They Had No Idea

I know a fellow who doesn’t travel much outside his home turf. A 50-mile drive to Grand Forks for equipment parts is about the extent of his travels.

So, when he accepted an invitation to a wedding on the opposite end of the state, some 350 miles away, in the North Dakota Badlands, he took a mammoth step to traveling across the state.

Afterwards, he returned to his farming community and talked non-stop about the North Dakota Badlands. He was excited and enthused. He became an ardent spokesperson for the beauty of the Badlands.

That happens often

When a group of travel bloggers and writers convened their annual conference in the Badlands in 2019, we heard repeated comments such as, “I had no idea it was so beautiful,” “I’ve never been here before, but I’m coming back.”

I agree. 

In 1981 I first visited the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Coming from the river woodlands of Iowa, I was not impressed with North Dakota’s treeless landscape. But treelessness did not stop my admiration and appreciation for the Badlands of North Dakota. Wow!

In the last few years as Mary and I have explored, photographed and written about the Badlands, we’ve found at least 7 reasons to tell people about the North Dakota Badlands. 


 

1. Beauty

scoria river bottom badlands

The casual momentary observer will stand amazed at the undulating landscape that seems to roll on forever under a golden sunset. Layer upon layer of browns, reds, golds, greens, yellows and other colors are immediately apparent. For hundreds of years, painters have put their brush to canvas to try to capture the Badlands. From Karl Bodmer to Charles Russell to Fredrick Remington, the beauty of  the Badlands have been captured.

caleb looks at the sunset

One of my favorite images because that’s my son who took a weekend to hike with me from Magpie to the Ice Caves.

Today, photographers record the colors and sites.

 

In the winter, the air is crisp and clean like a new lens on your DSLR camera.

In the summer, the sun illuminates the terrain and it is then that the shadows are your friend as they reveal the swoops and protrusions of the rocks and rims.

 

Some of the most liked images we have shared are those of sunsets.

 

Riverbend Overlook of the North Unit

Famous Riverbend Overlook buit by the CCC in the 1930’s is only at the North Unit.

 

And it changes

The more studied observer will notice the changing colors — it can happen right before your eyes.  We write often of the Golden Hour and the Blue Hour. We photograph and write of storm clouds and sunsets.  A visitor can see different colored landscapes from one location — and they never appear the same because they vary by differing times of day or seasons. One of the top reasons to visit the Badlands, again and again — they are never the same

Custer Trail auto tour National Grasslands

The road past the Initial Rock Historic Site continues on northwest. Some day when the roads are dry, we may explore that. Until then, there’s plenty to be found sticking to the main road.

 

2. History

Wild west stories are authentic in the North Dakota Badlands. The more we discover of the history, the more we want to know. It’s the stuff movies are made of! We’re amazed by stories of the vigilantes, the cowboys who became transportation pioneers, the rodeo rider who was a bounty hunter, the dainty and elegant women who regularly shot bison, grizzlies and elk.

Maltese Cross Ranch

T Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross ranch. (Trivia point: also known as the Chimney Butte Ranch.)

Places such as the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora and Books on Main in Williston are mind-blowing treasures of stories so incredible they would be considered fiction — if they were made in to movies.

Through the winter we like to read up on “the olden days” of the Badlands. Incredible books and stories of people such as Yellowstone Vic Smith, Granville Stuart and of course the Badlands favorite son and rancher Theodore Roosevelt. The Badlands made him a president. He arrived in 1883 a scrawny, unhealthy rich eastern kid.  By the time he left, he was a strapping, lawman, pioneer, and cowpoke. He met other ranchers who became the backbone of the Roughriders who charged up San Juan Hill.

 

3. Culture

Ethnically, you’ll find European and Asian influence in the Badlands; Bohemians at New Hradec, Ukrainians in Dickinson and Belfield. The Norwegian influence is evident every February when Watford City hosts the annual Hygee. 

Historically, there are at least three social cultures established in the North Dakota Badlands Explorers, Cowboy Ranchers and Indigenous People: 

Explorers

The potters wheel was a big attraction at the Fort Union Rendezvous.

One of the many demonstrations by artisans at the Fort Union Trading Post Rendezvous is throwing clay, using a potters wheel.

From the late 1700s to the early 1800s the hardiest of itinerant travelers made their homes between the Rockies and the Mississippi River.  The Judith, Milk, Yellowstone, Mussleshell, and Missouri rivers were their highways. Those routes put them on a course to settle in the Fort Union area. 

They were incredibly hard-living people who ventured in to civilization once a year or so at a rendezvous at Fort Union. French, British, Spanish, German and Native American people converged at Fort Union, as a kind of shopping mall, retail district. And that’s something you can experience today.  The annual Rendezvous at Fort Union is a free event hosted by the National Park Service.

 

Cowboy Ranchers

Of the two continuing social cultures the Ranchers today seem to be most widespread.  Many of the ranchers we’ve met are some of the most un-pretentious, hospitable people you’ll ever find.  Their families have weathered the elements here for nearly 200 years.  They are hard working, resilient people.

And they like to have fun. That’s why dotted across the Badlands are traditional competitions every summer after spring round up.  That’s when the cowboy compete for big dollars at local rodeos such as the annual Killdeer Mountain Roundup.  And that right there is an excellent reason to visit the Badlands

bareback bronc rodeo

Bareback riding at the Killldeer Mountain Roundup Rodeo

 

Indigenous people

Of course the earliest people here were various tribal nations.  Longest established are the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people.  Their annual celebrations or powwows are “must sees” in our annual calendar.  We love the Twin Buttes (where I was officially adopted and given my Indian name), Little Shell, White Shield, Mandaree and Nuxbaga annual powwows.

The Native American culture is a big attraction to Europeans, especially Germans.  So, when you attend a powwow, don’t be surprised as the languages you may hear — French, German, Swedish, and Norwegian.

Over the course of time different Sioux tribes expanded westward and conquered earlier tribes to become one of the most widespread indigenous people in this part of the U.S. The Dakota, Yanktoni, Sisseton, Lakota, Hunkpapa, and others overwhelmed other people to claim the land. 

However, the roots are very deep of the Three Affiliated Tribes who banded together to withstand the pressures of the Sioux. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation are business savvy, welcoming, and essential parts of the North Dakota Badlands.  They withstood the pressures of  the Europeans as well as stronger Nations such as the Sioux, the Assiniboin people, Crows, Cree, Blackfoot to never be moved away from their homeland in the Badlands.

teen regalia powwow little shel MHA Nation

4. Recreation

What’s your pleasure?  Just do it in the Badlands. It’s all available.  Well, maybe not much deep sea diving, or down hill skiing or snowboarding. But there is ample room for cross country skiing and snow shoeing in the winter.  We like to advise cross country skiers to try the snow packed Little Missouri River.  We have also skied the Long X Trail with its hills and slopes.

Cross Country Skiing on a snowmobile track in the North Dakota Badlands

A snowmobile left tracks on the Little Missouri River ice which made a perfect path to use cross country skiing.

Those are the exact same places where, in the summer, you can ride horses, canoe, kayak, bicycle, hike, and run. We love to experience the opportunities and then tell others to get their boots on. There is back country camping, hiking, and exploring in the region.  We met people from other states, and Canada who come here to go trail running and mountain biking on a world famous trail.

Starting down the hill at the beginning of the trail

The first few yards are the easiest when starting at 000 on the Maah Daah Hey trail at Burning Coal Vein Campground

The Maah Daah Hey is rated one of the top single-track trails in the world!

 

Water Recreation

For those who prefer a wet recreational experience, Lake Sakakawea lays deep in the Badlands.

The rugged badlands meet the blue waters of Lake Sakakawea at Little Missouri Bay.

Not many places can one see such rugged badlands meet the peaceful blue waters of Lake Sakakawea. Little Missouri Bay north of Dunn Center is one of those places.

The 100-mile long stretch was formed by the Army Corps of Engineers in about 1953, flooding a great mass of Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, as well as private ranch land and towns.

Today, Tobacco Gardens, Skunk Bay and other resorts welcome boating enthusiasts.

A family can enjoy swimming and rock climbing at the new Rough Rider Event Center in Watford City.  Spend a weekend inn Watford City. Explore the Badlands, then eat well and enjoy family activities at the Events Center.

Rough Rider Event Center, Watford City.

The Rough Rider Center, Watford City

 

 

5. Nature

Nature. Wow.  From bighorn sheep to prairie dogs, blue birds to buzzards, mountain lions, coyote and even elk are all through the region.  And so are the plants that grow un-aided here. Nature lovers and scientists find growing reasons to visit the Badlands.

As the morning sun rose above the buttes of the badlands of North Dakota these mule deer slowly made their way across the Little Missouri River, drinking as they progressed. A peaceful scene at the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

 

People who are wannabe geologists, horticulturists, ornithologists, biologist or archaeologists, come to the Badlands to satisfy their natural curiosity.  

Dickinson Gardens NDSU Extension Service

NDSU Extension Service gardens in Dickinson

For example, on the eastern edge of the Grasslands, in Dickinson,  the dinosaur museum and the nearby nature garden give you a taste of the region without having leave civilization. 

And for those who are ready to dive in to the interior of the National Grasslands and Badlands, millions of acres of nature are waiting.  

 

The land slumps, concretions and stratification of the Badlands thrill even people who cannot tell the difference between sandstone, mudstone and limestone (that’s me!). 

 

The bizarre rock formations all over the region are mind-jarring.

rock snake

Jutting out at hikers at the Little Missouri State Park is this rock formation that looks like a prehistoric snake, dinosaur or monster.

 

6. Health

It’s mental

Be ready. Your mind will love you for it when you step out of the confines of your daily existence and let your spirit free.  All of a sudden, you may feel creative juices you’ve not felt for a long time. 

Go ahead. Sit down. Catch your breath. Notice that pause between inhaling and exhaling. 

Little Missouri River, Achenbach trail

From the Achenbach trail, you can get a sweeping view of the Little Missouri River.

Relax. 

Who knows? Maybe the next Apple Computer or Virgin Airlines is just waiting to be hatched — if  you  can clear out the mental by taking in the stress free surroundings.

Consider the health risks in America.They are no where around the Badlands. Drive-by shootings, car crashes, foreign viruses, polluted air are tough to find in the Badlands. That means your personal safety, medical health and environmental health will thrive here.

Open your imagination to study the sky. By day, the clouds, by night the stars are uninterrupted by the confinements and obstructions of cities.

It’s the wind

Yes, some times, it can be windy in North Dakota.  But you know what that is doing? It is scrubbing the air and polishing the ground. Once it passes, the air is cleaned and you can breath easily.

It’s the people

Whether they live in one of the small towns, or out in the rangeland, they respect the land and keep it clean. You know that yard you like to trim and prune?  Well, here, that “lawn” can be an area 5 miles by 10 miles.  It’s a ranch family’s home turf.

When you visit, you will be as respected as though you are a neighbor. Ranchers respect people and do not push their way around.  They are helpful, hospitable, non-pretentious. In fact, surveys repeatedly show that one of the most memorable features of western North Dakota is the people. In the small towns such as Fairfield, Grassy Butte, Marmarth or Killdeer, if you visit a steak house, coffeeshop or bar, don’t be surprised if someone strikes up a conversation with you. Friendly. Very friendly.

So, if you are constantly on edge walking down the street where you live, then lose that tension — get in to the Badlands.  

7. Cost

If you can avoid some of the touristy places where hotels jack up their prices every summer, such as Medora, you will find steady, reasonable and consistent retail prices.  Restaurants such as the Little Missouri Grill in Watford City or the Four Corners Cafe in Fairfield are 12-month consistent business that serve the local as well as visitors. They keep prices low.

Down home cooking at Little Missouri Grill in Watford City

Recently, Disney Corporation announced it raised prices of a day in an amusement park to more than $200.  Wow. For $200 you can camp for over a week in the trees, the river bottom, the hills and valleys of the Badlands.  Of course if you want to be pampered, you’ll find places where visitor reviews give five stars to places such as The Williston, Williston Brewery, Medora’s Rough Riders Hotel, Teddy’s and Little Missouri Hotels, and Stone Home Brewery (an awesome eating experience).

If you’re camping, the deli department at the major grocery stores are ready to fill your cooler.

Even local beer stops such as the one at Grassy Butte will not charge you those ultra-high ridiculous prices for a beer that you will pay in big city destinations.

True confession:

I moved here from corn and soybean country of Iowa and had no idea what I’d find in the Badlands.  I nod my head “yes” when I hear the region is undersold and over delivers.  There is more here than I’ll ever be able to fully sample. To me, that’s a Reason to visit the Badlands. I’ve explored the Badlands for 45 years and writing about the area for 20 years!

 

 

 

We’ll keep writing about the Badlands of North Dakota, and you can get first notice of a new story when you subscribe in the upper right hand corner.

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Or invite us in to your group and we’ll enthusiastically present all the reasons why the North Dakota Badlands are Remarkable.

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