The rest stop on I-94 7 miles east of Medora North Dakota is not your typical rest stop. It is the site of the the Painted Canyon Visitor Center in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Like any other rest stop, you can visit the restrooms, buy a snack at the vending machines, and stretch your legs. But unlike other rest stops, you will be overlooking the North Dakota Badlands, perhaps viewing a herd of bison, as you take your stroll from the exhibits in the visitor center to the interpretive signs along the canyon overlook.
While most travelers seem satisfied to observe the colorful contours of Painted Canyon from afar, the Painted Canyon Trail provides an opportunity to have a more intimate experience with the landscape that helped inspire a U.S. president to build a legacy of wilderness conservation. The trail takes you into the heart of the Painted Canyon area. It is a 4.2-mile there-and-back hike that starts a few hundred yards east of the visitor center past the Painted Canyon Overlook. The trail descends quickly into the canyon and takes you almost due north, winding through wind- and water-eroded formations and gullies lined with juniper, then crosses a meadow of waist high prairie grass and sagebrush. In the spring you will see plenty of wildflowers along the way. Near the halfway point, keep your eyes peeled for petrified remains of ancient trees lining the trail. The turnaround point is at 2.1 miles where Painted Canyon Trail ends at an intersection with Paddock Creek Trail. The trail is marked throughout with tall brown markers.
A second option from the visitor center parking lot is the Painted Canyon Nature Trail. This 0.9-mile loop starts at the kiosks and pavilion at the west end of the parking lot. There are wooden bridges and steps to make this trail more accessible. Nevertheless, the trail is steep, especially nearest the trailhead. There are several interpretive signs along the trail. Halfway through the loop there is a spur to a lookout point and bench. The formations viewed from the lookout are some of the most colorful in the entire area.
The Painted Canyon Visitor Center is open seasonally from May through October. The hikes are accessible year round, but do not block the gate when parking during the off season. There is no entrance fee for Painted Canyon.