Top 5 attractions in the Badlands for a healthy 2021

walking up to large petrified stump of an old sequoia forest.

One of the petrified stumps on what was a swamp, eons ago.

 

Okay, okay. We all know 2020 was challenging. So, plan now to make 2021 better with healthy outdoor experiences. That’s what happened here this year, when people adventured out on healthy and happy. adventures in the Badlands.  These top 5 attractions of the Badlands are family-friendly healthy encouraging attractions. People this year showed us what were the most popular attractions —  and you can add them to your 2021 calendar.

 

 

5. What: Grassy Butte Post Office

Who knew a quaint rustic closed post office along a major highway would be one of the top 5 attractions?

Grassy Butte post office

Grassy Butte Post Office

 

Why: Grassy Butte is still a vibrant community with local happenings such as Christmas Parties, Fireman Fundraisers, and Easter Egg hunts.

It is one of the top attractions for Beautiful Badlands ND visitors.

The post office started in 1913. It was key to growth.  You notice it looks like an adobe or mud hut, but it’s actually a pioneer structure that has stood for more than 100 years. It’s built with the techniques and styles of a Russian building.  That’s because settlers from that country hauled in the logs and built it.

Where: about 35 miles north of Belfield on Highway 85. Or 30 Miles south of Watford City on Highway 85.ad watford city beef

Tip: Use Grassy Butte as a stopping off point before heading west on County Road 50.  Follow the signs to get to Beicegel Campground, or the Maah Daah Hey trail.  When your exploration is over, ice cream is at the general store if it is open, and a cold beverage waits for you at the Grassy Butte Bar.

Read about the Grassy Butte Post Office here

 

4. What: The lost town of Elbowoods

There is history under the water — and sadly many of those who lived then died in 2020. So, in 2021, whet your imagination by scouting for Elbowoods. You won’t find the town, but the search for where it is under the water could become one of your top 5 attractions in 2021.

Flood waters begin to creep up on Elbowods in this 1953 photo from the North Dakota Historical Society.

 

Why: Under Lake Sakakwea are at least 3 towns, Van Hook, Sanish and Elbowoods. Elbowoods was the largest with a vibrant main street, state champion high school basketball team, medical facilities, and deep cultural roots of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. The government took the land and flooded it when it built Garrison Dam, but not before townspeople made a valiant effort to move the town to high ground.

Where: You can approach the lake from the north or the south as though Highway 8, the “Border to the Black Hills Highway” were still a major thoroughfare. The original Four Bears Bridge was here before it was unbolted and shipped to New Town.

Shoreside attractions

An informational sign on the Nux Baa Ga Trail relates the history of Four Bears Bridge which spanned the Missouri River at this area. The bridge was relocated to New Town before Lake Sakakawea flooded the area, submersing US Highway 8 and the town of Elbowoods at this location.

An informational sign on the Nux Baa Ga Trail south of Parshall stands above the lost town of Elbowoods. The sign relates the history of Four Bears Bridge which spanned the Missouri River at this area. The bridge was relocated to New Town before Lake Sakakawea flooded the area, submersing US Highway 8 and the town of Elbowoods at this location.

On the north, the historical site with camping, picnic area, and hiking is next to the Indian Hills Resort west of Garrison.  Incidentally, that was one of our most pleasant explorations ever. Read about it here.

highway 8 to elbowoods

The pavement from Twin Buttes extends to the water’s edge. A bit of imagination is all it takes to envision how the highway went down in to the valley to the Four Bears Bridge.

From the south, Highway 8 is blocked north of Twin Buttes, but you can walk to the lake on the old roadbed. It’s what we did, here.

Tip: Since the land is Army Corps of Engineers land all along the lake edge, if you hike to the edge, or boat one of the boat landings, picnic ground is bountiful, all along the water’s edge.

Read some of the history of the lost town of Elbowoods here

 

3. What: Wild Horses of the National Park.

Horses, a symbol of both the old west and Old Indian days. They used to run wild all over America.  Now they run wild here.

feral wild horses run

 

Why: Their background is debated and dubious. Ranchers in the area have one story.  Wild horse fans have another belief.  They could be descendants of Sitting Bull’s herd as you can read here. The wild horse herd of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a major wildlife attraction of the south unit.

The herd has it’s own fan club of fervent, zealous devotees. 

Outside of the fan club, even casual observers stop and admire the equine beauty of stallions, mares, and colts. Click here to get a sample

Where: Along Interstate 94 is the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In fact, the Interstate runs through the park. But you have to get off at exit 23 (eastbound) or exit 27 (westbound) to enter the park and drive the magnificent scenic route.  Stop at the visitor center where rangers can tell you where some of the wild horse bands can be seen.

Tip: Late spring 2021 will be birthing season – colts are cute, I don’t care who you are.  Their gangly legs and spry energy catches everyone’s attention.

 

2. What: TR National Park North Unit overlooks

On a clear day, you can see forever.

riverbend overlook T Roosevelt National Park

One of the most photographed builds in the state was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp nearly 100 years ago.

 

Why: Eons of erosion carved the Badlands from south to north; so, the farther north along the Little Missouri River, the steeper is the river valley and the more spectacular are the views.

The north unit boasts of the Little Grand Canyon, incredibly deep and steep cuts where bighorn sheep, elk, and mule deer thrive. Click here to see a sample of the wildlife in the north unit.

Two Overlooks in the top 5 attractions

The two most popular attractions are the overlooks: Both the Riverbend Overlook and the Oxbow Overlook grab people out of their cars and lure them on a short jaunt to spectacular views. In our list of top 5 attractions, the Riverbend Overlook is probably the most familiar.

Click here to see a golden hour vista.

Where:  Watford City is the nearest town. Eat at one of several very good restaurants, or stay in one of the modern hotels, or visit the local Brewery, the Stone Home Brewery.

Stonehome brewing

Tip: On the day you visit, check for sunset’s time. Then, make sure you are in a vantage point, including one of the overlooks to watch how the “golden hour” transforms the colors and contrasts of the river valley.  Sit a spell and see the colors get very warm, and then turn maroon and finally blue.

The number one attraction to put on your 2021 calendar is a “wow-maker.” History, engineering, architecture, badlands vista and fishing make this a go-to spot.  A casual visitor to the Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel will at some point  say “wow.” 

 

1. What: Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel

Guaranteed, it is a “wow maker.” It’s our number 1 of the top 5 attractions.

fairview lift bridge

Why: You’re going back 100 years and sampling the engineering that withstands the century.  The views from the bridge are impressive. And down below, paddle fishing thrives. See why that’s something to put on your calendar.

The abandoned Lift Bridge combined rail and automobile crossings over the Yellowstone River.   Very few “through truss bridges” remain in America. (Through Truss, traffic goes through the support system, the trusses overhead and alongside.) 

A securely fenced in walkway, about a quarter-mile along, starts at a parking lot and takes visitors to the Cartwright Tunnel. This quarter-mile-long bent tunnel will lead you into darkness at the midpoint.  The tunnel was carved mostly by hand labor, local farmers and ranchers hired on to excavate the tunnel for trains to pass through this badlands hill.

Read about them both here.

Where: Right on Highway 200 about a mile inside the ND/MT state line. The two transportation oddities in the top 5 attractions, are between Cartwright ND and Fairview MT.

History Alive

This is “history alive” country.  Head west of Watford City on Highway 85/200 — and stay on 200 when it turns west.  85 continues north. In this area, if you make a day of it, you’ll find Fort Union Trading Post, the Fort Buford State Historic Site, and the Missouri Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center.

Tip: Cartwright is just east of the tunnel and bridge.  Its hospitality is legendary and is marked by the town pump, a free hand pump that delivers cold spring water to anyone who pumps.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the Badlands Open?  Yes, the geological region from Marmarth ND to Mandaree, ND is about 150 miles of rough country.  If the roads are not too muddy or too snow-packed, they are open for exploring. Using a Forest Service Map, you can find the public ground to explore.

Will I get stranded or lost in the Badlands?  It’s not unheard of, but ranchers in the area are more than helpful when they come across someone who doesn’t know how to get back to town. There is little cell phone reception in the Badlands.  Roads do not always go north and south or east and west. Days are short, so what seems like a quick jaunt to another part of the badlands can take a couple hours.

Where can I eat or sleep in the Badlands?  Find Year-round accommodations at Dickinson, 30 miles east of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, or at Belfield, 15 miles east of the National Park.  Typical tourist towns are quiet in the off season.

Subscribe to learn about the next of the top 5 attractions making it #6-10. One of these could be just what you are looking for. The North Dakota Badlands seem custom-made for families and individuals to social distance, stay outside, get exercise and stir their creativity.

Coming Up:

We’ll show you the difference. Two photographers show their different styles while shooting the same subject, the North Dakota Badlands. Coming up, the best photos of 2020 from two perspectives.

 

 

 

 

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