Badlands? Not so bad!
The Beautiful Badlands of western North Dakota are unknown to most, and missed by many travelers who don’t venture quite far enough north to discover the region. Who would ever go there, and why? What is there to do in the badlands?
Invigorating Yet Peaceful
Yes, there are beautiful vistas of immense magnitude. Yes, there really are trees, and with stunning fall color at that. And yes, there is something to do; the hiking and biking opportunities on the Maah Daah Hey Trail and in Theodore Roosevelt National Park are second to none!
Experience the Badlands
Brian Kittelson recently traveled to Billings and McKenzie Counties. He proved there is reason to spend time in western North Dakota, especially in the fall! Join Brian as he discovers the invigorating beauty as well as the peaceful solitude of the Beautiful Badlands of North Dakota.
A very special “Thank You!” to Brian for sharing his badlands adventure through his writing and photography!
ND Badlands and Biking the Maah Daah Hey Trail
Text and photos by Brian Kittelson
September 18–22, 2020
I had wanted to mountain bike on the Maah Day Hey Trail in the Badlands of North Dakota ever since I had first heard about it a few years ago. In fact, this trail was reported to be so amazing that I had placed this adventure on my bucket list. In my research, I had learned that fall season was a great time of year to bike the Maah Daah Hey Trail because it was likely to be cooler and drier than other times of the year. Cool temperatures would mean more comfortable riding as well as less demand for water consumption. Dry conditions would be critical on the trail because the trail becomes unridable with any significant rain. For these reasons, I decided to ride in late September.
I had also learned that one could ride the trail in one of two ways: bikepacking the trail in a self-supported manner with all food and camping gear on one’s bike or riding with support in which a support person(s) transports food and camping gear from campsite to campsite (which means carrying much less weight on your bike). Alternately, if a person would rather not camp, another means of support could include “shuttle” rides between the campgrounds/trailheads and a motel/hotel which allows the luxury of sleeping in a bed and taking a hot shower. Having never mountain biked an average of 25+ miles per day for four consecutive days, I decided to ride the trail with support. I asked my retired father if he would be willing to provide my support for this adventure. Thankfully, he agreed! I would be traveling from Sioux Falls, SD and my dad would be coming from Casper, Wyoming.
Dad and I met up in Rapid City and then took his vehicle the rest of the way to Medora, a quaint tourist town in western North Dakota. We drove into town just before Dakota Cyclery bike shop closed for the evening at 5:30. I got some last minute trail and road information from Jennifer and her husband Loren who have owned and operated the shop for over 40 years! They provide bike rentals, bike maintenance/repair, trail information as well as shuttles, tours and sag support along the Maah Daah Hey Trail.
After visiting Dakota Cyclery, we checked in at the Badlands Motel and then ate a delicious dinner on the patio at Boots Bar and Grill. Then I prepped all my biking clothing and gear for the start of my big adventure.
The storyline of this four-day single track mountain biking adventure was 103 miles long and involved 11,552 feet of total climbing.
DAY 1: COAL CREEK CAMPGROUND to MEDORA. 23.32 miles of riding with 2,598 feet of climbing. As we drove from Medora to the Coal Creek trailhead, it was hard to believe that I was finally going to be riding this trail that I have wanted to ride for years. I still had no idea what to expect in terms of scenery and riding difficulty. As I started down my first stretch of trail, it soon became apparent that the ND Badlands were going to be far more beautiful than I had expected. I was exhilarated and energized as I anticipated every turn which brought with it a beautiful new panorama. This was accentuated by something that I had not expected this early in the fall: full and vibrant fall colors!
In brisk 50 degree temperatures I loaded up my bike with gear, turned on my GPS tracking device, took a few photos and set off on my journey! About 10 miles into the ride, it was also clear that the Maah Daah Hey Trail was going to be not only a fun but also challenging trail to ride. The trail was not really difficult from a technical standpoint but it was difficult because the repeated climbing and descending for hour after hour. The elevation topped out very close to 2,800 feet which doesn’t seem very high but I still noticed the difference compared to Sioux Falls at 1,500 feet. Thankfully the scenery was so beautiful that I was able stop frequently and rest as I captured more than 460 images and videos over the four days.
Along the way that day I met a handful of people: a trail runner and his dog, a mountain biker, another mountain biker (Ryan)training for the 150 mile race on the trail the following Saturday, two girls on a day hike, a couple out for a walk, and two gals drinking beer on horseback.
Near the end of the ride, the trail passed above the Medora Golf Course (incredible) and through Sully State Park before arriving in Medora.
Because my shifting was slightly off during the ride that day, I took my bike to Loren at Dakota Cyclery and he straightened my derailleur hanger and adjusted the rear derailleur and the shifting was good as new!
After showering and eating, Dad and I went to the South Unit of Roosevelt National Park and spent a few hours driving and hiking. We saw several buffalo and a wild horse (there are many in the Park). We took in a majestic view of the Little Missouri River on the Wind Canyon Trail and then we hiked up to Buck Hill (the highest point in the park) where we enjoyed the 360 degree panoramic view of the entire park as the sun was beginning to dip in the western sky.
DAY 2: MEDORA to WANNAGAN CAMPGROUND. 28.71 miles riding with 2, 932 feet of climbing. I slept at the motel for a second night and headed out on my bike from the motel at 7 AM. Cyclists are required take the Buffalo Gap trail around the National Park because bikes are not allowed on the Maah Daah Hey Trail in the Park. Buffalo Gap Trail largely crosses open grassland. I rode through 3-4 prairie dog villages as I traversed the grassland. One thing about the trail is that there are cattle grazing along most of the trail which means you are dodging or riding through lots of cow pies, every day, all day. It builds bike handling skills! 😜. Another thing about the trail is how dusty and dry it is. The bentonite dust doesn’t feel great in the eyes (when windy) and it is not good for a bike chain! I learned to carry a rag and chain lube after this ride!
Dad met me at Wannagan which was my least favorite campground. Since was a very windy day and the campground was in a barren open area, I decided to stay at the motel with dad again.
On this day I met two guys riding together (for the morning) on mountain bikes, Ryan (who was biking the day before) out walking two dogs, a mountain biker from Montana who worked with the son of one my close college friends, a hiker (in his 60s) who was was day hiking the entire trail (again), and a hunter and his relative who were packing out elk quarters in backpacks.
DAY 3: WANNAGAN to ELKHORN CAMPGROUND. 22.54 miles of riding with 3,522 feet of climbing. This was my most tiring day for some reason. The scenery, however, continued to get better and better each day! Dad met me at Elkhorn Campground and brought my camping gear. We hung out for a while and then he headed back to the Roughrider Hotel, our new lodging for the rest of the trip. I enjoyed a beautiful secluded campsite on a perfectly calm evening. I even enjoyed playing a little guitar before it got dark around 7:30.
On this day I met two bow hunters, two gals on horses with third pack horse who had been on the trail for a week already, the hiker from the day before, and three mountain bikers from Salt Lake, UT who were ride the entire 144 mile trail over a several days.
DAY 4: ELKHORN to MAGPIE CAMPGROUND. 28.5 miles of riding with 2,500 feet of climbing. I got up at 5 AM and packed up camp in the dark. It was cold and wet with dew. By the time I was packed up there was light in the sky. I hid my camping gear and guitar under a camo tarp in the bushes for dad to pick up a little later in the morning.
Early in the morning, I biked 5 miles off the trail to explore Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site where Teddy built a ranch house in 1884 as he sought solace following the deaths of his wife and mother. Although the house and outbuildings no longer stand, one can stand on massive stones that served as part of the foundation of the ranch house. It is very easy to see why Teddy Roosevelt fell in love with the area and found it to be such a healing place.
On the trail this day, I met the hiker from the two previous days and two motorcyclists from the area who had ridden their bikes up a two-track road to Devil’s Pass.
This was my favorite day on the trail! The scenery was more incredible than I had expected and I felt stronger than previous days. I felt as though I was passing through a sacred space as I soaked in the beauty of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. It also felt like the most adventurous day as I crossed the Little Missouri River and Devil’s Pass which were highligts of the trip. Dad met me at Magpie Campground at the end of my Journey.
After finishing my fourth and final day of riding, I cleaned myself off and packed my dirty bike on the car. Dad and I then drove toward the Devil’s Pass area. We found a two-track road that climbed in the direction of Devil’s Pass. We decided to try it out. Eventually, the road got way too rugged for Dad’s CRV, so we walked futher up the road. To my surprise, the road led us to the Maah Daah Hey Trail and Devil’s pass where I had ridden my bike a couple of hours earlier! We took some time to explore Devil’s Pass. The lighting seemed to be a bit different so I took more photos since it was one of my favorite locations on the trail.
After that, we drove further on down to the Little Missouri River where vehicles can sometimes drive across the river. Dad’s CRV was definitely not up to the task so I just took a few photos.
Do not miss a visit at Amble Inn & Bookstore in Medora. The best selection of books in the area are found there, as well as lodging and great conversation about the area and its history. It’s open year ’round.
Be sure to stop at one of Medora’s most popular attractions all year long, the Taffy Shop. Read about it here: Best Taffy Around!
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