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Medora, North Dakota, is an idyllic western town known for abundant wildlife and rugged landscapes. It’s the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Never heard of it? Neither have the crowds that fill Yellowstone and Yosemite, so you’ll see bison, antelope and Old West-style cattle herding in a more intimate setting. Here’s a complete guide to help you plan your Medora vacay.
America’s big name National Parks, like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Great Smoky Mountains are spectacular outdoor destinations. They are also shoulder to shoulder with people and require long range planning to book hotels and activities because they’re so popular.
That is not the case with Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its gateway city, Medora, North Dakota. The park, named for the 26th President of the United States, draws fewer visitors than the more well known National Parks so you can enjoy the badlands and bison without the bustle. And Medora’s got plenty of hotels, restaurants and kid-friendly activities to round out your visit.
Here is a comprehensive guide to the town and the national park, to help you plan an expertly-crafted getaway.
Start at a Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Center
The Painted Canyon Visitor Center and nature trail is located at a valley in the extreme northwestern portion of North Dakota. It’s part of an overlook area included in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If traveling from the east, this is your first really great look at the rugged badlands landscape of the park.
The Visitor Center comes complete with maps, helpful National Park rangers, gift shop and bathrooms. This is a fantastic jumping off point to get all your information before dropping down off the interstate into the small town of Medora. It’s also a fantastic photo opportunity! It’s an easy pull off and is a great first glimpse of what your vacation will encompass over the next few days.
Pro Tip: Grab your Junior Ranger books here to begin amassing the proof that you deserve a badge!
Grab Seats at the Medora Musical
If you drive just west of Medora, and take a left, you’ll see signs for “Medora Musical” and the “Chateau de Mores” historic site, as well as a sign for “Pitchfork Steak Fondue!” All of these sites are atop a hill at the end of a long, winding driveway that ends at the Burning Hills amphitheater.
Somewhere between Las Vegas and Branson or Pigeon Forge, is Medora Musical (both figuratively and geographically!) There is so much talent and energy packed into a show and the Burning Hills singers are really an accomplished crew. The musical includes a special act – generally a trick-riding BMX bike performer or a comedian.
The show has been going for decades and is different each year. It showcases the spirit of the Old West, with themes of patriotism, history and a bit of area heritage. During my visit, there was a special number about downtown Medora and the Town Hall. The performance features horses on and off stage!
This show is truly enjoyable for all ages.
Saddle Up at Medora Riding Stables
Saddle up and settle in for a real off-road adventure with an experienced guide who will take you and your family up onto the butte overlooking Medora. The horseback ride actually takes you to the sitting area where the Pankratz hiking trail ends, above the Little Bully Pulpit mini golf course.
Kids seven and older are permitted to ride, if they meet the 48″ height requirement, and those under the age of 12 are required to wear helmets. No prior horseback experience is necessary. The trail is much more rugged and adventurous than other stable experiences we’ve had in the area and neighboring South Dakota and Custer State Park. You will crest the hill and see the whole city for a rewarding experience and lovely pictures.
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Pro Tip: Tuck your cell phone into your waistband or wear a fanny pack. Pockets will fail in the jostling saddle and it’s a lovely photo opportunity. However, if you’re a novice rider, perhaps take only memories and focus on the reins!
Explore the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is far and away the more popular section because of its proximity to the seasonally bustling town of Medora. Here you’ll be able to explore the scenic loop (under construction in 2022 – making it a one way road out and back), the Cottonwood Campground (with a lovely amphitheater for ranger talks), several trailheads and abundant wildlife from prairie dog towns to wild horses and of course, buffalo.
Some of the best shorter, easier trails here include: Skyline Vista, Coal Vein, Boicourt, Wind Canyon and Buck Hill trails.
The South Unit also has Petrified Forest tree stumps, about a 30-minute drive over gravel roads. We did not see the petrified stumps on this outing. This is also the Visitors Center that features the Maltese cross cabin and ranger programs at that site.
Pro Tip: The South Unit Visitor Center and Maltese Cross Cabin are two important places to grab convenient activities in the Junior Ranger booklets. There is a small museum and interpretive center inside.
Explore the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The lesser traveled but no less remarkable North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located about an hour northeast of Medora, off the interstate toward a town called Watford City. If you can believe it, the North Unit landscapes are even more rugged and intimidating than in the South Unit. Be warned: Until you are in the park, it is not a terribly scenic drive getting to the North Unit.
This is also the only spot in the park where you’ll find Longhorn Cattle. The Park lets the herd range freely, just as cattle ranchers historically would have done in the area when the American West was still very wild and free.
There are also easy hiking trails and fun spots along the way in the North Unit. The Cannonball concretions geological feature is just a pullout from the main park road but is a very neat phenomenon. These stone balls have been formed through the ages by sediment runoff from the buttes. The Little Mo Nature Trail is short and well-manicured, making it accessible for all.
Both Units offer access to the popular Maah Daah Hey trail. This is a much more strenuous hike than we tackled.
Pro Tip: If Medora is busy and lodging is all booked, you might want to base yourself out of Watford City, which is much less busy and has some chain hotels and more amenities for groceries, etc.
Old West Town of Medora
Where to Stay
Even though there are only a few streets and no traffic lights in the city, you’ll find ample spots to eat, drink, play and stay. Two excellent options for lodging (and we’ve stayed at both) are:
- Rough Riders Hotel: While kids are welcome, this spot is great for the older set and couples. Rooms are upscale and the site has a good bit of history and class. The rooms are lovely.
- Elkhorn Quarters. This spot offers bunkbeds in some family suites and a heated outdoor pool area and communal kitchen/lobby area.
There also are a number of chain hotels and motels in and near Medora.
Where to Eat
Eating requires a little planning. There is no real grocery store in town, but the Medora C-store has many of the staples, including milk, eggs, cheese and a few aisles of snacks. This is the place to buy a delicious fresh-made breakfast sandwich before you hit the hiking trail. The store opens around 5:30am, so it’s the first place in town to offer coffee.
The Farmhouse Cafe is centrally located and offers breakfast options. We were always off exploring by the time the cafe opened, so we cannot recommend a menu item as a guaranteed taste bud home run.
You’ll also find the Boots Bar, offering your typical bar and grill menu items (and always boasting a full parking lot) and the Little Missouri Saloon. A favorite for our crew is the Badlands Pizza and Saloon.
Hatlee & Brae has such a selection of ice cream! Hand scooped and soft serve with several different flavors and ways to eat your fave flavor!
Pro Tip: Disney isn’t the only place with Dole Whip — try Hatlee & Brae for a sweet pineapple treat!
Pitchfork Steak Fondue
Located in the same vicinity as the Medora Musical and the turn for the Chateau de Mores state historic site is the Tjaden Terrace where you can eat like a cowboy. Nowhere else in the North Dakota badlands can you have a juicy steak cooked medium and served with a whole tin plate full of beans, fruit, veggies and garlic bread. You can pair the meal with a showing of the musical or spread your fun across your itinerary.
Live music and an optional bar service area will keep you entertained and happy as you dine al fresco at picnic tables with a spectacular vista view.
Pro Tip: If you have a bunch of kids who tend toward impatient, do the Pitchfork Steak Fondue and Medora Musical on separate nights. Otherwise you end up waiting at the same physical location for hours and the kids can get testy!
Point to Point Park
The newest suite of attractions in Medora is a super family-friendly hotspot: Point to Point Park. This downtown site features the Little Mo’ Lazy River, a zipline, a bouncy pillow and the Little Bully Pulpit minature golf course.
We were excited about the lazy river, because temperatures were soaring into the 90s during our visit, but because much of the help in town is seasonal and returns to school in the fall, the pool was closed for the week we were in town due to lack of lifeguards. Plan ahead and ask questions!
We did get to enjoy a round of golf, the screamin’ fast zipline and the bouncy pillow. The Badlands Motel would be a convenient place to stay for these features since it’s in the parking lot of the park, but we’ve not had that experience to say for sure.
Pro Tip: Most of the things you will do, see, and eat are all bookable through a central booking website. Make sure to check seasonality – by the end of August, things start to wind down.
More Fun for Next Time in Medora
Some of the activities that are available and quite popular did not make our itinerary for our quick, hiking-heavy trip. But the things we hope to try on a future visit (and you might consider for your trip) include:
- North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame (downtown Medora) – visit the museum to see lots of legends from saddle broncs to bullriders through the ages across the state of North Dakota.
- Full exploration of Chimney Park – Once a hub of activity including a slaughterhouse, ice houses and a corral among other outbuildings. A clay chimney stands from a catastrophic fire in 1907. This architectural remnant is the centerpiece of the picnic area and park.
- Billings County Court House Museum – Collections of historic western memorabilia like one might expect – oddly, an extensive barb wire fence collection, too!
- Perception – Mind-bending tricks of space and juxtaposition baffle visitors and make great selfies in this kitschy tourist attraction.
- Escape Medora (downtown Medora) – an escape room located on the “main drag” near the Farmhouse Cafe.
- Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Teddy Roosevelt National Park – This is another separate unit of the National Park and is a short drive to the northwest. It features the footings of the old estate where Theodore Roosevelt used to dwell and is now a short hiking trail and interpretive signage area. Not much is left of the homestead, but it is steeped in history and shows exactly what inspired the former President.
- The Harold Schafer Heritage Center – Harold Schafer was North Dakota’s most famous businessman and the Harold Schafer Heritage Center & Museum is where you can learn about his story—from Mr. Bubble to Medora’s humble beginnings!
- Backstage Tour of Medora Musical – This hour or so long tour will enlighten you about how the magic happens to make the ever-popular live music and comedy show over the years.
- 18 Holes at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course – This golf course is set in a beautiful area, waiting for you to work on your handicap.
It’s incredible that such a small, seasonal town can hold such a bounty of history, activities and natural wonder. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is my family’s favorite national park, bar none. Boasting all the wildlife and rugged solitude the headliner parks have but with none of the crowds or hassle, this is an unspoiled playground for those looking to relax and enjoy simplicity. Medora really is a glimpse back into the American West when it was still wild, but in so many ways, while you’re exploring, you’ll see it’s still plenty wild today.