The heat pours out of the air like every molecule of oxygen suddenly needed its morning shower.
Humidity shows up as wing man and I assume we’re not the only tourists-by-car praying thanks to whomever invented air conditioning. There’s a sort of dull glow to everything, small hills that seem mountainous in their Northern Plains setting almost disappear in the distance as if there were a sullen Instagram filter meant to blot out the reality of life instead of crop and amplify our every mundane moment.
And then the horses come to play. They wear coats as feral varied as the thunder of their hooves as they gallop something like an oar through the amber waves of grain we all love to sing so proudly over so often. Silver streaks with black tails, black and white and chocolate brown, but matching in a way that leaves them looking like three or four equine families all came together for a morning jog. Their legs stop creekside. Muddy water blooms up from where their long legs come to rest and then disappears downstream as they take up their own method of air conditioning, a tall cool glass of river water.
Prairie dog towns group like miniature civilizations up and down the road through the park, acres and acres of mounds, dozens if not hundreds of little upright rodents stand squawking at one another, occasionally hustling from one chunk of dirt to the next. Park brochures refer to it as a badlands, but the coffee grind browns that spring up between sage and grassy fields seem anything but bad.
And then the bison make their run at it. Some slow and plodding along the highway, others lying in the fields another scorching hot summer day of their lives with nothing much better to do. I wonder if they realize how last of their line they are, how their ancestors once roamed most of this continent with complete impunity, no real predators and an endless buffet always just beneath their noses. Sure, they may have had to endure a heatwave here or a beard full of snow there. Cars ahead of us have now fully stopped, smartphones in hand to record the experience, a bufallo-ignited traffic jam in the middle of nowhere. One of the larger fellows in the herd wanders up to our van, and even a Ford E-350 extended body van doesn’t seem particularly safe from whatever this lord of the prairie bison may decide to get up to, all six foot two thousand pounds or so of him. And that beard…
The rock rolling beauty, wildlife on tour to put to shame the very concept that we’d ever need a zoo to show off this natural world’s should-be-free creatures, and a small town at the entrance to fill background scenes of every small town movie for the rest of time all make Teddy Roosevelt worth the long, out of the way drive it takes to get to its gates.
While Teddy himself was a complicated man–stories tell of a nerdy kid gone mountain man wannabe, a conservationist who made compromises his more radical contemporaries condemned him for, and eventually the US President who would be known for inventing the concept of a national park–all of which simply makes it all the more interesting to explore the national park named for him. Let’s explore.
Camping at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The heat is nothing to scoff at in these Great Northern Plains come summer, and the reality that this is when most of us traveling by van or RV will be able to get to this part of North Dakota without braving colder temperatures on the way in and out (despite 100° summers, the state is a winter wonderland and has all the climes of the shoulder seasons to keep those staring at the stars looking for all points south too far outside of summer vacation), it’s best to take into account the reality that you’re going to want to try and avoid heat exhaustion.
All the Camping at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- National Park Campgrounds
- Cottonwood Campground. $14 ($7 October – April.) The only campground actually in the park’s South Unit, putting you right on the scenic loop and minutes (if not footsteps) from where the feral horses and bison roam. Some shade provided by the trees for which the park is named. Currently first come, first served, but reservations are in the works. NPS Website. Campendium.
- Juniper Campground. $14 ($7 October – April.) The North Unit’s first come, first served campground. NPS Website. Campendium.
- Free Camping – limited to the South Unit.
- Scoria Pit. 10 minutes from South Unit. Wide open grassy areas, absolutely no shade. Maybe 20 spots that fill up quickly, even in the heat of summer. Great cell reception. Not listed on the forest service site, but–aside from others–it’s on Campendium. We personally checked it out and there were a ton of RVers there, so seems legitimate enough.
- Painted Canyon Visitors Center. This is technically in the national park, but it’s just parking for free in the visitors center parking lot. There are two visitors centers in the South Unit, and this one is 11 minutes outside of the main South Unit entrance, where you’ll get the scenic loop drive, etc. Campendium.
- Camels Hump Wildlife Management Area. 20 minutes from South Unit. Camping is prohibited Tuesdays and Wednesdays, unless it’s a holiday. WMA Website. Campendium.
- Painted Canyon Visitor Center.
- National Forest Camping
- South Unit.
- Buffalo Gap. $20, 15 minutes from South Unit. Cell service is super spotty, only two sites really get it at all, and only one of those has shade. Otherwise, shaded sites are about 50/50 and you won’t be drenched in the stuff all day long — some get it all morning, some all evening. Beautiful though, and close enough to the park–with showers–that this was our go to during our visit. Forest service website. Campendium.
- Wannagan Campground. $10, 40 minutes from South Unit. No shade at this far away campground, but better cell service than Buffalo Gap. Forest service website. Campendium.
- North Unit.
- CCC Campground. $10, 25 minutes from North Unit. 38 sites with drinking water available via a hand pump set up. Very little in the way of shade. Verizon service only. This is an equestrian camp so you’ll likely share it with horse owners. Forest Service Website. Campendium.
- Summit Campground. $6, 30 minutes from North Unit. Limited RV camping and tent camping. Some shade for tent sites, some cell service. Forest Service Website. Campendium.
- Bennet Campground. $10, 40 minutes from North Unit. Equestrian camp with sites large enough to accommodate any sized RV. No shade, some cell service. Forest Service Website. Campendium.
- South Unit.
- Full-hookups Camping
- Medora City Campground. Tight spaces within walking distance to town. Some shade provided by cottonwoods throughout the park. City campground website. Campendium.
- Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch. Wretchedly hot wide open spaces with no privacy or shade whatsoever, but with an attached restaurant and bar. Campground website. Campendium.
- Red Trail Campground. Your best bet for shade close in to Teddy Roosevelt South. Campground website. Campendium.
- Boots Campground. Campground website. Campendium.
- More Camping
- Sully Creek State Park. A few minutes south of Medora (South Unit), with 9 electric sites, 7 more for equestrians only, and a dozen or so primitive sites. There’s very little shade here, only one spot with any at all. Prices range from $14 – $25 and you also have to pay a $7 day pass fee. State park website. Campendium.
To that end, either scoring a private RV park with hookups and bringing an air conditioner of your own or looking for at a minimum a place to camp in some shade are required. There are such swanky digs as mentioned in the former concept, full hookups can be found at two RV parks in town and another just under fifteen minutes west of town. All provide the side-by-side parking lot type experience of your typical RV park, but when it comes to trees, Red Trail Campground is the only one where you’ll have even a chance of a bit of shade.
If you prefer boondocking, though, free camping can be had at Scoria Pit, a short drive west of town where spots that range from mountaintop with a view (if you have a smaller rig like a truck camper or van) to wide open spaces able to fit any sized highway behemoth. Unless you’re camping in a dog bed, though, don’t expect to find any shade.
Other options include Cottonwood Campground within the park, a no frills affair where picnic tables and a fire ring accompany an actual restroom and the ever so rare shade, graciously provided by the trees for which the park is named. A state park south of town is mostly wide open sunshine, but a rare few spots afford a bit of respite from that burning god in the sky. Neither of these options have any hookups, while both offer some degree of cell service, enough to work off of if not stream your latest bingefest when multiple other campers are sharing the air from which you’re attempting to reach out and grab the Internet.
A city park in town has hookups and tight spots, as well, but our personal favorite is Buffalo Gap, a campground in the Little Missouri National Grassland just over 15 minutes outside of town. One of the loops is positioned in a grove that affords a modicum of shade, even if it won’t cover your RV, most sites have a little tuck into the trees where you can walk back and dip your forehead into some shade. For $20 / night, you also get access to showers, toilets, a dump station and fresh water. Cell service picks and chooses which sites it wants to frequent, and it is a picky eater indeed.
The Town of Medora, North Dakota
A short strip of highway packed like jam with small businesses helps to transform the national park from a destination of its own to a full blown vacation area. Mom & pop ice cream shops, a gas station / grocery store where you can build a meal of pop tarts, cheap bacon with a big price tag and locally crafted artisan mustards alike fill the spaces between streets like sleepy old men on a roadside bench.
Even the gas pumps are quaint, as their credit card machines require an advanced technique where you enter the store, hand over your plastic while you pump, and come back for the surprise cost of fueling up. That everyone in town doesn’t just seem genuine, but that they truly are makes the experience all the more satisfying, and helps to explain why so many families brave the heat and come here in droves as though it’s Ocean City, Maryland on the Fourth of July. You won’t be required to wear cowboy boots and a straw hat, but if you feel like cutting off your sleeves and taking a moment to gaze sincerely down the highway with a stick of straw at your mouth’s command, no one will think twice about your choice of attire.
It’s not an empty playground, exactly, but when it comes to the status of national park bustle these days found in the more populated parts of the country, Teddy Roosevelt is one of the last chances to explore a park without bumping elbows with every other family looking to get a picture of a bison shedding all over the highway.