The Badlands of North Dakota – Theodore Roosevelt NP

I’m one of those people who thinks of South Dakota when I hear about The Badlands.  But badlands are not just a South Dakota phenomenon, as North Dakota has them too – and folks here brag about them.  When they brag, they often include references to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) in the same sentence.

Long before Teddy became president, he was hunting buffalo in the badlands and falling in love with them.  It was the rugged North Dakota Badlands that taught him a healthy respect for nature, while toughening him physically and mentally.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - South unit
The road to the Petrified Forest trail head

“I would not have been President,” he would later say, “had it not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”  And here we were at a national park that covers 110 square miles of breathtaking vistas – including the badlands – that bear his name.  The welcoming committee below seemed very happy to see us!

Feral horses, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Feral horses in the South Unit of the park

There are four areas to explore at the park – the South Unit, the North Unit, Painted Canyon (a rest stop with a gorgeous view just west of Medora) and the Elkhorn Ranch. We enjoyed only the first three areas, as the Elkhorn Ranch requires a high-clearance vehicle. Near the top of our agenda was taking a long hike to get our leg muscles beefed back up.

Deer at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Welcome Steve and MonaLiza – now leave us alone!
Cattle at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
“Close that gate when you’re done with your hike, ” said one of the cows

We felt ambitious and decided to follow the Petrified Forest Loop Trail at the South Unit.  The weather cooperated with clouds to filter the hot sun and a slight breeze to make our 11.2 mile hike a pleasure.  The petrified woods lie in two main concentrations along this hike – one to the north and the other to the south – each a short 3-mile roundtrip walk from the parking lot.  But we took the full loop which included both areas plus several miles of the badlands wilderness and grasslands.

Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness

There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. – Theodore Roosevelt

Although my photos obviously cannot capture the spirit of the wilderness, I felt now what Roosevelt must have felt then – we can experience the prairie wind brushing our cheeks, and the silence here is deafening.  I always lag behind Steve when we are hiking, but this trail in the wilderness was an especially great one for retrospection and solitude.


Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness
Can you spot Steve way up there?
Little Missouri River
Little Missouri River carving through the badlands


Theodore Roosevelt wilderness
How cool is that circular pattern?

Odd shapes and strange formations could be seen everywhere on this trail.  Below are isolated concretions, formations commonly weathered out of the surrounding eroding sandstone to form protective caps called “hoodoos.”



We wandered through the remains of an ancient forest.  Sequoia, Bald Cypress and other water-loving trees stood here some 60,000 years ago.

Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest
Petrified stumps eroding out of the hillside

When silica-rich water soaked into the tress, organic compounds in the wood were dissolved and replaced by very small crystals of quartz.  This is the process of petrification.

A tree stump petrified with chunks of quartz

It’s hard to imagine how the little creatures that live here can survive the harsh winter months.  Steve’s sharp eye spotted this molting lizard.


Near the end of our hike I discovered this red mound.  Can you see the left side of an old man’s face?  I imagined it to be good old Theodore Roosevelt watching over his beloved badlands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
My imagined guardian of The Badlands

The North Dakota Badlands is a vast area of colorful layered mountains, and we had only checked out one section – the South Unit.  There’s much more to come!











  1. We definitely need to get back to this area and do some hiking. We stopped here on our first trip west and hadn’t even bought our hiking boots yet. I didn’t realize that I was going to be addicited to hiking! However, the one area of the park we did spend time was Elkhorn Ranch and we had a car similar to yours at the time. I’m not sure where you read about a high clearance vehicle. Unless things have really changed, it was just dirt roads with LOTS of huge oil vehicle going a million miles an hour. Then there was a 1/2 mile hike to the ranch’s site. Needless to say, we were the only visitor! John just had to stand where Teddy stood and see the corner stones of his ranch. It was less thrilling for me for me but John was thrilled. Sure glad you got out exploring and shared all this beauty we missed. Thanks!

  2. This was a wonderful post MonaLiza. You really captured the essence of the place with your photos and narration. Thank you. We visited it briefly many years ago and your post evoked the feelings I had then… was the first place I really experienced “deafening silence”.

  3. We loved our visit to the Badlands. I tried to image being a pioneer coming up on that area for the first time. I can’t image what they must have thought. The hoodoos are just amazing. Great post.

  4. We only tagged North Dakota briefly this summer in order to snag my 49th state (Alaska is the lone 50th for me personally)! And we don’t have any plans to spend more time there, but this is an inspiring post and may make us change our minds.

  5. So glad to see your marvelous pictures of a place we were stunned by. We too had no idea of the beauty there in North Dakota. Your pictures are just so wonderful. Hope you see the buffalo.

  6. I loved this park. Terry did not get to see much of it as he had to take an emergency trip back home to see his father. I had friends come out to visit and did the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. I loved those petrified logs and concretions.

  7. TRNP is on our list for possibly next year. Thanks for scoping it out. That’s quite the impressive hike and I’m sure it was worth seeing all these fabulous things.

  8. What a cool place! I love your description of the beauty of the Badlands, and your wonderful photos. Those hoodoos are fantastic — they look like giant mushrooms. How interesting that Teddy Roosevelt credits his experiences in North Dakota with becoming President. This is definitely a place that we need to visit.

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