Caprock Coulee Trail -- 2,400'

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - Caprock Coulee Trail

As one of the least-visited National Parks in the country, a trip to Theodore Roosevelt has long been on my list of destinations.  Dreaming, as I do, of this future trip I began to seek out what trail (or trails) would be most recommended should the occasion arise.  What I discovered at first, was that it would be hard to find a bad trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Following up on that fact, however, there was one particular footpath which consistently seemed to outshine the others per the experience of past hikers.  This would be the famed Caprock Coulee Trail.  Measuring in at about 4-miles the Caprock Coulee is a loop trail which, nonetheless, manages to incorporate just about every notable natural feature of the park along its relatively short length.  The layered, multi-colored bluffs for which the North Dakota Badlands are known are certainly the highlight but there is so much more to see in addition.  There are cedar-choked canyons, grassy wind-swept ridges, sweeping views of the Little Missouri River, curious sandstone and clay formations, and even petrified wood!  There is hardly a bend in this trail which doesn't reveal a new and remarkable sight for your eyes to behold.  This was a hike I had therefore been dreaming about completing for quite some time and, oh boy, was it worth the wait!

The primary trailhead for the Caprock Coulee Trail is located within the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, along the Scenic Drive about six miles west of the visitor center.  It's not a large parking area but, pleasantly, this isn't a busy area so finding a spot likely won't be a problem most days.  Being a loop you can choose to head out in two directions from here...either past the trail sign toward the canyon to the north of the parking area, or across the main road and up the high bluffs to the south.  I chose to head the northward direction first, hiking the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, on the recommendation of most trip reports I had researched.  After completing the hike I whole-heartedly concur this is the best direction to complete the loop in...if for no other reason than it saves the most visually-spectacular portion of the trail for the end.  Departing the trailhead the path quickly comes to a split, witha connector path to the nearby Buckhorn Trail going straight ahead and the Caprock Coulee Trail diving down the side of the hill into the brush on the left.  Quickly pushing through the brush your surroundings quickly open up and the narrow canyon the trail is now headed into appears ahead.  The cliffs rising to each side are beautiful, the multiple layers of rock fascinating to see up close.  Keep an eye out early on for a spur path down to a strangely colored boulder among the grasses to the right of the trail.  Upon closer inspection you'll discover this isn't a boulder at all but a giant chunk of petrified wood!  How cool!  Continuing up the floor of the canyon the trail now enters a more forested area, which (as I found) can be quite muddy after a good rain.  About a mile in you'll past a small post marking the end of the 'nature trail' portion of the loop beneath a tall pyramidal bluff capped in a striking layer of yellow stone.   Beyond this point the trail begins its first serious climb of the day...seeking out the head of the canyon.  Where the terrain flattens out again, at the head, you need to watch your step.  Runoff has cut deep cracks in the ground which could cause serious injury if you step into one unexpectedly.  Simple boards lay across these little ravines on my visit, allowing safe passage.  At this point in the hike the canyon walk ends, with the trail now turning its attention to the high grassy ridges above.

The ascent is more notable for its thick tree cover rather than its steepness (though you will notice that too).  Before long, however you'll break into the open once again and, once again, the scenery changes to something new and spectacular.  Traversing a knife-edge ridge you know are looking down into the canyon which you were thus-far ascending.  Beyond that, and in every direction, is a kaleidoscope of green valleys, striped cliffs, and grassy buttes.  It's the Badlands in all their glory, stretching unbroken to the horizon.  The trail continues to climb gradually and soon the ridge broadens until your surroundings become much more prairie-like...though still with beautiful views down into neighboring Cedar Canyon.  At the 2.5-mile mark the Caprock Coulee Trail reaches its westernmost point where it crosses the paved Scenic Drive.  After crossing the road the trail veers easterly and, with a few teasing glimpses of what is to come seen through the trees to the right,  soon arrives at the parking area for the River Bend Overlook.  The trail continues at the far end of the parking area but, trust me, you'll want to make the detour out to the viewpoint first.  The River Bend Overlook is perhaps the most iconic spot in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Here, at the end of a short stone path, sits a large stone shelter perched high atop a narrow protruding bluff.  The scene beyond is simply grand, with the Little Missouri River curving gracefully by below the multi-colored cliffs.  Across the far shore the broken and wild terrain of the badlands extends to the far horizon.  If you're lucky a herd of bison or wild horses might be seen grazing the nearby hillsides or grassy plains below, completing the magnificent natural tapestry.  The shelter offers a good place for a snack, as it offers the first serious shade of the hike, and a spot to catch your'll need it as what you'll see on this next part of the hike will take it away again and again.

The trail departs the parking area along the guardrail at its east entrance, ascends a grassy rise, then drops steeply through a narrow ravine choked with juniper.  Breaking free of the trees you get a taste of things to come, as the expansive valley of the Little Missouri once again stretches out before you beyond the cliff edge.   The next 3/4-mile of trail is nothing short of spectacular as it winds along the top of the narrow and broken ridge.  Steep narrow ravines drop away hundreds of feet to the south while atop the ridge the landscape is one of thin grasses, clay mounds, and exposed sandstone.  It's along this stretch you'll pass a number of interesting formations from which the trail, in part, gets its name. Numerous pillars of clay are seen here, which owe their existence to relatively hard shelves of sandstone sitting atop them (i.e. "caprocks") which provide a measure of protection from erosive rains which would otherwise destroy them.  The trail first stays on the river-side of the ridge, with continuous views of the valley 500-feet below, then moves to the opposite side with incredible vistas of the badlands to the north to enjoy.  The going is slow along this stretch, though not because of overly difficult terrain but rather due to the unending series of natural wonders to behold with each passing step.  With less than a half-mile to go the trail turns to make a winding drop off the north side of the ridge back to the parking area.  If you're like me you'll find the end came far too soon.  Luckily there are still a couple exceptional vistas of Cedar Canyon and the painted hillsides beyond to enjoy on the way down.  Soon the trail drops back into the trees then breaks out once again at the parking lot where you began.

There's little more I can say to express what an incredible hike this was.  Sometimes, given time to hype them up in my head, trails I wait years to hike fail to fully live up to expectations.  Not so with the Caprock Coulee Trail.  It was all it was touted to be and more.  It no doubt helps that the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park remains relatively undiscovered, saving this spectacular trail from the crush of visitors which would no doubt ruin it in more accessible parks.  All I can say, if a stop at Theodore Roosevelt is in the offing for you, is to go...hike this trail.  This one is a classic among those I've done within the National Park System and one I feel privileged to share with you here.  So, without further ado, I present the amazing Caprock Coulee always, I hope you ENJOY!!           

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  47.609832, -103.356019

Route Type:  Loop                        Difficulty:  CHALLENGING  (Petzoldt Rating:  5.60)

Hike Length:  4.4 miles                 Hike Duration:  2:00

Trailhead Temp:  80'F                  Trail Traffic:  1-5 people

Min. Elevation:  2,020'                  Max. Elevation:  2,460'

Total Vertical Gain:  600'             Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  136'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Caprock Coulee (unblazed), River Bend Overlook (unblazed)


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