Campground Review: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Cottonwood Campground – Medora, North Dakota

Posted July 12, 2017 – Narrated by Carmen
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See our 5-Bambi rating legend at the end of this review.

“Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it”
Theodore Roosevelt

We’re moving too fast – still trying to find our pace.

Entering Yellowstone National Park

Since April 29th it’s been a succession of quick stays across the continental United States with a few important objectives shaping our trajectory which included our happy family reunion in Big Sky, Montana

… and our upcoming appointment at the Airstream Factory in Ohio on the 18th of July.

Our 4-3-2 Rule has taken a back seat to expedience. Ten days in the Grand Tetons National Park, four cold and snowy days in Yellowstone National Park, and four days in Big Sky, Montana …

Adjacent to the Gallatin River in Big Sky, Montana at the Red Cliff Campground.

And finally, after a few one-day stops in some parking lots here and there …

Overnight parking at the Miles City North Dakota Walmart

…we carved out the opportunity for a full week stay somewhere – if we could find a place. From our research, it looked doubtful we’d have success, but we decided to grab the golden ring and gamble on Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit in Medora, North Dakota

We turned into TRNP at 11 AM on Monday with the goal of snagging a coveted first-come-first-serve primitive RV site at Cottonwood Campground. If we couldn’t secure a site, we’d just spend the day driving the loop and move on.

But the moment we passed the ranger station our hearts skipped a beat.

Pardon the hippie vernacular, but this place is far-out

Boicourt Overlook Trail

…vibes so intense we didn’t have to pick-up on them – we could actually see them…

Old Entrance Trail

… even touch them.

Petrified Forest

These hills don’t “call” or “sing.”  No. They scream and lay open their veins to the very bone.

Coal Vein Trail

The landscape is indescribable – even the film on view at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Visitor Center didn’t capture the complexity.

I think, if Salvadore Dali saw The Badlands, he’d paint them as they are – melting mountains …

Coal Vein Trail
Petrified Forest

…or the boneyard of the gods.


The geologic processes that continue to shape this region have a virtual reality schema that cracks a whip over the brain.

The constant double-takes – as faces and figures and human-like sounds emerge from the phenomenal hoodoos is exhausting, chilling … compelling.

Buck Hill Trail

Are they trying to tell us something …?

Petrified Forest
Petrified Forest
Boicourt Overlook Trail
Wind Canyon Trail
A 3 ft chunk of petrified wood. Cool, huh!?

We are so hip with Teddy now.

“I grow very fond of this place, and it certainly has a desolate, grim beauty of its own, that has a curious fascination for me.”   – Theodore Roosevelt

Maltese Cross Cabin – Teddy’s house
Tree, climbing.

We would never pit park against park – every U. S. National Park is a treasure to be protected – but, man … It’d be a bummer to miss Teddy’s place!

Yes, tourist concessions and creature comforts are minimal to nonexistent, but now that we are properly equipped, it will be a while before we return to the traffic jams, crowded camping, and trails we experienced in Yellowstone the previous week. Let’s just call it a trade-off.

Every day at Teddy’s (South Unit) we viewed more free-roaming wildlife than in all our time in the Tetons and Yellowstone. We quickly learned to stay at or below the 25 mph speed limit.

At least once a day we drove the 37-mile loop and every single time we had to slow down or brake for wildlife. Large animals cross these roads – bison, wild horses, bighorn sheep, elk – and often, in herds.

So, we kept our speed down and our camera up. We wondered how the cyclists and bikers on the loop were dealing with their encounters!

Gorgeous Buffalo/Bison in repose

We took special care while driving through prairie dog towns. This region is their only home and these intelligent and hardworking little citizens are losing ground every day.

And when we got home, we couldn’t help but admire our spacious woodland campsite. Sweet digs …

Space #14 Cottonwood campground
Bird watching is another reward in Cottonwood. I must get a telephoto lens for my iPhone!
Dogs are not allowed on the trails, but Cottonwood has a network of walking paths where leashed pets can have a taste of wilderness. Pico loved his walks!

All sites at Cottonwood (the only campground within the South Unit park) are “primitive” meaning no hook-ups at all. That means, no water, no electricity, no sewer, no WiFi, no cell service, no laundry, no camp store. You are on your own here!

Water stations and toilets (no showers) are placed throughout the park.

The even-numbered campsites are only available through Reserve Americawhich means they were mostly empty. The uneven-numbered sites are reserved on a first-come-first-served basis through the camp host with a fourteen-day maximum stay at $14 a night, and half price ( $7 ) with a senior card.

When we arrived to search for space, the camp host advised us to take – sight unseen – the only available site that would accommodate our rig. So rather than hope for something better and lose the space to fierce competition, we immediately secured #14 for a full week.

Most of the sites are huge and fortunately, ours was not under a canopy of shady cottonwoods.

In a primitive situation like this, we need all the solar energy we can harvest, and were delighted that even with an overcast day or two, our batteries remained charged throughout our stay.

When we arrived there was fresh evidence of bison in our campsite, but they had moved to the far end of Cottonwood. Ever wonder what a bison would do if he saw his reflection on an Airstream?
Catching rays at Theodore Roosevelt National Park

After a full day and night of camping nirvana, we woke with an itch to explore. Since we’d be out for hours, Jim whomped up big plates of his divine huevos rancheros verdes.

LIB is the best Mexican restaurant on the road!

There are several ways to view the park: Drive the 37-mile loop, ride the bridle paths, cycle the loop and hike the trails.

37-mile driving loop through the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Each day we drove to selected trailheads and hiked from there. Traffic was always light and only rarely did we encounter fellow hikers.

The trails range from five-minute nature walks to 7-9 mile treks. All are well signed from the road and marked.

Trail guides are provided at many of the pull-outs along the loop. Whatever time we had, there was a trail.

This park is so easy to visit. Even a single drive-through experience will blow you away. TRNP is the perfect place to introduce new hikers to a proper trail experience.

Ridgeline Trail
The original – now abandoned – entrance to the park.
Coal Vein Trail
Boicourt Overlook – That’s me up there. Need a drone …
Boicourt Overlook trail
Wind Canyon Trail – The Little Missouri River

We loved them all, but our favorite hike was the Petrified Loop Hiking Trail.

Petrified Forest Trail
Petrified Forest Trail

Oh, and another great thing about Theodore Roosevelt National Park! At the end of every trail, they have free beer!

Sorry. Must have been the hoodoos talking. You have to drive a few miles to Medora for a cold one but it’s worth it – only puts you back a few bucks.

But as long as it’s Happy Hour, let’s make a wish …

… that Teddy’s reality will endure. Conservation doesn’t have to be a wild-fantasy, flower-child dream.

Land conservation makes good economic sense. Publicly protected lands have already passed the test of logic, so that legacy … has legs. Let’s keep moving forward.

“it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds, and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last, it looks as if our people were awakening.”
Theodore Roosevelt

If you want to see our exact route, click here.

*photos in this post (unless otherwise noted) were taken and copyrighted by Living In Beauty.

Our “BAMBI” rating system explained:

bambi-1 – One Bambi: Should’a boondocked.

bambi-2Two Bambi’s: Better than a Cracker Barrel or Walmart.

bambi-3Three Bambi’s: Adequate for a short stay.

bambi-4Four Bambi’s: Great place! Met our expectations for an extended stay. Needs minor improvements or is not ideally situated for all our preferred recreation (hiking, cycling, swimming, kayaking) without driving.

Five Bambi’s: Destination Camping at its best! Critical as we are, there’s nothing we’d improve, and you can bet your sweet Bambi we’re going back!

We were not paid, reimbursed nor influenced in any way by anyone for this campground review.

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