With so much gorgeous, rugged and unpopulated land, you might think that North Dakota has many national parks. Our 39th state in the Upper Midwest bordering Canada definitely has a wealth of scenic and historically significant places. Some may have even directly inspired the conservation movement that helped create our national parks. But how many of them have a formal designation as a national park?
Let’s head to the Great Plains and explore the public lands that the National Park Service preserves in North Dakota.
How Many National Parks Are in North Dakota?
Would it surprise you that there’s only one national park in North Dakota? That’s right! North Dakota has one official national park: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
However, the National Park Service (NPS), which oversees national parks, has a larger presence in North Dakota than just Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In fact, even the NPS official website lists three North Dakota national parks, but some careful reading will reveal these distinctions. In other words, these other NPS sites don’t have the same official designation, but they do have the same protection.
The NPS also manages national historic sites, national monuments, national seashores, and national lakeshores. These are all so-called NPS “units,” and they are sometimes included in listings of national parks. We’ll dive deeper into the four less-known North Dakota National Park Service sites later in the article.
North Dakota’s Only National Park: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is North Dakota’s only national park. We think it’s incredibly fitting that North Dakota’s sole national park’s name is in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt. Our 29th president, who took office in 1901, was originally from New York and an avid outdoorsman. Before becoming president, he established a ranch in North Dakota. That’s where he first recognized the effects of development on the land and saw the need for preservation.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park covers 70,400 acres in the Little Missouri Badlands area of southwestern North Dakota. The park is divided into three separate areas and includes the Elkhorn Ranch, where Roosevelt reportedly had his revelation. His old “home place” property is the least developed of the three units and the most remote. The drive to it is incredibly scenic, but the last few miles are kind of rough riding.
Backcountry camping and hiking are extremely popular at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Depending on the weather, the outdoor activities also include canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
It’s also one of the few places you can see free-roaming bison as Roosevelt did. You may also encounter other wildlife like mule deer, prairie dogs, and even longhorn cattle. With virtually zero light pollution and fairly high elevation, it’s also a sweet spot for stargazing.
Pro Tip: Unsure if Theodore Roosevelt National Park is worth the trip to North Dakota? We broke down Why You Should Go To Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
How to Get There
Interstate 94 is the major highway that cuts through southern North Dakota. The South Unit, located in Medora, is 27 miles from the Montana state line and 133 miles west of Bismark. Take I-94 to either Exit 24 or Exit 27.
The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is seven miles east of there, off Exit 32. It takes an hour or a little longer to drive up to the North Unit from this area. To get there from I-94, go north on U.S. 85 from Belfield, at Exit 42. Personnel at either of the two visitor centers can give you detailed directions to the more secluded Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park has many wonderful camping opportunities. You can get a free permit for backcountry camping from the visitor centers. The park has three established campgrounds, as well. They do not have electricity, sewer hookups, or showers, but they do have vault toilets year-round. Other amenities, including drinking water and flush toilets, are available only in the summer season.
Cottonwood Campground near Medora in the South Unit has 76 sites for tents and RVs. Some can be reserved while others are first-come, first-served.
There are 50 sites in the North Section at Juniper Campground, nine of which are for tents only. They are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, the Roundup Group Horse Camp is open to horses and their riders. It’s in the South Unit, about 12 miles from Medora.
Pro Tip: We stayed at Juniper Campground ND- North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and spilled all the details for you!
For private vehicles, the entrance fee is $30, and it’s good for seven days. That’s for everyone traveling in a private, non-commercial vehicle. For motorcycles, the fee is $25. The entry fee is $15 without an automobile – for hikers, bicyclists, horse riders, and so on. Admission is free for people 15 and younger. You can get an annual pass for $55.
The fees are collected at the entrances from May through September and at visitor centers for the rest of the year. When visitor centers and entrance stations close, there are self-pay stations. You can also get a digital pass ahead of time through the website Recreation.gov to get into the North Dakota national park.
When to Go
The park’s wintertime visitors have to be prepared to brave some extreme temperatures. We prefer to visit North Dakota’s national park when the weather is more welcoming.
Spring is our favorite time because everything is so green and vibrant. Others may prefer to visit in the fall because of the gloriously changing colors. We would try to avoid late summer, however. Even in these wide-open spaces, the crowds are bigger then, it is much hotter, and there are more thunderstorms.
Other National Parks Service Sites in North Dakota
These are the other NPS units that are sometimes mischaracterized as North Dakota national parks. Visiting each of these will teach you more about this historic and grandly scenic territory.
Fort Union Trading Post
This national historic site on the Montana/North Dakota border contains a reconstructed fort on the location of a landmark trading post. Historians say that, from 1829 to 1867, Fort Union was one of the most important trading posts in the region. Native Americans traded furs, including buffalo robes, for goods from around the world.
Today, history interpreters share their modern perspectives on that era. You can also take in demonstrations of skills like weaving and blacksmithing. Many visitors also enjoy a quick hike on the short and scenic Missouri River Trail, which is just 2,000 ft long.
Knife River Indian Villages
This community, in present-day Stanton, was a trading center for hundreds of years before the burgeoning of the fur trade. A visit to this NPS historic site gives you a glimpse into the daily lives of the area’s earliest inhabitants.
These Northern Plains Indians were farming people who lived in earth lodges. They also hunted for big game and fished the rivers to provide for their families.
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
Imagine being part of a group walking and paddling from Illinois all the way to Oregon’s coast. It’s easier to visualize the scope of the Lewis and Clark expedition when you see part of their route up close. Their groundbreaking journey sought a water route across the western United States.
Along the way, across nearly 5,000 miles, they documented hundreds of plant and animal species. This national historic trail memorializes their trailblazing path through 16 states and tribal lands.
North Country Scenic Trail
It’s shorter than Lewis and Clark’s route, but this national scenic trail is one of the country’s longest footpaths. Reaching eastward to Vermont from central and southeastern North Dakota, it rivals the Appalachian Trail in distance and beauty.
North Dakota’s section of the trail covers about 440 acres along the same general route as the Sheyenne River. Besides open prairies, this varied terrain includes hills, valleys, and lakes formed by ancient glaciers.
Are North Dakota National Parks Worth Visiting?
Theodore Roosevelt was definitely on to something when he thought this area was worth saving for future generations. He was an important conservation leader, so it seems appropriate that North Dakota’s only national park is named for him.
And thanks, at least in part to him, many other significant places are preserved. These special places don’t all have national park status, but they are also under the park service’s special care. The park that carries his name is definitely worth visiting, and so are these other NPS units in North Dakota.
What are your favorite national park service sites in North Dakota? Drop a comment below!
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