You can just view it from a viewpoint/visitor center off of Interstate 94, or do the right thing and spend the night in the area, and really appreciate the THREE units of the National Park (there are two main ones, and a third small one — the site of Roosevelt’s ranch, which I didn’t find out about till after) in all their dangerous beauty.
I94 Exit 32, Belfield, ND, brings you to the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, where if you don’t have time to really stop and see the place, you can at least get a taste of it. The visitor’s centers tend to have limited hours (they’re usually all closed by 4:30 or such), but if you get there when open the staff are very helpful with suggestions of how best to enjoy the parks, and places to stay
It was also there that I learned about the fact that there are Two main Unites to the park: North and South that are about an hour apart from each other, connected only by government owned grazing pasture lands (not interesting, unless you’re a farmer), each of which will take you a good two hours or more just two a drive drive through (assuming you’ll be stoping for photographs along the way). It was then that I decided I should stay the night so that I could do both parts, and it was a staff member who told me about the Rough Rider’s Inn in Medora and gave me the phone number so I could make a reservation for that night.
North Unit is in fact the better one, to paraphrase the young guide who worked at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, it has everything the south park does, only twice as big, twice as nice, and there are more animals…. and for all that… fewer visitors.
Like WAY fewer… It was like I was practically the only one there (although not completely alone), I was standing there listening to really loud birdsong and crickets … and I was only a few days shy of the main season. According to the staff I’d spoken too, if I’d shown up a week later, it would be me following a whole row of cars and hearing mostly the sounds of visitors.
To get there from I94, you have to take North Dakota state road 85 (exit 42), and drive for a full 52 minutes north; along the way you’ll drive past the sweet crude gas station and convience store (nice place, clean bathrooms, friendly staff)
There are so many buffalo here that they are blocking the road and I can’t get out of the park!
To get to the entrance to the South Unit of the park, you essentially have leave I94 either at exits 24 or 27 (depending on which direction you’re coming from) towards the town of Medora (which has an historic hotel I really enjoyed), which is sort of a mini cowboy-themed tourist mecca, .
Sadly, I didn’t learn about the Elkhorn Ranch section of the Park, the historic part, till well after I had left the area. As a History buff it might have been nice to see where Teddy’s ranch was (but isn’t any more). But I have a feeling the staff didn’t mention it because it is kind of a let down ….