Everyone knows who Theodore Roosevelt is, but few people know about his namesake park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in western North Dakota and has three separate parts—the popular South Unit (in Medora, ND), the Elkhorn Ranch Unit and the North Unit (closest to Watford City, ND).
Popular national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite receive upwards of 4-5 million visitors per year. Theodore Roosevelt had just over 750,000 visitors last year and less than a third of those visitors made it to the North Unit. Our family tends to prefer getting off the beaten path. So, when a park ranger mentioned that one of his favorite hikes, the Caprock-Coulee Trail, was in the North Unit, we didn’t hesitate to drive the 65 miles north from Medora to check it out!
GOOD TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The Caprock-Coulee Trail is located near the center of the North Unit, and there are no bathrooms at or near the trailhead. If you are coming from Medora, you’ve been on the road for over an hour. The 4.3-mile hike (rated as moderate to strenuous) will take 2-3 hours, so we highly recommend using the bathroom facilities at Juniper Campground. The bathrooms are in the picnic area just past the entrance to the campground. This is also a good time to apply sunblock and bug spray. You’ll be in the open sun for much of this hike. The early parts of the trail are narrow and through overgrown brush and grasses, so tick/insect repellent is helpful.
When we hiked in late June, parts of the trail were also quite muddy, so expect to get your hiking shoes/boots dirty. This is not a trail on which to wear flip-flops or sneakers. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring plenty of water, especially when hiking in the summer!
After leaving Juniper, head west on Scenic Drive highway to the parking lot for the Caprock-Coulee Nature Trail. At the trailhead, there is a map board (we always take a picture for reference), a trail register and brochures for the nature trail.
We hiked the loop in the counterclockwise direction (as recommended by others) to start out with a gradual climb versus a steeper climb if you hike in the opposite direction. The hike begins at the nature trail, heading through forests and underbrush that fills the valleys of the badlands.
After 0.8 miles, there is a sign marking the end of the nature trail. At this point some hikers retrace their steps to the parking lot. If you are in good shape, we urge you to continue to the Caprock-Coulee Trail which leads to the River Bend Overlook and then loops back to the trailhead parking.
If you choose to hike on, the trail climbs up a fairly steep hill to the upper grasslands and a ridgeline which yields amazing views of the canyon below.
We only saw a few bison in the distance on this trail but the ranger working near the trailhead told us they frequent the area and to be aware of our surroundings. There certainly was a lot of evidence of bison in the area, and we were very glad we did not encounter one on the trail! They may look like gentle giants but you certainly want to keep your distance.
When you come up the hill to the edge of the first ridge, make sure to stay right and look for a trail marker (there is an old trail which leads to the left and is now blocked by a fence). You will hike along the ridgeline for some time before it turns back to grassland.
Two and half miles in, you’ll cross Scenic Drive (the road that winds through the North Unit). The trail continues to the River Bend Overlook parking area. Follow the side trail to visit the overlook and the rock shelter built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Take in the expansive views of the Little Missouri River winding through the badlands before returning to the parking area and continuing on the trail (located near the guardrail on the edge of the road and then winding back towards the bluffs).
It is important to watch for trail markers in this section since there are so many social trails that don’t lead anywhere. Parts of the trail have such unusual terrain that it is important to watch your step but also be sure to stop often and take in the amazing views in every direction. We may have taken a few photos…
Just over three miles in, the trail will start to descend and is very steep in some places.
You’ll cross areas that look to be from another planet and are covered in bentonite. Watch your footing because they can be very slippery if at all wet.
Eventually the trail will cross the road to lead back to the parking lot where you started. Don’t forget to sign out at the register!
We offer downloadable itineraries with great hints and tips for many National Parks. Our Wind Cave, Bandlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks Itinerary $9. Check out our downloadable itineraries here.
OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION
We were surprised that we saw only six other hikers the entire length of the Caprock-Coulee Trail (except at the River Bend Overlook). This trail is the perfect way to experience the beauty of the North Unit. With such grand views of the colorful North Dakota badlands and the varied terrain, it is amazing more people don’t take the time to visit the North Unit and hike this part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park! Trust us—you don’t want to miss this!