Conveniently located along Interstate 94, the South Unit is the park's most visited area. Two visitor centers, a scenic drive, hiking trails, and plenty of watchable wildlife entice visitors to stay a while. The South Unit's small but bustling gateway town, Medora, is an attraction in its own right.
36 Mile Scenic DrivePlan at least 1.5 hours to make it around the South Unit's stunning scenic loop drive. The road winds across the rolling, jumbled badlands with fantastic scenery in all directions. Along the way are numerous scenic overlooks and trailheads. The two-way paved loop is open to motor vehicles (including RVs) and cyclists.
HikingHiking trails in the South Unit include two self-guided nature trails, Ridgeline Nature Trail (0.6 mile) and Coal Vein Trail (0.8 mile). Other favorite short trails include Wind Canyon Trail (0.4 mile), and Buck Hill (0.1 mile). History buffs may enjoy a 0.8 mile (round-trip) hike to the park's old East Entrance Station. Longer backcountry trails span the entire South Unit and are suitable for day or over-night hikes (permit required).
Ranger-led ActivitiesRangers host a variety of programs in the South Unit designed to help you engage with and learn about the park. We invite people of all ages to join in the discussion on guided hikes, full-moon walks, bison chats, and more! Programs are offered June through September with special programs on occasion at other times of year.
CampingHalf the sites in the South Unit's Cottonwood Campground are by reservation, the other half are on a first come, first served basis. Cottonwood is a primitive campground (no RV hookups) and is open year-round. It fills to capacity every night in summer. Roundup Group Horse Campground (reservation only) is a separate campground open to groups camping with horses. Backcountry camping requires a free permit.
Wildlife WatchingBison, mule deer, prairie dogs, and horses are readily visible along the South Unit's scenic drive. (Driving is often the best way to view wildlife, as you can cover more ground this way than on foot.) Also be on the lookout for coyotes, pronghorn, bald and golden eagles, white-tailed deer, turkeys, and elk. Remember to keep a safe distance from all animals you encounter.
South Unit Visitor CenterLocated in the town of Medora at the beginning of the scenic drive, the South Unit Visitor Center is a good place to stop before embarking on your adventure. Rangers are available to help with trip planning and answer questions. A 17-minute park film can help you get acquainted with the park and its history. The museum and Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin are open during visitor center operating hours. Books and souvenirs are sold by our park partner, Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association.
Lodging, Dining, and ServicesThere are no services, restaurants, or lodging options in the park.
Medora, ND (located right at the park's entrance) has campgrounds, lodging, dining, gas, and very limited groceries. Services are more limited in winter.
Belfield, ND (15 miles east) has gas and limited groceries, lodging, and dining.
Beach, ND (25 miles west) has a small grocery store, gas, and limited lodging and dining.
Dickinson, ND (35 miles east) is the largest nearby city with many restaurants, lodging options, grocery stores, and a hospital and walk-in clinic.
Painted Canyon Visitor CenterFor travelers on Interstate 94, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and rest area is their first (and sometimes only) glimpse into the park. Shop for books and souvenirs or get help planning your visit. Just out back, a sidewalk traces the rim of the badlands with fantastic views of the South Unit all along the way. A nature trail and picnic pavilion offer travelers a break from the highway. Keep a safe distance from bison, which are frequent visitors to this part of the park. Note: Painted Canyon is not a park entrance. The South Unit's Scenic Drive begins 7 miles west in Medora.
Last updated: December 4, 2020