Fewer visitors take the time to travel to the park's North Unit, although paved roads provide easy access. There are 24,070 acres in the North Unit, of which 19,410 acres are designated as wilderness. Stop at the visitor center at the entrance to the unit, and the rangers will help you plan your time.
North Unit Scenic Drive
The 14-mile scenic drive (and State Scenic Byway) travels from the entrance station to the Oxbow Overlook, with plenty of turnouts and interpretive signs along the route. Keep your eyes open for longhorns between the entrance and Juniper Campground; these are the same type of cattle raised by ranchers during Roosevelt's time. At the Oxbow Overlook, you must double back along the same route.
Since less of the North Unit is developed, the thing to do here is to get out of the car at one of the scenic pullouts and take a hike. You'll be able to see dramatic scenery populated with many bison, but few people.
The Little Mo Nature Trail, which starts at Juniper Campground, offers a comfortable, leisurely walk through the Little Missouri River bottom. The trail cuts through woodlands near the river, as well as badlands formations, and gives you two options. The shorter portion of the loop is .7 mile, paved, and wheelchair accessible. But you can also extend your hike by .4 mile and take the unpaved portion. If you're more adventurous, you'll see additional formations and cross some wildlife trails that (mostly) bison use.
Just across the road from the Juniper Campground entrance road, stop at the Cannonball Concretions Pullout. A short walk reveals the well-named rock formations. Contrasting formations in the area make this stop a photographer's delight. Light doesn't hit the best "cannonball" until late morning.
The Caprock-Coulee Nature Trail, 1 1/2 miles west of Juniper Campground, is another easy, self-guiding nature trail that winds through badlands and dry water gulches, then finds a welcome interruption in the grassy plains of the park. The total length round-trip is 1.6 miles.
If you want to do something more ambitious, combine the self-guided nature trail with the Upper Caprock-Coulee Trail. Together they run a distance of 4.1 miles. (The latter portion is 3.3 miles.) You'll go farther into the wilderness this way; it also brings you back to the trail head so that you don't have to double back over the same route. Bighorn sheep were introduced into the North Unit in 1996. Be on the lookout for these majestic animals.
It's at this point that the North Unit Scenic Drive is often closed for the winter. If you continue, you'll end up at the Oxbow Overlook, another sweeping panoramic view of the badlands.
The Sperati Point Trail can be accessed from the Oxbow Overlook. This is the spur of the Achenbach Trail that leads to the Oxbow Bend Overlook and makes a less strenuous alternative if you want something shorter than the Achenbach's 16 miles. (The length of this trail is 1.5 miles round-trip.) The trail leads to the narrowest gateway in the badlands. The flow of the Little Missouri River once continued north to Hudson Bay. Blocked during the Ice Age, the river was forced to find a new course and finally broke through the gap between this point and the Achenbach Hills on the other side. The Little Missouri now drains into the Gulf of Mexico via the Missouri-Mississippi system. Take this trail for a taste of prairie country and long, sweeping views.
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