Great National Park Drives: The Scenic Loop Drive

Greatest National Park Drives

Today Park Chasers is sharing another installment in our series on epic drives within the National Parks. Each year, millions of Americans embark on road trips and driving adventures within the National Park Service. This series showcases the roads and scenic drives you don’t want to miss on your next National Park visit.  Check out our earlier post on Chain of Craters Road in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Going-to-The-Sun-Road in Glacier National Park.

Ask enough National Park enthusiasts about what they love most about National Parks and someone will tell you “it’s the wildlife.”  Up close experiences with the ‘residents’ of our national parks bring visitors back year after year.

 In the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, North Dakota the wildlife are so important to the landscape they are some of the best stops along the park’s famous Scenic Loop Drive.  If you’ve come to the Midwest for #parkchasing this is the one drive you wont want to miss. It’s also one of our “Greatest National Park Drives.”

About Scenic Loop Drive

Created in 1947, Theodore Roosevelt National Park honors President Roosevelt’s contributions to conservation.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park has three units: North, South and the Elkhorn Ranch. The Scenic Loop Drive winds its way through the larger South Unit with stops showcasing the best wildlife viewing in the park against the backdrop of the North Dakota Badlands.

The 36-mile paved Scenic Loop Drive starts just inside the Entrance to the South Unit of the park near Medora, North Dakota.  Visitors travel either direction on the two lane road, but the east to west route is most common.  Large RV’s and bicycles alike enjoy the route so extra care should be taken along the route and at turn outs.

The Park Service website recommends 90 minutes to travel the entire 36 miles, however it’s not a bad idea to set aside 3 to 4 hours for the route. Allow plenty of time to photograph the wildlife and to hike on some of the popular trails.

Scenic Loop Drive – Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Where to Spot Wildlife on the Drive

  • Bison – Bison travel in all areas of the park, especially along the Scenic Loop Drive roadway.  Visitors should give them lots of space and pay close attention to slow-moving traffic when bison are in the area.
  • Elk – There are some elk in the South Unit of the park, however they can typically be seen near I-94 on the earliest parts of the Scenic Loop Drive.  Early morning is the best time to spot them.
  • Feral Horses – The National Park Service maintains a small herd of feral horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park as a historical/cultural resource. They can generally be viewed from somewhere along the Scenic Loop Drive, although it’s best to check with a ranger on where they were last spotted.
  • Birds – Many different species of bird inhabit Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Spotting a golden eagle soaring high above the Scenic Loop Road is a highlight of many visitors.
  • Prairie Dog Towns – As you start the Scenic Loop Drive your first wildlife encounter may be a prairie dog. There are two large prairie dog downs in this area, both with plenty of opportunities to spot (and hear!) these adorable grassland creatures.  Prairie dogs are one of the critical species of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park ecosystem and efforts to make sure the health and size of the towns are now underway in the park.

Stops Along Scenic Loop Drive

This route assumes you travel east to west (counterclockwise) around the Scenic Loop Drive:

  • Ridgeline Nature Trail – Your first opportunity to hike off Scenic Loop Drive comes about 2 miles into the drive.  This 30 minute (0.6 miles) easy to moderate hike provides some Badlands natural history on the self-guided signs.  The plant life in along the trail is a good sample of the ecology of the area.
  • Badlands Overlook – Immediately after the Ridgeline Nature Trail is a pull-out on the north side of the road.  Visitors can see their first glimpse at the erosion and rich layers of soil that compose the North Dakota Badlands.
  • Upper/Lower Paddock Creek Trails – As you descend from the upper section of the road into the lower creek bed, the plant life in the park changes.  While most travel the Upper and Lower Paddock Creek Trails as longer (6-8+ hour) hikes, visitors may also enjoy shorter out-and-back hikes from this point.
  • Boicourt Overlook Trail – Farther down the road, you’ll come across Boicourt Overlook Trail. The route is short (under 15 minutes) and relatively flat. It is certainly worth getting out of the car for though, as it offers one of the best views of the Badlands in the entire South Unit.
  • Wind Canyon Trail – After passing a few more prairie dog towns, one of the last pull-outs on the route will be for the Wind Canyon Trail.  This 20 minute easy to moderate hike showcases The Little Missouri River and some of the greener areas of the park. Rangers love this hike at sunset for the late-evening glow of the wind-sculpted canyon sides.
  • Peaceful Valley Ranch – The last stop of the Scenic Loop Drive is for Peaceful Valley Ranch.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the only original ranch house remaining in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As of Spring 2017, the ranch buildings are not open to the public.

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