Just Go to Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Hiking the Caprock-Coule – Just Go Travel Studios

Just Go to Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Hiking the Caprock-Coulee Trail in the North Unit

North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Everyone knows who Theodore Roosevelt is, but few people know about his namesake park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park. located in western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has three separate parts—the popular South Unit (in Medora, ND), the Elkhorn Ranch Unit and the North Unit (closest to Watford City, ND).

Entering the North Unit in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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! We loved the hike so much, in fact, that we included it in our blog on seven family-friendly hikes in U.S. National Parks with breathtaking views!

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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.

Caprock Coulee Trailhead in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

HIKING THE CAPROCK-COULEE TRAIL IN THE NORTH UNIT

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

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.

Sign to the River Bend overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Steps in Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

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.

Hiking on the Caprock Coulee Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

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.

Rock Shelter at the River Bend Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Little Missouri River from Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

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…

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Just over three miles in, the trail will start to descend and is very steep in some places.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

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.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

 

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!

 

FURTHER THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK INFORMATION FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS


       

      OTHER USEFUL INFORMATION

      FINAL THOUGHTS

      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!

      Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

      Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

       

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      • Nigel William on

        Hi, JGTS Staff! Yet another great trail to discover. I hope that more people will be inspired by this article and beautiful photos. I was wondering, would you consider this a moderate or hard hike, if one decides to take it all the way like you recommended?


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