It’s a short drive for big benefits
Pick a place. There are millions of acres to give you a healthy weekend.
Ya know you wanna get out and feel free, right? Any weekend is a good time to lose the masks, fill your lungs, stretch your legs, lose that tension in your neck. A healthy weekend.
Here’s where to do it and be healthy at the same time.
The top 9 points in the 7500 square miles of Badlands will give you a fresh take on the next week.
Start up north
1. Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel
Some people don’t know about these two mammoth gargantuan old-world structures. A tunnel local farmers and ranchers carved by hand by local farmers, and a never-used monstrous lift bridge. They spent more than one healthy weekend building this world class passage.
Take a walk to be impressed with what hard work can accomplish. I’ll bet you or someone in your group will say, “Wow.” The quarter-mile long bridge and the quarter-mile long tunnel are unforgettable. They are set up for visitors to explore. A parking lot on the west end, and an entire park with picnic area below make this a fun family outing.
Walk across the quarter mile long Fairview Lift Bridge on the catwalk. It is fenced for safety and benches along the way let you sit a spell and watch the Yellowstone River near the end of it’s flow. It empties in to the Missouri River a few miles north of the bridge.
To get there:
The two landmarks are on the North Dakota/Montana state line. Take an easy drive west of Watford City on Highway 200/ 85. The Highway turns north to Alexander. When Highway 200 turns west, follow it to Cartwright and Fairview. The bridge and tunnel are on the south side of Highway 200 at Sundheim Park.
2 China Wall
Feel like conquering something oriental on your healthy weekend quest? Head to the China Wall.
It’s much older than the wall in China.
The China Wall is on the Maah Daah Hey Trail north of Bennett Creek and the Bennett Creek Campground. The Bennett Creek campground, picnic area and toilets make a good place to start the 3-hour walk to the China Wall. A six-hour afternoon strolling through the Badlands and you’ll feel as healthy and revived as ever . Never mind the next morning when your legs tell you that they got a workout on your healthy weekend trip to the Badlands.
Wildlife here includes mule deer, antelope, hawks and other birds. And if it’s a hot, rattlesnakes may surprise you. We’ve never seen a mountain lion here, but we’ve followed their tracks in mud along the base of the China Wall
To get there:
Again, the drive in to the interior of the Badlands starts on Highway 85. Turn west at the brown sign for Bennett Creek Campground. You’ll find it 7 miles north of Grassy Butte. Drive four miles west on gravel road. Then at the t-intersection, turn south to Bennett Creek Campground. And from there hike about 3 miles straight west. It’s an easy to moderate trail.
3. Ice Caves
This is one of the most popular family excursions. It’s an easy walk over the grassland, down the hill to the cave entries.
They ain’t what they used to be, but one of the ice caves is still open. Not too many years ago, these caves were more accessible, then a rock slide closed off one of them. The one that is still open enters in to a large room. When water runs in to the room, it freezes on the floor. Believe me. It’s a welcome end point on a hot summer day.
We crawled inside to shoot this video:
If you’re up for a longer challenge to get to the Ice Caves, the Maah Daah Hey trail goes past them. Start at Magpie Campground and follow the signs and trail to the north
Once you get to the caves, walk around the end of the bluff, follow it north for a spectacular view.
The area above the ice caves is privately owned. We’ve visited with the rancher who people on the welcomes people if they don’t litter. But they do! Grrr.
As long as pedestrians respect his property, no littering, no campfires, don’t disturb the cattle, a friendly relationship will continue. It makes me angry to find candy bar wrappers and empty bottles tossed on his property — and I’m sure he’s not too happy about it either.
How to Get There
West of Grassy Butte on McKenzie County #50 (also known as Beicegel Creek Road) to Scairt Woman Road. South on Scairt Woman Road about 8 miles. Impassable when it is wet.)
4. Magpie Valley and Castle Rock
Magpie campground is along Magpie Creek in Magpie Valley. (Makes sense doesn’t it?) It’s a starting point for various explorations — all free from quarantines, face masks and isolation. The entire region of Magpie Valley is open for a healthy weekend adventures — camping at the campground and exploring the views.
At Magpie Campground, you can hike the valley straight south of the campground to one of the hill tops. It’s rewarding to find your way up and around the ridges overlooking the valley.
From a hilltop you may spot a herd of antelope or mule deer in the distance.
For me, one of the most meaningful hilltops is south across the road from the campground.
This mesa or plateau is grassy and flat — and a good place to watch the sunset.
To get there:
Head south of the Sweet Crude Truck Stop at the intersection of Highway 200 an Highway 85. About 5 miles south look for Magpie Road. Follow it west about 16 miles.
You may meet an oil field truck or a ranch truck. It’s a major gravel road. So, it can be dusty. Park at the Magpie Trail Head on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, or drive a couple hundred yards farther west to the campground entrance.
Road to Magpie Valley is well traveled, and it was an access road when the valley burned up in a wildfire. Getting there is half the thrill. It starts out in the grasslands and then winds down in to the valley.
5. Devils Pass
Imagine a slippery, narrow crooked path 1(84feet above the canyon valley. I measured. It could be deeper in another spot, but my altimeter read 184 feet to the bottom.)
You have a team of horses, or a Model T Ford and you want to get across the valley. Devils Pass will get you from one side to the other, but it can be fearsome of you are afraid of heights. Devils Pass is marked with signboards, and is integrated in to the Maah Daah Hey Trail.
So, these days, you’re reasonably safe walking the 12-feet wide path over the drop off. On either end, look for seasonal flowers such as prairie crocuses or sweet clover. You may see mule deer, antelope or elk in this area.
To Get There:
Like so many of the destinations in the Badlands, the drive to the attraction is as much a thrill as a backpacking or mountain biking effort. But you get to do it from your car. You’ll want to take lots of photos of the landscape from these ranch roads.
Take the Magpie Road (same one as above). Look for the turn to the south on Goat Pass Road. It’s about 13 miles west of Highway 85 or 3 miles before you get to Magpie Campground on Magpie road.
You can get to the bottom of a hill that is east of Devils Pass — which is a seasonal accomplishment. If it’s muddy, don’t try it. And of course with the wildfire dangers this year, if you are not careful you could set off a calamity.
Goat Pass Road starts like any other gravel road, but as it winds farther west and south, it begins to devolve in to a two-track trail that can be muddy.
Now Lets go to the Other Side of the Little Missouri River
6. Petrified Forest
This is one of the best adventures for families — easy and entertaining. I love to take it when I just want a break from reality — but I almost got in trouble last time.
This is a drive-by experience almost anywhere in the Badlands; you pass many petrified stumps. But to get to the actual Petrified Forest Trail, take a drive toward Wannagan Campground.
The Maah Daah Hey Trail runs through this area. To get to the actual petrified stumps, park in the parking lot, go through the lift gate, across a low spot then up on to 1111the prairie. This is grasslands area, so if you stop for a moment; you should be able to use your binoculars to spot songbirds. A popular favorite singer is the Western Meadowlark.
To Get There:
You don’t have to go to the national park to see petrified stumps. Take the West River Road exit about a half-mile west of Medora on Interstate 94. Go north just over 3 miles and you will spot the turn off for the Petrified Forest. You can follow the signs, but it’s a good idea to take a detailed road map.
The Badlands are open on the west side of the Little Missouri River, take a drive north of Interstate 94 to see what Theodore Roosevelt built. He called it his healing place. Much has been written about this place and the role it played in Roosevelt’s healing after his mother and his wife died on the same day, Valentines Day 1884.
From the porch of the Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt penned many of his essays and books. This is where the scrawny, asthma-ridden young man became a healthy robust cowboy and soldier.
The buildings are gone. The code of the west at the time was that if you picked up and moved out, the neighboring ranches could help themselves to the building material you left behind. When Roosevelt moved back east and became President, his ranch house material was shared with neighbors. However, the rock foundations remain.
The walking trail to the site is an easy grassy path. It’s possible to travel it by wheel chair. Along the way, story boards tell the story.
To make this visit extremely meaningful, pick up a copy of Rolf Sletten’s colorful, pictorial narration of Roosevelt’s Ranches. The book includes photos taken by Roosevelt of the Elkhorn Ranch site. You can see the same landscape features in the photos Roosevelt took.
To Get There
This is a bit of an exercise in navigation. Some signs along the road are useful if you can find them. Look for the Elkhorn Ranch Symbol. It’s sporadically spaced in the ditches and fence rows.
- Turn north from I-94 at Exit 10, also called Camels Hump. It’s the Sentinel Butte exit.
- Camels Hump is that smooth, grassy hump on the north side of the Interstate next to Camels Hump Lake.
- Drive past it north about 25 miles north-northeast. Follow County Road 11 to Westerheim Road about 12 miles.
- Road #11 continues north, but you turn east on Westerheim Road. Follow that gravel road about 1.5 miles then go north on Belle Lake Road. Follow Belle Lake Road about 10 miles.
- Look for the signs to take you down the hill to the Elkhorn Ranch Site. It’s both a state historical site and a National Park Service site.
8. Custer Trail Auto Tour
An afternoon road trip
Initial Rock is the destination for an afternoon drive. It’s where two of Custer’s Soldiers scratched their names in the rock on their Yellowstone Expedition.
The Custer Trail Auto Tour can be driven in a day, about 80 miles. It is two segments, one takes you to the Battle of the Badlands, a U.S. military battle under General Sully against the Sioux about 10 years before Custer.
The picnic area and toilets are closed at Initial Rock Interpretive Center. However, you can walk the gravel roads and two-track trails that will give you a sense of the soldiers’ experiences.
It’s an easy drive today, but 150 years ago, hundreds of foot soldiers and cavalry riders struggled to find passage through the badland terrain and the Little Missouri River.
After going through this region, Custer wrote to his wife Libby,
“We found the Little Missouri River so crooked and the Bad Lands so impassable that in marching fifty miles today we forded the river thirty-four times. The bottom is quicksand. Many of the horses went down frequently tumbling their riders into the water; but all were in good spirits, and every one laughed at every one else’s mishaps.”
Their challenge was to move wagons filled ammunition, weapons and supplies from the Missouri River south of present-day Mandan to their end point in what is now Montana — in a May snowstorm!
Along the way, you’ll come to the Snow Camp where soldiers were caught in a 3-day snow storm without firewood, or warm clothing.
To get there:
Take exit #32, the Painted Canyon exit from I-94, south to Forest Service Road 739A and then 739. The route is marked with Custer Trail signs. You’ll follow Forest Service Roads 762 and 740. The trail winds west, then north to bring you in to the town of Medora. If you start with a full tank of gas in Belfield, you will have no problem in these back roads areas. Cell phone coverage and of course gas stations are rare to non-existent after you leave Belfield.
9. Burning Coal Vein
The wildfires of 2021 ignited several exposed coal veins, especially in the southern reaches of the Badlands. In fact, smoldering veins that have been hot for a couple years ignited at least one wildfire in in the National Park.
This point of interest is the Burning Coal Vein Campground and trail near Amidon.
The older regions of the North Dakota Badlands are in the south. The terrain is softer than the terrain farther north. Click here to read about the most rugged sections of North Dakota and the Badlands at the Little Missouri State Park.
The fire smoldering below ground was obvious from the smell and the smoke to the early settlers 150 years. Burning Coal Vein has since become part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
Try an easy mountain bike, or gravel road bike trail
The elevation is gentle, so if you want to get a first attempt at off-road bicycling, this is a good place to start. It is mile marker 1 of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, which is open. If you want an easy hike, head south from the Burning Coal Vein parking lot. Pack a lunch and enjoy it on the trail.
To get there:
Located 15 miles west and north of Amidon. About 10 miles south of Belfield take Forest Service Roads 767 and 742 for about 20 miles.
Or a second route is a 14 mile drive northwest of Amidon. From Amidon, go west 2 miles on Highway 85 and turn onto the gravel road. Go west 1 mile and then turn north on road 742 and travel north 9 miles to the campground turnoff sign. The campground is 1 mile east of the sign
Are you ready for a road trip to discover different Badlands?
Two different sets of Badlands are within a short drive. Find them, here.
A popular road trip takes you on a old trade route from Beach to Camp Crook. It used to be Highway 16.
Cap off your healthy weekend with fine dining at the Pasttime in Marmarth.
The Badlands are open to road trips, and we’ve written about many of them.
Road Trip! Unparalleled Easy Scenic Drive for scenery, culture, and history north of Dickinson
Here are more four free and easy ideas
Highway 16 Road Trip back in time
A fun drive on a long gravel road is the old Highways 16 drive from Beach to Camp Crook. You may not spend much time on your feet in the outdoors, but the view out your windows will be great.
Just east of Beach on Old Highway 10, head south. You’ll go by or through Golva, and past the abandoned towns of Alpha and Thelan.
The road rides the western ridge of some gorgeous scenery around the Little Missouri River. It ends up on Highway 12 at Marmarth.
From there, it’s just a short drive, again on gravel to Camp Crook. From there, back to Highway 12, east to Highway 85 or West to Baker, Montana and Highway 7.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are the Badlands Open?
Yes. They never close except for wildfire emergencies. The Badlands is where hundreds of ranch families live and work.
Where are the Badlands ?
The geological formation of the Badlands runs along the Little Missouri River from the extreme southwestern corner of North Dakota, north to Killdeer and Mandaree where it empties into the Missouri River at the Little Missouri State Park.
Where can I see photographs of the Badlands?
In person, the Western Edge Bookstore in Medora has photographs for sale. You’ll also find our photographs at the Long X Visitor Center (Pioneer Museum of McKenzie County) in Watford City, ND. Red River Coffee Company in Fargo, ND carries may of our photographs, with more Bison related items in stock soon! On line, Mykuhls.com has thousands of images from the Badlands. Both places sell images of the Badlands.
Expanded information and photos — and video too — are coming up each week from each of these locations because the Badlands are open. So, get ready. We’re on a Western North Dakota adventure. We’re out to explore all of these healthy regions and then tell you about them. The photos and videos will give you a good introduction to these regions.
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