Whew! It’s more challenging to get to the China Wall than it once was. Physical fitness enthusiasts will love it, though. The rest of us can still take the easy route.
Easy or a Challenge
Here’s your choice: easy or challenging. You can take an long easy stroll, or a straight arrow challenge. Both roughly follow the Bennett Creek
There was a time when getting to the China Wall was as easy as walking across the parking lot of your local gym.
Now, getting to the China Wall is like an intensive interval training routine in the gym. Whew!
A few years ago, you could almost drive to the China Wall and skip the Bennett Creek Trail approach. A gravel road led across the grasslands down the hill, through a prairie dog town to an area where you could park and hike up the hill to this interesting formation.
That road is closed now. The landowner and the Forest Service could not come to terms on an easement. So, that means you have to hike. You can make it easy or hard.
Looking for easy?
What do they say about two points and a straight Line? Shortest distance? Just because it is the shortest route, doesn’t mean it’s the easiest.
If you’re like us, you’re not yet in summer shape. So, that’s why we like the easy route. Later, when we’re in good physical condition, maybe we’ll bite off a bigger piece of the Bennett Creek Trail.
Easy hikes abound in the Badlands and that’s where we like to start the season of exploration and adventures. Just before green summer, the temperatures and ground conditions are just cool enough for hiking. Easy hikes are good if you’re trying to get in shape for the summer.
Cross off Bennett Creek from that “easy” list
So, here’s how to get to the Bennett Creek Trail. Be prepared.
On Highway 85, about 7 miles north of Grassy Butte (23 miles south of Watford City) head west from Highway 85 on the Bennett Creek Trail road. Watch for the brown signs to warn you where to turn.
Continue west about 4 miles on the Bennett Creek Trail Road to the T-intersection. After this point, the road deteriorates a little.
Turn left (south). This is one of the prettiest drives down into the valley. Plan on driving bout 25 miles an hour. It is a road with many curves and turns. There are some questionable low spots, and places where the gravel is gone, so it can be rutted after a rain.
At the bottom, the trail head parking lot is where you can access the trail that runs west. Just southeast of the parking lot is the Bennett Creek Campground with plenty of wide-open camp sites when it is open.
Now, choose your path
Straight, short and challenging,
Wandering, long and easy.
If you follow the trail markers west toward the junction with the Maah Daah Hey Trail, you’ll wander easily along the bottom of the hills. Some would say that this difficulty is classified as an intermediate hike.
On the afternoon we last traveled Bennett Creek Trail, we met several families.
Some of the families included very young children who were taking the long easy route. It’s probably longer than young children can handle It’s about 3.5 miles to the China Wall and can take 7 hours or more, round trip. So, we do not advise taking very young children all the way to China Wall.
The straight route is tough
If you’re good at setting a firm direction and heading that way, go west down the valley floor. But, beware. The creek bed is much deeper and the banks are much steeper than they once were. That’s why it can be compared to interval training. You’ll pull yourself up, or lower yourself down where there are tree branches or sage brush to hold you. Some places you can jump down. In most cases, you’ll take some might big steps up and down the embankments. Some places you’ll jump across narrow little steams that feed Bennett Creek.
Jumping down and stepping up becomes a regular part of the exercise.
Get in a rut?
You can follow the deep cuts inside the walls of Bennett Creek. But then, you miss all the fun, and the landscape vistas.
As you can see from this screen shot of our route, Bennett Creek is a meandering, snake-like creek. So, the straight line route will mean lots of crossings.
On the return trip, we modified the straight line and instead hugged the valley walls, especially when we could get on the easy-peezy marked trail. It took longer, but it sure was a lot easier than the challenge of interval training, clambering up and down, stretching legs, backs, arms.
We’re looking for an easier route
China Wall was the goal, but we ran out of time and energy taking the intense interval training route. Next time, we’ll take the entire day to get there. It’s about a 7 hour hike, round trip. We’re checked with the U.S. Forest Service to see if they recommend a shorter route. They say the Bennett Creek Trail is the only way to the China Wall.
With whom would you like to try this hike? Share this story with them to get them interested.
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Bennett Creek and China Wall are on our list of 10 places that are open in the Badlands — year round. Even during the virus shutdown of the national parks, and other sites. Coming up we’ll tell you about the easiest hikes in the National Grasslands.
And later, a couple of stories about the auto tours you can take driving through the Badlands and its major national historic sites.