Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids Guide – Things To Do

by forsomethingmore
(Last Updated On: October 2, 2020)
Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids is a great outdoor family adventure
Our grandkids at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
By Sheila Long

Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids Is Great For Outdoor Family Adventures

Exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park with kids (TRNP) and the Badlands contained within the park means you’ll be exploring 25-55 million year old sedimentary rock formations as well as one of the most pristine and beautiful places in all of North Dakota, USA. You’ll also be getting yourself into some excellent family hiking terrain! Now, don’t confuse the stunning North Dakota Badlands with the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. While both are certainly worthy of outdoor family adventures, below is all about exploring with kids the North Dakota Badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

What Are The North Dakota Badlands?

The North Dakota badlands are beautiful
The Badlands are quite beautiful, since we don’t have to navigate through them!

In case you don’t know, the word ‘Badlands’ refers to the unique geology found in TRNP as well as a few other places through the American West and Canada. In short, when settlers were heading west and exited out of the relatively flat and easy to travel through grasslands and saw the barren, rocky and contoured land ahead of them, they termed them ‘Badlands.’ Since then the name has stuck. But that’s enough history for now!

Family Fun Abounds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Whether you experience TRNP with your kids, or in our case our 5 year-old granddaughter and our two 11 year-old grandsons, the Badlands in North Dakota are ripe for making memorable outdoor family adventures. Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the day is one of our favorite things to do. If however you prefer to spend the night, there are plenty of camping options too. Below are all the details you’ll need to craft your own outdoor family adventure in the North Dakota Badlands. Leave your comments/questions below, and then get ready to bask in the beauty of the Badlands in North Dakota.

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids For A Day Or Overnight

Living just a few hours east of the Badlands in North Dakota, we make a day trip out of adventuring in this spectacular national park. However, it is indeed possible to spend multiple days in the park itself as well as in the surrounding areas. There are plenty of campsites and activities and even backcountry backpacking trails to choose from, so you’ll not have a hard time making a day or a multi-day trip out of the many things to do in the Badlands.

If it’s your first time to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, whether you spend a day or more, make sure you also consider checking out the small yet buzzing vacation town of Medora, ND.

Day Tripping The North Dakota Badlands

Since we have been to TRNP many times, we head straight to our favorite outdoor adventures which include the family friendly hiking trails in the South Unit. In particular, our favorites are the Skyline Vista Trail, the Wind Canyon Trail, and the Painted Canyon Trail. These are all feasible to hike in one day.

What To Bring – Day Trip

If you are going to the Badlands for the day, you’ll want to wear long pants, good hiking shoes, and a light jacket, as it’s chilly early in the morning and in the evening time.  Also, the weather can change very quickly, so you’ll always want to be prepared.  Make sure you also bring a daypack, bug spray, sunscreen, lots of water (at least 2 liters per person in the summer time), and some light snacks – especially if you’re hiking/exploring with young kids. If you prefer a bit of extra stability, as our 50+ selves do, hiking poles are also a great choice.

Overnight Camping In Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If you choose to stay overnight in the Badlands, you’ll have two main options – car camping and backpacking.

What to Bring – Car Camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If you opt to car camp, you’ll want to be prepared with all of your typical car camping gear, including of course your family camping tent. Keep in mind, none of the three campsites in the area have electrical hookups or showers, so plan accordingly. While we don’t normally spend the night, there are so many things to do in the North Dakota Badlands with kids that you should definitely consider this option.

What to Bring – Backpacking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

If you want to avoid all the crowds, and really get off the beaten path, consider some of the backcountry trails in the park’s North Unit. This area is perfect for multi-day backpacking trips. Consult a reliable backpacking packing list to make sure you’re prepared to adventure in the wild for a few days or more. We have not yet gone backpacking in this area with our grandkids, but we’re always open to trying new things!

Wildlife In Theodore Roosevelt National Park

While hiking around the Badlands in North Dakota, it’s likely that you and your family will see many native wildlife species. From prairie dogs, to more than 186 types of birds, to reptiles, to large grazing mammals, including bison, there are plenty of chances to spot some wildlife.  At first it may seem quiet in the wide open spaces of TRNP, but eventually you will start to recognize the various animal sounds around you. When you do, you’ll be able to hear the North Dakota Badlands’ natural symphony.

While we have seen lots of evidence of bison roaming the prairie, we have not had any close encounters with them while hiking.  The closest we’ve gotten was when we were driving through TRNP, and we saw some bison near the road.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has many bison
These are the bison we saw near the road.

To this end, please pay attention to the warning signs. Bison are indeed wild animals, and trying to get a close-up picture and/or trying to pet them is not a good idea.  It is always best to appreciate all wildlife from a safe distance.

bison warning sign
A bison warning sign

The Three Parts of TRNP

Theodore Roosevelt National Park map
Map of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (Photo Credit)

There are three parts that comprise Theodore Roosevelt National Park – The North Unit, The South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch. We usually take our family hikes in the South Unit when we are with our grandkids. Coming from the East, it’s a bit easier to get to for us, and the terrain there is a bit less rugged. If you’d like to mix a bit of history into your outdoor family adventure, make sure to check out Elkhorn Ranch. And if you want to really get off the beaten path, consider the more remote North Unit.

Since the total area of the park is over 70,000 acres (109 square miles / 283 square kilometers), no matter which you choose, you’ll have plenty of great options for hiking with your kids or grandkids throughout TRNP.

The Three Parts On A Google Map

Since a Google Map never hurts, here is one that shows the location of the three parts of the park. Click the menu button hike Lamma Island and either Yung Shue Ha or Sham Wan to see all the map details.

North Unit – Map And Trails

North Unit Map
North Unit Map (Photo Credit)

The North Unit is the path less taken. It’s more rugged than the southern unit. And, if you’re looking for some true solitude, the extra 48-miles you’ll have to drive from I-94 to get to the North Unit, will be well worth the time it takes to get there.

If you have older kids that are used to hiking and backpacking, you should consider including the North Unit backcountry trails in your outdoor family adventure to TRNP. And if you do, just make sure you apply for your free backcountry-permit before you set out into the backcountry.

South Unit – Map And Trails

South Unit Map
South Unit Map (Photo Credit)

The South Unit is usually where we explore with our grandkids. From the I-94 it’s easier to get to than the North Unit. Therefore, this part of the park gets the highest number of visitors each year. Both the South Unit Visitor Centre in Medora, ND and the Painted Canyon Visitor Centre are in the South Unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids at Painted Canyon Visitor Center
Our grandkids at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center

Even more, our three favorite family hiking trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are in the South Unit – the Skyline Vista Trail, the Wind Canyon Trail, and the Painted Canyon Trail.

If you don’t have your own maps, make sure to stop in to the South Unit Visitor Center in Medora to get a map or two and also to purchase a park pass. Whether you decide to enjoy one of the scenic drives for a couple of hours or to hike all day long, you’ll also want to check the park’s current opening hours.

Elkhorn Ranch Unit – Map And Trails

Elkhorn Ranch Map
Elkhorn Ranch Map (Photo Credit)

Teddy Roosevelt made Elkhorn Ranch his home ranch after his mother and wife passed away. In observance of the more somber mood of this part of the park, there is far less infrastructure over here. However, it’s still incredibly beautiful. To this day, President Roosevelt’s ranch buildings are still standing, so you can explore them if you’d like.

Roosevelt Residence Map
Roosevelt Residence Map (Photo Credit)

NOTE: Getting to Elkhorn Ranch is a bit tricky. It does require a 4-wheel drive vehicle in the winter and/or after rain, and there is no cell-service in this most remote part of the park. However, if you’re really looking to get off the beaten path and experience some true solitude, this is the place for you.

Hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is full of great trails for family hiking. As you now know, it’s got areas suitable for anything from day hiking to multi-day backpacking excursions. If you and your family are eager to explore the trails in the North Dakota Badlands, TRNP surely has something for everyone!

Our Three Favorite Family Hiking Trails

The following three trails are our favorite family hiking trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We like them because the terrain they cover is scenic, they are easy to access, and they afford us ample opportunities to explore off-trail as well.

Skyline Vista Trail

Our first favorite hiking trails is the Skyline Vista Trail.  The trail itself is only 0.2 miles (0.3 km), but we head off-trail, climb the unique rock formations and in general just explore the North Dakota Badlands. If you head uphill in this area, you’ll get a good workout navigating the rocky terrain.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids climbing rocks
Exploring the Skyline Vista Trail

If instead you head downhill and stick to the smoother part of the trail, this area is good for a more mellow hiking experience. Either way though, the Skyline Vista Trail is a beautiful place for an outdoor family adventure!

girl hiking on dirt trail
The more mellow side of the Skyline Vista Trail

Wind Canyon Trail

Our second favorite family hiking trail is the Wind Canyon Trail. You can do the 0.4 mile (0.6 km) loop without stopping, or you can take your time to explore the multimillion year-old sedimentary rock formations all around you. Our grandkids love to climb up the hills and rocks, but we have to remind them ‘whatever you climb up, you must also climb back down.’

boys exploring North Dakota badlands
Exploring off trail in the Wind Canyon

Painted Canyon Trail

Our third favorite trail is the Painted Canyon Trail. At 2.1 miles (3.4 km) round trip, this is the longest of our favorites. However, we keep coming back to this one because the vibrant colors of the Painted Canyon are simply spectacular. At different times of day the Badlands take on different colors too, so we never get tired of this area.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park With Kids running up stairs
They cannot wait to get to the top and see what fantastic site lies beyond!
girl look at North Dakota badlands
The views in the Painted Canyon are beautiful.
Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
It really looks painted! The Little Missouri River runs through the canyon.

Nearby Medora North Dakota Is A Must Have Experience

When we finish exploring the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we usually take our grandkids to Medora. This historic old west vacation town, has many things to do including the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, the Old Town Hall Theatre, the Harold Schafer Heritage Center and in the summer months, the Medora Musical – an entertaining ode to patriotism, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Great American West!

However, with three grandkids who’ve all just finished hiking our favorite trails in TRNP, we usually head straight to the Fudge and Ice Cream Depot.

Medora Fudge and Ice Cream Depot
The Medora Fudge & Ice Cream Depot

The Depot’s homemade fudge and ice cream are reasons enough to visit Medora. The biggest problem we usually have here is picking a flavor! For ice cream we usually get Pralines ‘n Cream, Cotton Candy, and Rocky Road. For fudge we often get a combo of the caramel, peanut butter/chocolate, and Oreo cookie dough. The last time we were there, we weren’t fast enough to take a picture of our ice cream, but we did get a picture of our last bite of fudge!

Fudge at the Medora Fudge and Ice Cream Depot
The last bite of our Oreo cookie dough fudge!

Other Nearby Outdoor Family Adventures

Exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park with kids, or in our case our grandkids, is one of our favorite ways to have an outdoor family adventure! We love revisiting our favorite family hiking trails, and we always seem to find room for something from the Fudge & Ice Cream Depot. Though we have not yet done an overnight trip in TRNP, it’s definitely on our list. Maybe someday we’ll even hike the whole Maah Daah Hey Trail! Once we do get a bit more experience camping and backpacking with our grandkids, we’d even consider taking them backpacking in Yellowstone National Park. In the mean time, we’ll keep exploring TRNP! If you have any questions, leave them below, and then get ready to explore the Badlands of North Dakota with your own family!


author bio picture

Sheila likes exploring nature with her grandchildren. In particular she likes one day road trips where everyone can hike and make memories together. Her husband Zane is the lead explorer, and grandkids Ashton, Evelyn and Branson love chasing after him. They have already traveled to many places together, and they look forward to experiencing more in the future!


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