They say you can make a lifelong memory on just a tank of gas. That’s true out here in the North Dakota Badlands. If you’re getting antsy to get out of the winter captivation, here are some ideas for you to start your plans for escape. The best part is, the biggest cost will be your gasoline because there’s plenty to do in Western North Dakota that will build memories. Here are 5 free things to see and do this summer in the North Dakota Badlands.
#5 Fort Union Trading Post
If you and your family like regional history or Lewis and Clark experiences, then head to the northwestern part of the state, and get right up to the Montana border. About halfway between Sidney, Montana, and Williston, North Dakota is the Fort Union Trading Post. Late summer, it’s a fairly quiet place for you to explore. In June the rendezvous brings the era of the early 1800’s to life. Decades before the Civil War, settlers, trappers, soldiers and tribes from the Northern Plains met here peacefully to trade goods.
This free stop on your summer tour of western North Dakota is best enjoyed by older children and adults. (But don’t worry, there are several other nearby sites such as Fort Buford and the Confluence Center that will keep the younger ones entertained. Or the best one for all family members is #1 on this list.)
To keep the youngest members of your group entertained, you probably won’t stay here long, but there are two more stops nearby. Head around the bend to Fort Buford where you can camp (for a fee) or explore the Confluence Visitor Center and get many views of early Plains life.
#4 Wander Medora (but is this really free? Ice cream has a cost.)
It doesn’t cost anything to wander the streets of Medora. There are several good places to eat. If you’re an ice cream lover you’ll get surprisingly large servings. Ice Cream at Medora is actually a summer goal for many families. It’s easy to get to Medora, right off of I-94, about 25 miles from the Montana border.
If you and your family want to take advantage of the exercise opportunity, take your bicycles. It’s free to pedal the streets and trails nearby. Many families do. There’s no cost to bicycle the town, take the East River Road south of town or take the recreation trail across the Little Missouri River to the west of Medora.
An option that is not free is to rent bicycles in town. Or bicycle into the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee. Its entrance is on the edge of Medora. If you bicycle the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you will have to stick to the paved road. You can’t go “off road” in the park.
North Dakota’s legendary Maah Daah Hey Trail is a mountain biker’s dream. Families can get access to as much or as little of it as they want — free. You don’t need a bicycle. Your feet go with you, right? Take them and use them.
Maps of the trail are available online or you can buy the most comprehensive map from the U.S. Forst Service.
#3 Hike the Maah Daah Hey — head to the Ice Caves
Even short little hikes will keep the youngest in your family entertained if they know the destination is right down the path. For a short hike with a rewarding destination, park at the Ice Caves Maah Daah Hey parking lot and take a half-mile hike to a cooling spot. The Ice Caves is part of the Maah Daah Hey trail. It’s about 10 miles south of Grassy Butte on Highway 85 and then 10 miles west on a gravel road #713. In the spring, snow runoff melts into the cave and freezes on the floor. This time of year, there’s no ice, but it’s a great natural air-conditioned place to climb inside to cool off.
The Maah Daah Hey trail is marked with the turtle-branded signposts, so it’s easy to follow the route. Markers along the way give you information of different trails you can take.
Here’s more about the Maah Daah Hey.
#2 North Dakota grasslands
A short hike into the Long X Trail south of Watford City will open the valley to your family’s challenge. You can stay on the trail at the bottom of the valley, or pick a point and climb to the top.
Some of the best trails for a family are the Long X Trail south of Watford City on the southern edge of the Little Missouri River. Near Grassy Butte are the Beicegel Trail and the Bennett Creek Trail. Signs on Highway 85 direct you to both trails. They are easy trails, both give you a flat starting out point and provide hill-top challenges that reward you with a spectacular view. Tall wooden markers along the trail are easy to follow.
Climbing seems is a favorite passion of children, so pick a high point that matches their skills. Even the shortest of the tall bluffs and buttes gives kids a chance to build their muscles and their confidence.
#1 Fairview Lift Bridge and the Cartwright Tunnel
This free exploration will entertain the entire family. It’s on Highway 200 at the North Dakota-Montana state line. To the west of the Fairview lift bridge, or on the right side of this above photo is the parking log and entrance to the fenced-off walkway across the bridge.
Once you start the walk across the bridge, you’ll get a great view of the well-maintained park below where you can enjoy a picnic in the shade of the trees.
The final reward of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Cartwright Tunnel.
Until the mid-1980’s trains passed through the tunnel across the bridge. It’s a quarter-mile long pass through the hill and provides children with a memorable experience — but take a flashlight. It gets dark in there until you get close to the opposite end.
Exploring the tunnel thrills youngsters, but oldsters will be impressed with the knowledge the tunnel was built by hand by local ranchers and farmers using picks, shovels, ox or donkey carts. It’s guaranteed that you will at some point utter one word: “wow!” It’s more impressive than you would think of a bridge and tunnel.
The nearby Snowden Lift bridge is still in use. It’s downstream about 12 miles. You can see more about it here.
These free family features are in the sparsely settled region of North Dakota. So, if you’re planning a visit, we recommend you pack a picnic and carry plenty of water. You can stop in Sidney, Mt, Williston, ND, Medora, ND, or Dickinson, ND for a bite to eat and a break from your day of discovery. It’s all free, if you take a lunch, pack your bicycles if you want, and explore legendary North Dakota.
Here’s more about the Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright tunnel.
Fort Union is one of our favorite places. Their bookstore is a goldmine if you like historical books. The Rendezvous is memorable.
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