If you're traveling west on I-94, your first introduction to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the Painted Canyon Overlook and Visitor Center, 7 miles east of Medora. Here, on the upper ridge of the badlands, is an unparalleled panorama of ragged ridges and colorful hues. Watch for wild horses, the descendants of former domestic ranching stock; you might even see bison grazing.
A highlight of the South Unit is a 36-mile scenic loop road with interpretive signs that explain some of the park's historical and natural phenomena. The scenic drive begins at the South Unit Visitor Center. If you've bought the road log, you'll want to travel counterclockwise around the loop. Descriptions of the shorter interpretive trails are incorporated into the driving tours for the North and South units.
South Unit Scenic Drive
In any season, the South Unit Scenic Drive can take you into some of the most remote areas of North Dakota. When Gen. Alfred Sully traveled through these badlands, he described them as "hell with the fires burned out." In reality, they are teeming with wildlife, wildflowers, and bird life. The South Unit comprises 46,158 acres, of which 10,510 acres are designated as wilderness.
Scoria Point is the first overlook you'll come to. Strictly speaking, scoria is volcanic in origin, but in the badlands, wherever a seam of coal has caught fire and baked the surrounding sand and clay, it's called scoria. You'll see it from this view point, where the topsoil has been stripped away by erosion and the harder material underneath is exposed.
About a mile farther, you'll come to the Ridgeline Nature Trail. If you choose to take this short (.6-mile loop) hike, you'll learn more about the Badlands and their ecology. This trail has some steep hills and may not be suitable for some people.
Next is the North Dakota Badlands Overlook. The view here is over Paddock Creek, and what you'll see is a surreal, striking landscape. This is because erosion has worn away the topsoil, leaving behind only the rocks and harder materials underneath the thin, top layer.
After crossing Paddock Creek, you'll come to the turnoff for the Coal Vein Trail, a short (.8-mile) loop that winds through an area where a fire burned in a coal seam from 1951 through 1977. The fire baked the clay and soil, changing the appearance of the terrain and altering the vegetation patterns. Here you'll be walking around the scoria (the same kind of formations you viewed from a distance at the Scoria Point Overlook earlier). You must drive down a short, unpaved road to reach the trail.
After returning to the main loop road, you'll next come to the turnoff for Buck Hill. It's only a short walk to the hill itself from the end of the road. The hill (at 2,855 ft.) has two very different slopes. On the south side, the slopes are hot and dry, and you'll see only shrubs and small plants. On the north side, which is wetter and cooler, you'll see trees.
Traveling several miles farther will bring you to the Boicourt Overlook, which affords one of the best views of the badlands in the South Unit.
The next stop is Wind Canyon Trail. This is a very short walk up to a ridge, where you'll have a great view of the Little Missouri River, which did much to create the landscape here. Beyond the river, to the west, is the virtually untouched wilderness of the South Unit. Pause here around sunrise to listen for the call of coyotes in the valley below.
After passing the Beef Corral Pullout and a prairie-dog town, which is just beyond the pullouts on either side of the road, you'll pass the parking lot for the Jones Creek Trail. This is one of two trail heads for the Jones Creek Trail on Scenic Loop Drive. (You passed the other one earlier; it was at the parking area between the Boicourt Overlook and the Wind Canyon Trail pullout.) The trail itself is 3.7 miles and leads into the heart of the badlands.
The final stop on the Scenic Loop Drive is in Peaceful Valley. The Peaceful Valley Ranch, which is on the National Historic Register, was established during the heyday of cattle ranching in the 1880s. The tall central section of the ranch house was constructed about 1885. The ranch offers trail rides from May through the end of September.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.