Here’s Where the Badlands are Open and Healthy
Much of the Badlands are open. Yes, there have been some significant wildfires closing portions of the Badlands, including the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the nearby trails. We’ll let you know when they reopen immediately on our Facebook Page.
Did you know there are millions of acres open to your healthy adventure?
The North Dakota Badlands are about 150 miles long and 50 miles wide across western ND. That means there are more than 7.500 square miles of healthy outdoor awesomeness. You can isolate, distance, quarantine all you want and get healthy at the same time.
Get healthy and get outdoors
From the northern end, to the southern end there are more places to adventure isolate than these 9.
Start in Watford City and then go here:
1. Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel
A tribute to the days of hard labor and low wages, the railroad tunnel was carved through a badlands hill, mostly by hand. Just like the Badlands are open, so are the railroad bridge and tunnel. Take a walk to be impressed with what hard work can accomplish.
They started from the top and worked down. Dynamite would break up the rocks, and mules pulled carts loaded with the rock men scrounged out. The quarter-mile long tunnel is open for you to walk through, but time is taking its toll and the east end may collapse. You’ll see when you get there.
To get to the tunnel, you must walk across the quarter mile long Fairview Lift Bridge. The catwalk is fenced for safety and there are benches along the way to sit a spell and watch the Yellowstone River as it finishes its cut through America. It empties in to the Missouri River a few miles north of the bridge.
To get there:
The dual architectural glimpse of history is near the North Dakota/Montana state line. Take an easy drive west of Watford City on Highway 85. The highway turns north to Alexander and beyond that is the turn on to Highway 200 to Fairview.
Pack a lunch and hang out at Sundheim Park below the bridge.
2 China Wall
Feel like conquering something oriental? Head to the China Wall.
The China Wall is on the Maah Daah Hey Trail north of Bennett Creek and the Bennett Creek Campground. The campground, picnic area and toilets at Bennett Creek make it a good place to walk a while. It’s about a 3-hour walk to the China Wall.
Long before there was a even a country called China there was a China Wall. It’s an extremely narrow tall ridge. Geologically, it might be considered “razor sharp.” Pack a lunch and park yourself in the trees nearby for a healthy picnic free from crowds and distractions.
Wildlife here again includes mule deer, antelope and prairie dogs. And if it’s a hot day, rattlesnakes may surprise you. We’ve never seen a mountain lion here, but we’ve followed their tracks in mud.
To get there, start from the Bennett Creek Trail Head, west of Grassy Butte.
To get there:
Again, a drive in to the interior of the Badlands starts on Highway 85. Turn west at the brown sign for Bennett Creek Campground, 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 2 miles straight west. It’s an easy to moderate trail.
3. Ice Caves
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:
The Maah Daah Hey trail goes past the ice caves, just a few yards west.
You can follow it north above the caves for a spectacular view.
The area above the ice caves is privately owned. We’ve visited with the rancher who is welcoming of people on the trail. And 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 Biecegel 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. Magpie Campground is also a good starting point for a day hike to the ice caves. Start at Magpie Campground and head north on the Maah Daah Hey Trail. It’s a challenging trail and takes bout 3 hours one way.
Here 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.
The 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.
It passes next to the imaginary fortress jutting out of the earth called Castle Rock. (Imaginary for those people who can imagine days of knights and medieval times.) The best time to view the peculiar formation is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The lowering sun casts long shadows up and down the rock face.
5. Devils Pass
Imagine a slippery, narrow crooked path 150 feet above the canyon valley. 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, 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, 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. Look for the turn to the south on Goat Pass Road. It’s about 3 miles east of Magpie Campground on Magpie road.
You can get to the east end of Devils Pass from Goat Pass Road — which is a seasonal accomplishment. 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 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, walk it through the 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 point 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 the west side of the Little Missouri River, take a drive north 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 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. 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
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. It’s about 80 miles. It is two segments, one of which 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. 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.
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.”
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.
9. Burning Coal Vein
150 miles south of where this list started is one of the older regions of the North Dakota Badlands. The terrain is softer than the terrain farther north where we started, at Long X, or at the Little Missouri State Park. (The Little Missouri State Park is not yet open for the season.) They say that this southern end of the region near Amidon is still in the making. 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.
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
Badlands are open for a Healthy Road Trip from Beach to Camp Crook
The Badlands are open to road trips.
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.
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.
Just add your email address to the subscription box so you can get a note in your inbox each time a new article is published.
Or add yourself to the Facebook Page of Beautiful Badlands. It’s a kind of “clearinghouse” of information for Western North Dakota.