We Burned 1,300 Calories in 2 Hours in the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

We’re not yet in shape. Yet. 

When we end the hiking season, we are treated to gorgeous views.

Our memories are stronger than our bodies. We remember our level of hiking as we ended 2018 explorations of the Badlands interior. 

Then came the long record-cold winter, and we laid off the physical activity that would normally carry us through the winter. Last week, we resumed our hiking for the spring.  Foolishly, we didn’t realize how out of shape we were.

(At the end of this article, you’ll see our tips for getting the best out of your calorie-burning exercise in the Badlands.)

It pushed our limits — this first hike of the year. The reward though was worth it.  According to the exercise tracker app on my cell phone, we climbed 239 feet in the first quarter-mile.  After a couple of slippery falls, we reached our goal. 

Then came the puzzle: the return.  How to get back down the slippery hills and deep snowmelt streams that rushed down the hillside.

The first hike of the spring satisfies a longing that has built all winter.  Our practice is to start on the lowlands, pick a tall point and find a way up to the top to see what we can see.  Smartly, we did not choose the tallest point, but a secondary point that would give us a good view of the Little Missouri River behind and below us at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

We chose the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park because we were at the Long X Visitor Center in Watford City, updating our Beautiful Badlands ND photo exhibit.  Watford City is about 15 miles from the Park. The South Unit at Medora is also a good place to start burning calories this spring — and get a glimpse of the feral horses.

A strong start

At some places, the path is about 10 inches wide with a long drop off. So, hugging the wall is the safest way up.

We don’t follow marked trails.  With thousands of square miles of Badlands to explore, we don’t like to limit ourselves to a gravel sidewalk that wanders through the National Park.  However, the marked trails can be a good way to begin the season. Some of the trials such as Achenbach and Buckhorn in the North Unit are challenging.

Why not use the expert’s path up the hill? Deer and bison travel this path, so we did too.

It’s a muddy spring.  The driest surfaces are those south-facing hills where the sun and wind can dry the surface.  North-facing slopes are muddy, slippery, icy and snowy.

Our strong start evolved into a slower, more deliberate pace. By the end of the two-hour hike, we were shuffling at a geriatric speed.

There is a pattern to the knobs and hilltops in the hard nature of the Badlands.  We follow connecting ridges that could be called “saddles” that often droop between high points. 

Or when it’s clear that animals know more than we do, we follow the trails they have cut up a hillside.


A look back

Once at the highest point of our efforts we pause long enough to look back to where we started. This is a good practice for two reasons:

  1. Rewarding to see how far we’ve come.
  2. Reconnecting with our starting point so we can plot our return.  Do it often!





north unit little missouri river

A look back to where we started the climb.

The Puzzle Down

As challenging as it is to pick a route up the hill, it is no easier picking one to go down.


Somehow or another, we’re going to end up down there, one step at a time.

Our legs were weak and the dried mud slopes were unstable.  So, we made some starts and stops, a few dead ends and turnarounds to find a gentle and safe descent. 

muddy hillside

On the way down, we skirted around muddy cuts in the hillside.  When it dries off later this spring, these can be excellent places to stop and rest,

Occasionally, we’d stop and compare optional paths to follow.


At the bottom, rushing snowmelt carved deep cuts on the way to the Little Missouri River.  So, we followed a cut looking for a wildlife crossing, or to a narrow gap that we could jump across.






The puzzle trip and stream-jumping took us about a third of a mile further away from our starting point than we had planned.  We got back to the road and walked it to our parking spot.  Our legs would not move on their own. Mind over muscle, we made them carry us up the roadway incline, down the other side to our starting point.

Back to the Jeep.

Green dot = starting point
Red dot = return point then a walk up the road to the Jeep.





The hiking app on my phone showed we had covered 1.64 miles, hiked 239 feet upward (and nearly straight back down).  It took us two hours. I had entered my personal information into the app before we started so it could measure things such as steps and calories.  1,340 calories burned in that 2 hours.



You can do it, too. If…

  1. You gauge your physical abilities.  Start with short hikes, extend to longer hikes or more rugged hikes.
  2. You dress for the weather.
  3. You pick your path.  If you stick to a well-marked trail, you’ll be able to get out and back. 
  4. If you’re ready for a hike into the interior, pick a point of return and always keep looking back to where you started so you know where to return.
  5. You have sturdy leather boots with good gripping soles (Canvas boots work, also, but cactus needles can easily poke through canvas. Tennis shoes don’t grip the slippery terrain very well.)
  6. You time it right, start early, end earlier than you plan. It gets dark and cold quickly.
  7. Take a partner.

You can burn a fair amount of calories in an afternoon.  If you do it regularly, say, for example, every week this spring, you will be surprised at how much weight you can lose and how strong you can become.  Make plans now before you go.

More to come

Stay tuned by subscribing to Beautiful Badlands ND for more tips on exploring this great natural resource.  Subscribe now and you’ll also get our free twice-a-month newsletter.  

Booking for 2019 black and white ad

Does your service club need some encouragement to use the North Dakota Badlands to get fit and healthy?  We’d be glad to come to speak to your group.

Beauty from the Heart of the Badlands, A Photographic Exhibit

Beauty from the Heart of the Badlands, A Photographic Exhibit, from the heart. February 23 through April 10, 2019, Long X Trading Post and Visitor Center, Watford City, North Dakota www.BeautifulBadlandsND.com