The Petrified Forest Loop in Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers views of the Badlands, wildlife and a forest of trees turned to stone.
Things to See
- Petrified forest & Badlands scenery
- Plains animals like bison and deer
- Cactus and summer wildflowers
- About a 16 mile drive into the South Unit of the park
- Full hike is about 10 miles
- Prepare to pay entrance fees
- Classified moderate to strenuous
About 16 miles into the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park lies the trailhead for the Petrified Forest Loop, a hike that’s a little more than 10 miles in length with a wide variety of terrain and things to see. It’s truely “a home, where the buffalo roam”..deer and antelope and the whole lot. In fact, on the drive over, don’t be surprised if you see a “Home On The Range” sign along I-94.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is about four hours from Billings, Montana along the border of Montana and North Dakota, right where the Plains and the Badlands meet.Continue along the route and you’ll find two visitors centers to the South Unit of the national park. One of those will be the closest entry to access the Petrified Forest Loop. There is reportedly access to the trailhead from outside the park itself, but I chose to support National Parks and pay the entry fee. Plus, I wanted to drive around a bit inside the park and see a few other things while I was there. There is a wide variety of passes available, ranging from about $15 a week for an individual on foot to $55 a month for an individual in a vehicle.
Theodore Roosevelt came to this area in the late 1800’s and fell in love with it so much, he invested in two properties — the Maltese Cross and Elkhorn Ranches. Maltese Cross serves as a visitor center to this day. You won’t see either of those ranches directly on the way to the Petrified Forest Loop, that’s an adventure for another day. The Painted Canyon is another stop to make for excellent views.
Native American history has deep roots in this place and there are many opportunities to learn about how the people who called the Badlands home for hundreds of years lived – as well as opportunities to learn about how all that changed in the 19th century with the clashes between the Native Americans and the U.S. Army.
Hiking the Petrified Loop Trail gives you the feeling of stepping back in the past with sweeping, endless views of rugged cliffs and rocks, dotted with patches of dust and green. It’s the kind of place where you’d expect to see a horse and rider on the horizon. Sometimes you do see a horse. Sometimes it’s a bison or an antelope.
As you get deeper into the park, you’ll start seeing scatterings of petrified wood shards under your feet. Soon, those grow into a forest of petrified tree stumps scattered across the Badlands. You can’t help but wonder what life was like when sap still flowed through the bark of those trees. And while some of the other highlights of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are historic, this feels ancient.
The Petrified Forest Loop is a long and challenging hike with various levels of terrain. It can be slippery and muddy after rain or when the snow is melting. It’s also worth every single step.
Remember to always check conditions and have adequate gear before going into any outdoor situation and plan accordingly.