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Trails I've Hiked: Upper Caprock Coulee Trail At Theodore Roosevelt National Park

River Bend Overlook, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, copyright Kurt Repanshek
The payoff of the Upper Caprock Coulee hike is the rock shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Not only does it offer a spot to escape the sun, but it also features panoramic views of the Little Missouri River and the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The best vantage points to take in the grandeur of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are, quite understandably, up high. The Upper Caprock Coulee Trail takes you there, and along the way shows off some incredible badlands that so captivated Theodore Roosevelt.

Its location in the park's northern unit also makes this hike relatively --and some times totally-- uncrowded. Of the park's annual visitation of about 600,000, only about 10 percent of those visitors take the time to explore the North Unit, Superintendent Valerie Naylor told me during a recent visit.

Another factor that could be tamping down trail traffic this year is that road slumps have forced the Park Service to close the last 7 miles of the North Unit Scenic Drive. And that news might further discourage people to visit this part of Theodore Roosevelt, a point that might encourage you to get out to the trail as soon as possible!

Reaching the kickoff point for this hike is easy, as the temporary end of the road is right at the trailhead of both the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail and the Upper Caprock Coulee Trail.

There are two ways to approach this hike: You can head down the nature trail, and continue on along the main Upper Caprock Coulee Trail, or you can cross the road to the south and head up the Upper Caprock Coulee Trail.

We decided to cross the road and hike in reverse, so to speak. The trail dives quickly into a modest stand of juniper and then just as quickly heads somewhat steeply uphill. Here park crews have worked hard to reinforce the "steps" with logs, a production that not only slows erosion but which provides firm footing and carries a rustic "park" architecture to the route.

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Viewpoints make it easy to understand why they call the landscape "badlands." Kurt Repanshek photo.

As you head uphill, you not only are treated to bird calls cutting through the forest but some outstanding views of the badlands as the junipers thin out and sagebrush and grasses take over.

The trail rises and falls, but mostly rises, as you leave your car farther and farther behind. Coming into eyesight not only are views of the Little Missouri River, but also flanks of striated badlands that the river eroded from the landscape down through the millennia.

This is an excellent hike to study the geology of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Before you head out, on this or any hike in the park, you might want to read up on the park's explanation of that geology:

The story of the badlands begins over 65 million years ago during the Paleocene Epoch. The dinosaurs had just become extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period. The western half of North America was buckling and folding to create the Rocky Mountains. Large amounts of sediments were forming as water, wind, and freezing worked to break down the mountains. These sediments, mostly sand, silt, and mud, were carried off the eastern slopes by ancient rivers and deposited here in layers. Volcanoes in South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and across the west were also erupting during this time, spitting out huge amounts of ash. Some of this volcanic ash was blown or carried by rivers into North Dakota and accumulated in standing water. Over time, the sediments turned into the sandstone, siltstone, and mudstone layers now exposed in the park, while the ash layers became bentonite clay.

During the epochs that followed, the land continued to change. Deposition from the mountains in the west continued throughout much of the Eocene, Oligocene, and Miocene epochs. Then as the Pliocene Epoch began, erosion dominated and the layers began to be stripped away. Rivers meandered through broad, shallow valleys across the western Dakotas and eastern Montana plains. Although the rivers changed their courses many times, when the Pliocene Epoch came to a close about two million years ago, one of these rivers existed in almost the same position as the modern Little Missouri River. This river flowed northward to merge first with the ancestral Yellowstone River near Williston, North Dakota, and then merged with the Missouri River, continuing northeastward through Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Hudson Bay.

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The trail cuts through dramatic sections of the park's badlands. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Sections of the hike take you through dramatic stretches of this geology, as it leads through bare grayish-white soils that continue to be eroded and which look as if they'd be somewhat treacherous to negotiate in a rain storm.

The payoff of this hike is the River Bend Overlook, where a rock shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps around 1937 stands on the end of a short promontory. Not only is this shelter interesting from a historical standpoint, but from it you have sweeping views of the Little Missouri River, badlands, and if you look far off to the east, even the juniper covered Juniper Campground.

From the parking lot to the lookout is only about 1.4 miles.

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Don't forget to stop and smell the flowers; in this case, a wood, or prairie, lily. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Once you're through enjoying the view, you can either continue on clockwise along the trail another 3 miles back to your car for a 4.4-mile loop hike, walk down the closed road to your car, or backtrack.

With construction expected to start later this summer on correcting the road slumps, this route, and the lookout, might not offer solitude too much longer.

You also can piece together a much longer hike by continuing past the overlook and down the Achebach Trail, an 18-mile loop that can be tackled in one long day or as an overnighter. However, there are two river crossings along the way, and no bridges. Park officials suggest you check the river level with the Visitor Center staff before embarking on this adventure, as high water could make the river impassable.

If You Go

Trailhead: Caprock Coulee Nature

Trail Length: Variable; 1.4 miles to the River Bend Overlook, 4.4 miles if you complete the full loop.

Difficulty: Easy, aside from a few steep sections. Could become more difficult in a rain storm due to slick bentonite soils.

Payoff: The CCC-built rock shelter overlooking the Little Missouri River.

Cautions: Though short, in summer be sure to carry plenty of water, as there is no shade along the route aside from the rock shelter. Also, bison roam this park, and we encountered one imposing bull who seemed to take exception to our presence.


Thanks for letting me hike vicariously through you this morning.

I have done this hike, and I enthusiasically agree with Kurt's recommendation. I like the North Unit precisely for its lack of crowds, and the scenery is spectacular.

I live near the North Unit and it is absolutely beautiful. It is this hidden jewel and it would be nice to have people come up and be totally surprised. On the flip-side, it is nice to have what is almost a private park for North Western North Dakota

I am glad you enjoyed it and hope you can come back once the road is open. It is worth it ;)

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