Your Guide to the Bakken Outdoors

Little Missouri River

By April 24, 2014

The Little Missouri River, North Dakota’s only state scenic river, wanders through a region of unparalleled beauty in the state. The Little Missouri–unpredictable, primitive and panoramic–characterizes and captures North Dakota’s adventurous spirit and western flair. The beauty of the badlands landscape was unique enough to protect as a national park, named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who wandered the badlands to hunt and relax. The Little Missouri River winds through the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), and passes the site where Theodore Roosevelt built his log cabin in 1884. Much of the badlands is comprised of the Little Missouri National Grassland, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Little Missouri River vantage offers canoeists a unique perspective from which to revel in the surrounding badlands splendor. The 274-mile river has a variable canoeing season, depending on runoff. The most reliable time is in the spring. A canoeist can take a few day trips through or near the national park units, or go on an extended backcountry float trip for a few days from the South Unit to the North Unit of TRNP.

The Little Missouri corridor, an area of sometimes stark, eroded and dissected topography, harbors an extensive array of plants and animals. Expect to see abundant wildlife on your trip. The national park has a wild herd of buffalo and the U.S. Forest Service has reintroduced elk into the region. It is not unusual to see mule deer, bighorn sheep, eagles and prairie falcons. The plant life is especially diverse, as conditions found on the steep slopes dictate the necessity for distinctly different botanical communities.

Where to go for day trips

Several access points near the town of Medora and the South Unit of TRNP allow day trips from one to six hours. The longest day trip would begin at Sully Creek State Park and go into the South Unit to the Cottonwood Campground. This trip can be shortened by putting in or taking out at the Old Highway 10 bridge in Medora. All access points are good to fair. None are marked specifically as canoe landings.


Sully Creek State Park To Old Highway 10 Bridge – 1 to 2 hours. Hazards – Low flows. Fences across the river might have to be portaged. Sandbars.
Old Highway 10 Bridge to Cottonwood Creek Campground – 1 to 2 hours. Hazards – Low flows. Sandbars.
The North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park can also be canoed, from the Juniper Campground to the U.S. Highway 85 Bridge. This will take about 2 hours. The access at the Highway 85 bridge is steep. The stretch from Highway 85 to Highway 22 provides a long day trip (12 hours when the river flows are good to excellent–at least 700 cfs at the Watford City gaging station). This stretch is not as scenic as the day trips within TRNP.
Where to go for backcountry trips

The Little Missouri River is the only river in the state that offers true backcountry canoeing opportunities. The stretch from the South Unit to the North Unit of TRNP is recommended. The scenery and wildlife viewing are spectacular along this route. A wildlife fence sometimes crosses the river at the north boundary of the South Unit, which must be portaged.

Expect to canoe for 25 to 40 hours, depending on flows and canoeist’s abilities. Access points mentioned for day trips can be used for backcountry trips.

Camping on U.S. Forest Service land is allowed, but no designated campsites or water are provided. A National Grassland map is very useful for keeping track of your location along the river and for traveling in the badlands. Much of the adjacent land is privately owned, so permission should be obtained from the landowner if you wish to camp or access the river on their land. A backcountry permit for the national park is required.


ND Parks and Recreation Department (Sully Creek State Park) – 701.328.5357
National Park Service, Theodore Roosevelt National Park,
South Unit – 701.623.4466. North Unit – 701.842.2333
U.S. Forest Service, Medora Ranger District – 701.225.5151
Flow information

U.S. Geological Survey:

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