11 Curious Theodore Roosevelt National Park Facts

Majestic Sunset Scene in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Sunset view overlooking the rugged canyonlands of North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park near the popular River Bend Overlook. Allen Allnoch / Getty Images

If it weren’t for a major east-west highway (Interstate 94) crossing North Dakota, this protected region of the Badlands would likely go unexplored by visitors even today. That’s because Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after our 26th President of the United States, only sees about 600,000 visitors a year. But those who take the time to exit in the small town of Medora and drive the 36-mile scenic loop are rewarded with abundant wildlife, scenic views, walks in a petrified forest, and a rich history of a desolate landscape.

To get to know and understand the region, here are 11 facts about Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A Park Named for a President

It’s fitting that the only U.S. national park to be named for a person is for Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was the ultimate conservationist. He established the U.S. Forest Service and created five national parks, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, and 18 national monuments, totaling more than 230 million acres of protected land.

The national park named in his honor preserves tens of thousands of acres near Roosevelt’s former Elkhorn ranch. “I never would have been President had it not been for my experiences in North Dakota,” he famously wrote.

It’s Divided Into Three Districts

River Bend Outlook, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
One of the iconic and beloved spots in the North Unit of TRNP, the River Bend Overlook.

NPS / Dave Bruner

The park consists of three separate, distinct units protecting a total of 70,000 acres. The largest and most visited is the 46,158-acre South Unit just off the Interstate. The 36-mile loop leads to a number of overlooks and passes through several short nature trails providing a good peek at the park.

Up the road, the quieter North Unit consists of 24,070 acres accessed by a 14-mile scenic road to the iconic River Bend Overlook. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit, home of Roosevelt’s ranch, comprises 218 acres. This is the least visited portion of the park, accessed along a gravel road. 

Where the Bison (And Other Wildlife) Roam

American Bison Close-Up Portrait
American Bison close-up taken on the prairie of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit, near the town of Watford City, North Dakota. Federica Grassi / Getty Images

It’s a bit ironic that Roosevelt first traveled to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, then provided protection to save them. A symbol of the West, American bison are regularly spotted combing the park’s grasslands.

Set by park managers, the bison herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are kept to between 200 to 400 animals for the South Unit and 100 to 300 for the North Unit. In addition to bison, the park is home to elk, wild horses, mule and white-tailed deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, badgers, porcupines, and prairie dogs. 

There Are Thousands of Prairie Dogs in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Prairie dogs in North Dakota
StefaniePayne / Getty Images

Roosevelt called the prairie dog the “most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable.” The description is right on the money.

While there are five species of prairie dogs living in North America, only the black-tailed prairie dog can be found here. These small critters live on the grasslands in prairie dog towns, a series of burrows with connecting tunnels. A favored meal, the prairie dog has many predators on the range, so they are often spotted scouting the landscape for danger and squeaking and yelping loudly to warn others. 

More Than 185 Bird Species Exist in the Park

Most of the park’s birds are migratory, passing through the park from spring through fall. This includes white-throated sparrows, sandhill cranes, warblers, and swallows. But some birds have adapted and become full-time residents. Bring binoculars and you may spot golden eagles, wild turkeys, black-capped chickadees, or the great-horned owl

500 Species of Plants Thrive in the Badlands

Wild Bergamont (Monarda fitulosa) at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Wild Bergamont (Monarda fitulosa) at Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

NPS / Jeff Zylland

In a place known as the Badlands you might not expect to see such a variety of plants, but it’s the diverse plant life that helps sustain the wildlife in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Grazing bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk chomp on the grasses, while rabbits, mice, and birds feed on berries and seeds. Wildflowers, like the purple pasqueflower, start blooming in late spring and last well into summer, with peak wildflower season occurring in June and July.

There Are Odd Cannonball Rock Formations

Cannonball Concreations, Theodore Roosevelt N P
sdbower / Getty Images

Erosion is on full display at the cannonball concretions. These large, perfectly round rocks are the result of mineral-rich water seeping down through the porous layers of stone. The minerals then glue the sediments together forming a ball that is exposed as the butte erodes. 

Fossils Indicate Theodore Roosevelt National Park Was Once a Swampy Forest

Geologists studying the park’s rock formations have discovered fossilized remains indicating that the area was once a dense, swampy forest of shallow water-loving sequoia, bald cypress, and magnolia trees.

Volcanoes erupting in South Dakota, Montana, and Idaho deposited ash in the area transforming the landscape into the clay, sandstone, and siltstone layers seen today. 

Theodore Roosevelt Is Home to the Third Largest Concentration of Petrified Wood

Petrified Forest of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Jamie Lamb / Getty Images

Need proof that the barren, dry Badlands was once a humid swamp? Then head to one of the wild areas of the park and hike the remote Petrified Forest Loop. The stumps and petrified logs can be found on a trail 1.5 miles from the parking lot. The entire loop covers 10.4 miles. 

One Venomous Snake Lives in the Park

At least seven snake species, including the eastern yellow-bellied racer, bullsnake, and two types of harmless garter snakes, slither among the park’s grasslands, but there is one venomous reptile in Theodore Roosevelt National Park: the prairie rattlesnake. This rattlesnake is not as common as it once was and interactions are rare. The rattler avoids humans unless surprised or provoked. ​​

Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin Once Toured America

Teddy Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Log Cabin
-A1A- / Getty Images

After Roosevelt won the presidency, the owners of his original homestead, the Maltese Cross Cabin, uprooted it and sent it on an American tour. It first visited the World’s Fair in St. Louis, then Portland, Oregon, for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, and lastly Fargo, North Dakota.

Constructed of ponderosa pine, the three-room cabin with a loft, wood floors, and a pitched, shingled roof is now located behind the South Unit Visitor Center. Several Roosevelt artifacts, including a traveling trunk with “T.R.” on the top, can be seen in the cabin.