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Exploring the National Parks of the Dakotas

The Midwest isn’t particularly known for its national parks. In fact, if you highlight the country’s national parks on a map of the US, you’ll see a pretty glaring hole right in the middle. But while there may be more renowned options to explore in the western states, the Upper Midwest is home to three unique options that—put simply—deserve your attention. 

In Theodore Roosevelt, Badlands, and Wind Cave national parks, you’ll find some truly stunning landscapes—both above and below ground—that are unlike anything else in the national park system. While not necessarily close to each other (Theodore Roosevelt, in North Dakota, is about a five-hour drive from the other two in South Dakota), the parks can be viewed together on a memorable road-trip excursion. And they can be reached within a long day’s drive from many points in the Midwest. 

While these are among the most popular travel destinations in the region, you’ll find far fewer visitors than at the better-known national parks further west. Last year Theodore Roosevelt and Wind Cave each received close to half a million visitors, while Badlands was just under 1 million. Big numbers to be sure, but compared to Yellowstone (3.8 million), Zion (3.6 million), and Rocky Mountain National Park (3.3 million), you have a little more breathing room. 

Any outdoor lover will find plenty to do at any of the three destinations, with miles of hiking trails and scenic lookouts to enjoy. Here’s a brief overview of what makes each park so special. 

Badlands National Park

One of the most striking landscapes you’ll find anywhere in the country. Image via Kevin Wenning

Badlands features some of the most striking landscapes you’ll find anywhere in the country, with a wide variety of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires, along with a rare, undisturbed mixed-grass prairie. Badlands National Park takes its name from the Lakota people’s name for the area, Mako Sica, which translates to “bad land.” For the earliest inhabitants of the region, you can understand their pessimism: The rocky formations that cover the area are tough to navigate. Winters are cold, it’s unusually dry in the summer, and the few sources of water are muddy and unsafe to drink. Sounds like fun, right?

Yet for 21st century visitors, with access to their own water supply, paved roads, and established trails, you’re treated to some incredible rock formations that are fun to explore by foot or on a scenic drive. The park is divided into two sections, with the bigger Northern Unit accessible just off of I-90 at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center, which features a museum and a fossil preparation lab (the area is also a treasure trove of prehistoric remains). The Southern Unit sits largely on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and the White River Visitors Center is the best way to access it and learn more about the Lakota people. 

In terms of outdoor adventure, the 10-mile Castle Trail is the signature long hike in the park. The Badlands Loop Road is the 31-mile scenic drive that covers most of the Northern Unit of the park, and it features more than a dozen overlooks to enjoy the view. You’ll find lots of shorter trails (less than a mile) that offer hiking opportunities along the way. Keep your eyes open for the area wildlife, which includes bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. The best place to spot bison is along Sage Creek Rim Road, which overlooks the Badland Wilderness area that’s home to the large herd. 

The park features two official campgrounds—Cedar Pass and Sage Creek—which are a great way to experience the night sky. Without much light pollution, this is one of the best places to enjoy a view of the Milky Way. 

Wind Cave

Bison grazing at Wind Cave National Park. Image via Sophia Simoes

A little more than an hour’s drive west of Badlands, Wind Cave National Park was established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt, and the first cave to be designated a national park anywhere in the world. Wind Cave is known for its size (it’s one of the longest and complex underground caverns on earth—well, “in earth” really—at nearly 150 miles long) and its rare calcite formations known as boxwork, which resembles honeycomb. More than 95 percent of the boxwork in the world can be found in Wind Cave. The cave’s name comes from the fact that it “breathes,” depending on the barometric pressure outside. If there’s low pressure outside, the cave “exhales”; during high-pressure, it “inhales.”

Exploring the cave is done through guided, ranger-led tours. The park offers much more than just the cave, however, including more than 30 miles of hiking trails in which you can explore the mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest. It’s a very different landscape than Badlands, but just as beautiful in its own way. Hike the 1-mile trail to Ranklin Ridge to get a view from the highest point in the park. For something a little more strenuous, take the 2.6-mile Boulin Ridge Trail, which requires a bit of climbing to get to the panoramic views of the Black Hills, Red Valley, and the surrounding plains. It’s a good place to spot elk in the morning and evening. 

Camping is available at the Elk Mountain Campground, which sits at the edge of the ponderosa pine forest and features both forested and open camping spots. The 62 campsites, open year-round, are first-come, first-served. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Taking in the badland views of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Image via Jeff Dewitt

Named for the president who is known as the father of the national park system, Theodore Roosevelt is the only national park named for a specific person. The park’s name is far from the only connection to our 26th president, as the location itself had a profound meaning in Roosevelt’s life. He first visited North Dakota to hunt bison in 1883, and he loved the experience so much he invested in his own ranch in the area, which he returned to often. He would eventually write three books on the subject of ranching and hunting in the region and living the “strenuous life” in the Dakotas influenced his thoughts on conservation that would help define his presidency in the early 20th century. 

The park is composed of three parts, the larger Southern Unit near the town of Medora; the Northern Unit about 80 miles north of there, and a Elkhorn Ranch, another of Roosevelt’s properties, that sits between the two. Visitors will find hundreds of miles of trails for hiking and horseback riding, including the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail that connects each section of the park. In the Northern Unit, take the 14-mile scenic drive to explore what’s known as the Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri. The Riverbend Overlook is one of the park’s signature views. Those willing to venture into the backcountry will be rewarded here, with the Buckhorn, Caprock Coulee, and Achenbach Trails all popular options.

The Southern Unit features a 36-mile scenic drive, with multiple overlooks and trailheads to explore. Those looking for moderate day hikes will find plenty of options here. This section also offers spectacular wildlife viewing, with bison, mule deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn, turkeys, and elk common in the area. During the summer months, you’ll find a number of ranger-led activities, from guided hikes to outdoor education. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit preserves Roosevelt’s “home ranch” on the property and features exhibits on his experience at the ranch. No matter what part of the park you choose to explore, you’ll get an up-close look at the North Dakota badlands. 

Next time you’re thinking of touring the country’s national park system, do yourself a favor: don’t skip out on the Upper Midwest. 

Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.