||4.1 miles roundtrip
- One of the most scenic trails in the entire North Unit
- Badlands views throughout the entire hike
- Few people and good opportunities for wildlife viewing
There is no doubt that the Caprock Coulee Loop is one of the best moderate length hikes (if not the best) in all of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The trail starts by meandering through a canyon with beautiful badlands rock formations before climbing to the top of a prairie plateau with occasional viewpoints. At the end of the hike, the trail traverses a ridge and you can turn your head in either direction for astounding views. This is absolutely a must do hike if you make it to the North Unit of the park.
Follow the trail leaving from the Caprock Coulee parking area to do the loop in a counterclockwise direction -- this allows you to finish the hike with the fantastic ridge views and a long descent back to the parking lot. Turn left at the intersection ahead, and be sure to sign the trail register before embarking on your journey! When I passed through here, a ranger was explaining to another group of hikers that the register is the only way the park can track trail usage and helps them better plan and maintain the trails. From the intersection and beyond, the trail is mostly flat with a slight bit of uphill as it enters a narrow badlands canyon, as pictured below.
The Caprock Coulee Nature Trail leading into the badlands
You'll be surrounded by badlands rock formations on either side, though the best views are to the right. The gradual uphill will slowly steepen, and you'll encounter occasional steps. The elevation gain makes for even better views of the badlands, as pictured below.
Looking back into the badlands during an ascent
The steps become more and more frequent as you start ascending out of the canyon. You may encounter gross, muddy pools of water on the steps, as pictured below. This is typical of any water in the badlands, and as Theodore Roosevelt once famously said, "Water is a commodity not by any means to be found everywhere...When found, it is more than likely to be bad, being either from a bitter alkaline pool, or from a hole in a creek, so muddy that it can only be called liquid by courtesy."
Brackish water pooling on the steps
After a tiring but quick ascent, you'll emerge from the canyon onto a plateau. At some point, you'll have the spectacular view below looking down into the canyon from whence you came. This is the first of many amazing views that will dazzle you the remainder of the hike.
Fall colors at the bottom of the endless canyon
If you're lucky, you may encounter bison at some point during your hike -- I found two grazing right alongside the trail on top of the plateau, see the picture below. In case of a bison encounter, be sure to give them space as they can be quite unpredictable. I stepped off trail for a moment to keep a safe distance and encourage you to do the same. While I can't guarantee you'll see a bison, this section of trail is where you'd most likely see one since it's flat, grassy, and away from the road and crowds of people.
Bison grazing on top of the plateau
As you continue along the top of the plateau, you'll have a glimpse of the badlands canyon on the horizon, as pictured below. The park road will come into view on your left side, and you'll eventually cross the road. There isn't much traffic and cars travel slowly, but the road crossing is on a curve and it may be difficult to spot vehicles (or for them to spot you).
Caprock Coulee Trail as it extends across the plateau
The trail follows the side of the road until you reach River Bend Overlook, a popular drive-up viewpoint with a Civilian Conservation Corps constructed shelter. Feel free to explore the area, but know that even better views are coming your way soon! To continue, look for the trail marker directly on the side of the road -- the trail runs just on the other side of the metal road barrier. Despite being so close to the road, you'll have amazing views as pictured below.
This view is even better than the one at River Bend Overlook
The fun starts as soon as the trail veers away from the road along the edge of the canyon. The trail becomes more rugged and occasionally steep as you cross directly on top of badlands formations; while these surfaces look like eroded mud, you'll be surprised to find they are rock solid, though a bit gritty to the touch. The trail isn't obvious when it crosses these rocks, but there are markers staked in the ground to help guide you. You will be surrounded by views on either side, so be sure to take a moment to stop and enjoy scenery like pictured below!
Looking back at the Little Missouri River at the bottom of the canyon
Eventually the trail begins a steep descent back down to the parking area. Enjoy some final views as the trail snakes into the trees. The trail ends at the road across the street from the parking area. This hike alone is why a visit to the North Unit is worthwhile, and I hope you enjoy this truly fantastic hike. Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter
Dogs are prohibited on all trails in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The entire loop is too difficult for a family hike, but those with kids can certainly do the segment of the loop labeled the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail. Fall and spring are the two best seasons for this trail; summer heat on this shadeless route would be uncomfortable in addition to the propensity for thunderstorms, and icy conditions in winter would make the steeper portions extremely dangerous. You will definitely encounter others on the Nature Trail portion of the loop, but few attempt the entire loop despite it's tremendous beauty.
From Interstate 94, take the exit for U.S. Highway 85 in Belfield and head north, following signs for the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In a little over 50 miles, you'll see signs for the park entrance. Turn left and pay the park entrance fee at the station or by entering the visitor center on the right if the entrance station is closed. Continue on the scenic drive, traveling slowly to absorb the beautiful scenery and to get a taste of what's to come. Watch for signs for the Caprock Coulee Trail and park in the lot on the right side of the road. You can also park at the River Bend Overlook -- you'll just be starting the loop at a different location.
Google Maps Directions
Parking, Fees, and Facilities
Entrance to the park requires paying the $30 vehicle entrance fee valid for 7 days, except on designated fee free days. Annual passes for Theodore Roosevelt National Park are also available at $55. Interagency annual passes are available for $80 with discounts for seniors, military, and those with disabilities. Visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park webpage about fees for more detailed information. There are no facilities available near the lot.