There are reasons Devils Pass is a regional attraction for visitors. It attracts people who are:
- Excited by tall paths over steep drops
- Intrigued by landscape
- Attracted to unusual transportation
I first crossed Devils Pass about 20 years ago. It had only recently become part of the Maah Daah Hey trail, and it wasn’t highly promoted. It was a “wow” moment, completely unexpected. I knew I’d be going back because it is so unique. Every time I’ve crossed it since that first crossing, I’m am freshly amazed at the formation and will actually walk it a couple of times just to get the full impact. Some of it is natural, some of it was built by hand nearly 100 years ago. It’s a narrow ridge that snakes above a deep gorge from one hill to another.
The view from the pass, or from either of the hills it connects, opens up miles of ranch land, Badlands, historic Native American hunting ground and even regions where Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted.
This spring we followed the National Forest Service map to drive first on Magpie Road then to Goat Pass road. You’ll find it on a Forest Service Map as Forest Service Road 711. We stopped in a low spot where the going got muddy. We could have gone further; there were traces of a two-track hill leading up over a hill. However, Badlands mud is not just mud, it is grease. The bentonite in the soil makes it a well-lubricated surface – just add water.
Just because we drove much of the way to Devils Pass doesn’t mean you have to. You can hike the Maah Daah Hey trail to cross Devils Pass. That’s usually the method we use, but this time we were destination-specific. So we drove as far as we could on Goat Pass road. Parked the truck and hiked.
The trick getting up over the hill was avoiding spring thaw puddles and traces of winter’s snow piles. That bentonite is slippery! It’s an easy hike, especially if you are used to day-long grueling hikes. It takes about 30 minutes to walk up over the hill, get on the path and over to Devils Pass. Even an armchair explorer can do it.
Coming over the hill, it’s apparent why it’s a noteworthy trail attraction. The long snake of a 10-foot wide surface drops off as much as 150 feet on either side. Up until the 1980’s, it was a road, curvy, narrow with a few fence posts along the side to hold sliding cars from going over the edge. Local ranchers whom we’ve talked to have stories about how their fathers and neighbors were hired by the Works Progress Administration to enhance the road. They used horse-drawn teams to build and level the road.
Now it’s part of the Maah Daah Hey and is a popular destination. The Forest Service’s Greg Morel keeps an eye on Devils Pass. He told me, “It’s slowly deteriorating, nothing major, but it is much more narrow now than when it was a road.”
The Forest Service said that it is a popular attraction, not far from Magpie Campground so that it gets a good bit of attention from people who set up base camps and hike the region. Local ranchers say that when it was a road, they would take visitors up across it in a vehicle. Rancher Perry Ecker said he remembers going across it in a 2-wheel-drive pickup when it was wet and slippery. “You had to be careful.”
Ike Hecker said, “it could be hairy going.” Hecker is retired but still owns ranch land nearby. He said that as a working cowboy, the pass had to be dry or it would be slippery. Hecker would ride his horse across it before there were fence posts stationed along the side. He remembers riding in his dad’s pickup with just 6 inches or so on either side of the pickup tires to the edge of the drop-off.
There’s a lot more to explore on the Maah Daah Hey trail. Here’s a sample.
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We’d like to find other “one-of-a-kind” spots in the North Dakota Badlands. What do you suggest?