visitors who want something outside the three main attractions of the Park like to head a little way west, just across the river from the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That’s where you’ll find massive remnants of a sequoia forest — Petrified Stumps, some well over 6-feet tall. Click here.
9 More Healthy Weekend Destinations
Don’t limit yourself to these three excellent adventures. There are at least 9 spots in the millions of acres that will give you a healthy summer of exploration and joy. Your whole countenance will change, your lungs will feel fresh, and you’ll wonder why you have hit these 9 places more often. Click here to read more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where are the North Dakota Badlands?
About 20 miles east of the Montana State line, from the South Dakota border, north about 15 miles following the Little Missouri River.
Can I drive through the Badlands?
Yes. The area is home to many multi-generational ranch families. So, gravel roads curve through the hills. WE recommend West River road to the south and east river road to the north or south of Interstate 94. In addition, Highways 16, 22 and 85 run along the edges of the Badlands.
How dangerous is it in the Badlands?
The biggest danger is getting stuck in the winter, sliding off the road in a rainy summer, or getting lost on a trail. Cell phone service is practically non-existant. Emergency service can take 30 to 60 minutes to reach an injured person.
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