Spring and early summer are the best times to experience the Badlands. Whether you choose to visit Medora, North Dakota or head out on a trail, early summer and late spring are perfect for that. The weather is cool, the young new life is plentiful, and the landscape is green.
If you’re up for a Badlands Experience, the options are endless, but these five are quite popular and rewarding.
5. Bennett Creek Trail
The 3-mile long Bennett Creek Trail extends from the Bennet Creek Campground to the Maah Daah Hey Trail. As you might expect, it follows the Bennett Creek, a deep and wide meandering waterway that is usually dry. Of course, after a rainstorm or snowmelt, it can be an impassable barrier.
We like this trail to start the year with because it follows the valley floor. The ever-present scent of sage is a reminder you’re in some of the cleanest air in North America.
The elevation change is minimal, and in some places, it’s as easy as a proverbial “walk in the park.” On either side, you’ll have the option of taking a switchback to the top of the hills. From there, you’ll be rewarded with expansive and memorable views of the North Dakota Badlands.
Take the afternoon
To stroll along the entire 3-mile length, you’ll need about 2 hours — and then another 2-hours to get back. Add in a needful rest break or two, and it’s a 5-hour jaunt to take the whole thing. So, we recommend gauging your stamina and taking only as much as you want.
If you’re up for the whole thing, your reward is the China Wall.
The Hiking Project Website can give you a good idea of what to expect.
4. Elkhorn Ranch Site
Drive away from the rest of the world, and get into the heart of ranch country on your way to the historic Elkhorn Ranch Site. It’s where Theodore Roosevelt ranched, hunted, and kept the law in the Badlands. His book Hunting and Ranch Life describes this area in detail.
It’s about 28 miles northwest of Medora, so the gravel roads you follow will give you not only plenty of dust but plenty of opportunities to see Badlands ranching as it’s been practiced for 150 years — (with the addition of modern horsepower).
Head north on the Camels Hump/Sentinel Butte exit from I-94. Take your time. 30 to 45 mph is a good speed. Follow the Elkhorn signs.
When you drop into the Elkhorn Ranch valley, the landscape along the Little Missouri River opens up.
You can use the facilities at the campground (vault toilet, fresh water). Then head a little further as the Maah Daah Hey trail is braided with the road till you get to the Elkhorn Ranch Site. Storyboards will put you in the mindset of the young, pre-president Roosevelt. At the river, you can get an idea of where Roosevelt and his men had their first home here — carved into the river banks.
Like many of the remote areas of the North Dakota Badlands, this is a quiet place where you can unwind, relax and enjoy. Stay on the road, drive north to get spectacular views of the region where Roosevelt hunted elk, and deer, and rounded up his cattle.
3. Little Missouri State Park Trails
Welcome to the absolute most rugged region of North Dakota. This is the end of the line for the Little Missouri River. It began in Wyoming and ends at the farthest eastern reach of the landscape here. The southern-most stretches of the Little Missouri River are easy gentle lands — not so here.
This is where the slides and slumps of the buttes and bluffs keep the park on an evolutionary path. You’ll find the trails are marked for difficulty — easy to difficult. It’s okay to wander off the trail, but be prepared to find your way back. Rangers say that every summer they have to send out a rescue party, especially when people misjudged their timing and didn’t get back before dark. There have been cases of falls down a hillside when helicopters have been called in to rescue people.
The park is famous for its trail rides for horses. You’ll find several corrals here to accommodate horses. You may even see riders on the trails.
Not to freak you out, or anything, this is also rattlesnake country. So, look before you step off a ledge or into the grass.
And oh, during every year’s mountain lion hunting season, at least a few are shot within 15 miles of here.
2. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Two for the price of one!
The entry pass that you buy when you go into the park is good to visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North and South units.
The most popular unit is the south unit of the Park. It’s accessible from Interstate 94, and entrance is on the edge of the town of Medora. Cedar, juniper, aspen and a variety of pine trees cover the north-facing hills. The south facing hills are sunbaked and rocky.
The 38-mile scenic loop through the park gives you an opportunity to drive past wildlife:
prairie dog towns,
herds of bison and
Scattered everywhere a mule deer, but rare are elk.
Depending on when you go, the trail may be incomplete. It’s common for bentonite clay to slip in the spring and take out a section of the road as it did here in May.
Trails here are also rated for difficulty. You’ll find the trail map where you buy your entrance fee. The easiest ones we recommend are Wind Canyon, Buck Hill and the first part of Boicourt Trail.
If you are up for a challenge, get off the marked trails and explore the interior of the park. We like taking a deer path from Scoria Point. It heads down and then back up to provide spectacular exercise and rewarding views.
15 miles south of Watford City is the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s the smaller of the two units. The breath-taking views from the Riverbend Overlook or Oxbow Overlook have been the subject of many visitor’s photographs.
Because the park is smaller, you have a better chance of driving through a bison herd. Just take it easy, And remember, they are not pets. They can and will mess you up pretty good if you don’t stay clear of them.
An additional feature of the north unit is the herd of longhorn steers. Two more were added in the spring of 2019. Once you see them, try to imagine a herd of 4,000 grazing their way north in the spring, starting in Texas and ending up here.
They’re fun to video — amazing!
That’s the Long X Trail, and the reason why the name “Long X” is on the visitor center in Watford City, on the Art Council, and various other locations, including the Long X pull out in the park.
Like the South Unit and the Little Missouri State Park, marked trails will get you into the heart of the park.
Cannonball Concretions is one of the family favorite trails. The Achenbach trail will give you a challenge and then reward you with amazing features.
Medora, North Dakota
The name of the town of Medora is synonymous with the Badlands. In fact, if we ask people, “Have you been to the North Dakota Badlands,” many have said to us “Oh yes, I’ve visited Medora.” Medora is famous for its food, its shops, bicycle rentals, horseback trail rides, entrance to the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and of course the Chateau d’Mores, the Medora Musical and the Pitchfork fondue.
A hot time
Later this summer, when it gets hot, your exploration times will be limited by the day’s heat. But we’ve got ya covered.
There is a very cool destination to explore even when it’s hot. Subscribers to this blog and to our newsletter will get notified when it’s time to get to the cool spot in the Badlands. So, sign up here to get a notice in your inbox and to get on the free newsletter that comes out twice a month.
Look like a rock star to your group. We’ll speak to your group to give them all kinds of ideas about a perfect summer destination.