Take a Road Trip to McKenzie County — it’s bigger than a state
McKenzie County county could be it’s own state. That’s because it is larger than Washington DC, Rhode Island or Delaware. It’s rugged, bountiful and friendly.
When settlers moved to the area, McKenzie County was known as the Island Empire.
Even today, you cannot take a road trip to McKenzie County without crossing water.
The Missouri River, Yellowstone River and Little Missouri River set the boundaries of the county. It is he largest county in the state, and for me, has always been fascinating — even more so as I read about its history going back to the Dakota Territory days.
That’s how I discovered local cowboy Bill Chaloner. Like most cowboys, he was a resourceful “git-er-done” kind of guy. He was a rodeo bronc rider, a rancher and an entrepreneur. So, it’s no surprise that he also created a crossing to get to McKenzie county from the south, through the Badlands. But that was just one access point. Today you can access McKenzie county from all directions. In fact, if you are ready for a road trip, you’ll find some of the best highways in the region to carry you to the county.
Five world-class points in the county
- Four Bears Bridge
- Lake Sakakawea
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Maah Daah Hey trail
- Rough Rider Event Center
Sure, you can take a day trip to buzz through all six locations, but why would you? We put this together so you can take advantage of vacation days, weekends or holidays through the year to explore the adventures, get insight and history of America. It’s yours to enjoy. Each site is free or very low cost.
Four Bears Bridge
This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $55 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design. The Four Bears Bridge won several international design contests and is recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.
Each sweeping arch is designed to transfer the load in to the piers and the rock bed 90 feet below the water. The chopped off cones at the base of the piers are designed to stand up to ice floes coming downstream.
Walk the bridge to see artwork detailing the history of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation. The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge.
Here’s what you can do here next to an internationally recognized engineering feat (and it’s free!):
- Walk across
- Walk under
- Follow the recreation trail
- Learn history
- Have a picnic.
Depending on which way you take your road trip to McKenzie County, you’re likely going to cross Lake Sakakawea.
Damming the Missouri River at Garrison with Garrison Dam, created a magnificent 180-mile long lake with 1,530 miles of PUBLIC shoreline. The Army Corps of Engineers says the lake covers 382,000 surface acres making it the largest manmade lake in North America where the entire shoreline is open to the public.
It is world famous for its recreation, walleye fishing and its paddlefish snagging.
Here’s what you can do here next to this world-famous lake:
- Hike the shoreline
- Watch sunset/sunrise
- Visit the parks
- Learn history
- Have a picnic
- Boat (fishing, sail, jet ski)
- Scuba Dive
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Undersold and over-delivering as a National Park, the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TNRP) is on the south edge of McKenzie County.
It is a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park to suit all types of hikers. The roadway through the park takes visitors on a sight-seeing drive and past to the Riverbend Overlook cabin above the Little Missouri River. Along the drive, it’s likely you will see a collection of bison or other species such as mule deer.
TR National Park History
When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.
–National Park System publication on the TRNP
It would seem a great number of visitors view the park through their windshield. They’re missing out. There are several trails in the park to accommodate all levels of fitness. One of the most challenging is the Achenbach Trail. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it into a two-day hike. (Anyone intending to camp in the back-country must obtain a free back-country permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers.)
Plan now, if you are looking to vary your exposure. You can try an easier trail include the Cannonball Concretion trail.
Here’s what you can do here next to this National Park:
- scout wildlife
- access the river
- research, browse books
Maah Daah Hey trail (Otherwise knowns as the “lasting a long time” trail)
Imagine a 125-mile trek through Badlands wilderness on a mountain bike, horse or on foot. Mule and whitetail deer, antelope, wild turkeys, beaver, prairie dogs, and coyotes are often sighted, while an occasional golden eagle, red-tail hawk, or prairie falcon may be spotted soaring above. Bighorn sheep and elk have been reintroduced into the area and can be spotted by keen observers.
The single-track mountain bike trail has attracted world riders to visit with their $4,000 bikes. You can rent mountain bikes on the south end of the Maah Daah Hey trail at Medora.
The dream was to connect the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The actual planning and building took about 14 years. It’s a difficult trail to maintain through the erosive and wild Badlands. In recent years, your tax dollars have not been spent to keep it up. Locals including the Save the Maah Daah Hey trail group sculpt and mow the trail. The group hosts the annual Maah Daah Hey 100 mountain bike ride: 100-miles in one day. The winning time is just minutes under 10 hours.
There is no time of year that is a bad time to strike out on the trail. Of course, North Dakota’s legendary afternoon and evening thunderstorms can make the trail very challenging even for the most experienced adventurer.
(Learn more here about the Maah Daah Hey Trail.)
Don’t be scared off by the massive challenge the Maah Daah Hey can present. A road trip to McKenzie County has more to offer, including the towns of Alexander and Arnegard. And there are plenty of short-access hikes outside of the National Park; here are some ideas of where you can get on the trail in to the Badlands:
- CCC Campground
- Summit Campground
- Bennet Creek
- Beicegel Creek
- Highway 50 West of Grassy Butte
A recent discovery for us is the old Highway 85 road bed. Today it’s a Forest Service Road. It’s one of several of these old road beds in the National Grasslands.
Rough Rider Event Center
Imagine a $100-million indoor swimming pool with a few extra features. That’s a silly way to describe the Rough Rider Event Center. It is an auditorium, arena, gymnasium, and indoor water park, swimming pool, walking track, two ice hockey rinks, convention center, coffee shop and restaurant. Concerts, conventions, hockey and basketball tournaments draw thousands of people to the Rough Rider Event Center.
- 22,000-square-foot multi-use field house
- Three basketball courts
- Removable artificial turf
- 1,000-seat hockey arena
- Separate practice hockey rink
- 3,000-seat arena for sporting events and concerts
- Eight executive suites
- 12,000-square-foot gymnastics club
- 10,000 square feet of convention space
- Continuous elevated running track.
Watford City visitors can use the facility for a surprisingly low fee. So, for $7.00 visitors can enjoy daily use of any open activities, including swimming.
And speaking of low cost. Did you know you could get in to the National Park for free certain times of the year?
Add to your list of McKenzie County sites to visit
Just because these are the world-class sites in McKenzie does not mean there are no more incredible places such as the Long X Museum and Visitor Center, art galleries and coffee houses in Watford City, Fairview Lift Bridge, the Cartwright Tunnel, Grassy Butte and its Post Office Museum, the Frontier Village, the museum at Alexander.
Our mission is to give people ideas of adventures and destinations to explore — and on the other side, to work with businesses and communities to get out the good word of who they are and what they offer adventurers.