Highway 16 Marmarth
Travel at your own risk. At least that what the sign said. You can do it if you take your time and watch the weather.
Marmarth was a shipping point for cattle brought overland from range grounds in this State, Montana, and South Dakota. The stockyards covered 45 acres, and contain 86 pens and 15 loading chutes. Read more here.
Today, the stockyards and support business is gone, but it has some of the best food in the region. Now it’s a section of a slower speed limit on Highway 12. It is an oddity with nostalgic romantic atmosphere – and extremely good food. (But I said that already, didn’t I?)
If you’ve been to Marmarth, chances are you came on Highway 12 from the east (Bowman) or from the west (Baker, Montana).
The last segment of a long exciting road trip
Once upon a time, you could also get there on the north-south Highway 16. We did.
Our road trip began at 4:00 that morning. Here’s how the day started. First from Bismarck to Beach to Golva. Then we drove to the Three V Crossing. Then to Marmarth. That’s a road trip! We were the first people moving around Golva, and caught the early morning sun there.
Good maps and voracious curiosity get us off the main roads, off the Interstates and out of the popular tourist towns. This trip excelled with vibrant sunrise, dangerous river crossings and now on through the Badlands of southwest North Dakota to get to Marmarth.
(We’re going to try something different with this post, today — video! and lots of it!)
This video gives you a taste of road conditions:
We knew part of what we were in for. The road is clearly marked as a “low maintenance road.” Drivers are warned to travel the road at their own risk. Quite a change from when it used to be a significant highway.
It obviously holds a place in local history and so it is marked in honor of Harold “Poker” Kruger. He was a road grader or maintainer operator. He kept the gravel road plowed in the winter and smooth in the summer.
Backroads = good road trips
Visually, the drive south was exciting with twists, turns, hills, and valleys. We passed through a wildlife environment. Deer and antelope we on either side of us as we followed the Little Missouri River.
As pleasant as it is to see deer and other “big game” roving through the region, it falls short of what Theodore Roosevelt saw when he hunted here. Along the river and old Highway 16 is where a century ago, TR shot a buffalo and a grizzly bear. The story is told in Teddy Roosevelt history books how Marmarth was a special place to him. It is said he only visited the town when it was flooding and that’s how he remembered it.
We’re not the first to think this is an excellent road trip. In this reprint of a 1930 book, you’ll find more road trips and packing ideas — for a 1930 trip. Historic road trips through Marmarth
We stopped at a bluff overlooking the river where we surveyed the coming ice chunks headed downstream to the north toward from Marmarth to Medora.
In the distance, a ranch sat along the river. We wondered about the stamina, resilience, self-reliance of a ranch family miles and miles from any kind of civilization or service. We decided America could use more ranchers and fewer rappers.
Finally! Marmarth!Highway 12 crosses Marmarth Main Street next to these historic buildings.
Old Highway 16 brought us to the western side of Marmarth. It’s always a visual curiosity to come into the town that has such mammoth architecture and not much else – except for good food. Oh and a jail.
Pastime Club and Steakhouse will surprise you. It’s been written about in national magazines, but it’s still hard to believe such fine food and upscale dining is here in Marmarth.
The setting includes an outdoor patio, but it was a bit too cold for us to eat there. Instead, we sat inside, across the room from a happy family swapping stories and gossip. The wait staff is outgoing and personable.
The owner stopped by and chatted a while. We enjoyed a very tender and delicious pork chop dinner – not your usual pork chop dinner you might find in a café or truck stop. The side dish, a rice pilaf was the perfect portion and temperature.
Then, came the “dessert” tray. Each item freshly made by the Pastime chef. It’s rare, in sparsely populated cowboy regions of the west that a dessert tray of exquisite choices is offered. They’re made from scratch, every day.
After lunch, we took a drive through town and checked out the railroad bridge. Afterall, it was the railroad that gave Marmarth its start. The town started east of the river but was uprooted when land purchases became difficult. So the town literally picked up and moved to the west side of the Little Missouri River. Then it grew to nearly 1500 people before the oil boom of the 1930’s when it topped out at several thousand. Today, it’s barely above 100 in town.
Here’s old Marmarth, the official site.
We wanted to visit Geezers – an eclectic store of local art, collectibles, and books. It hasn’t been open for quite some time. Others in town told us they didn’t know what happened to the owner. We got hold of Dr. Fred Cowie, Ph.D. who owns the building. He said he’s not sure if he’ll open the store this summer. He said, though if you want to buy it, he’s reducing the price to $12,000. Sounds great!
So, we visited the Marmarth strip mall, the Little Missouri Smoke Shop.
It’s a coffee shop, smoke shop, snack bar, liquor store, clothing store, gift store, tanning salon and beauty salon all rolled into one.
Just a little farther — and one more ice crossing
We headed west past the antique car museum – we’ve got that on our list for our next visit to Marmarth. Then we turned south on the Camp Crook Road. It’s blacktop for a while, then turns to gravel and passes a wildlife management area on the west, Big Gumbo. The Little Missouri River is on the east.
We headed to a river crossing. Remember, there are no bridges in this part of the back roads of southwest North Dakota. The Little Missouri River is crossed by a bridge in town at Marmarth, then again north 70 miles north or downstream at Medora, and then 85 miles further north or downstream at Watford City.
River crossings or fords are unpredictable. However, we could predict we’d not make it if we tried crossing the fast, deep water and tried dodging ice chunks.
By now, our road trip was 12 hours long, and we still had to get home, another 3 hours away. So, rather than continue south, we put that on our list of Road Trips to come. We turned east on Highway 12 and headed through Rhame and Bowman. Then, north up Highway 85 to head home in our dirty pickup.
Follow along on our next road trip
We got some help from people who traveled the old road, and knew Marmarth from the “olden days.” What memories do you have of the region? Give us a shout!
By far, this was the most exciting back road trip we’ve ever done. We look forward to doing it again. See you there!
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If you want to learn more about any place in North Dakota, we’ve found this three-volume set to be very helpful.
You missed out on Highway 16 when I started driving this road in my then less elderly Camry. It had 2 low water crossings…and yes, that is exactly what it sounds like. Those are now bridges. And all the original rough wooden crossings are replaced with something more modern and less terrifying. The road is really much better now than it was.
I love that kind of imagery! That’s great! I too, remember roads like that, they’d curve down into a creek bed so you’d have to drive in the creek bed for a quarter mile or so, then back up the other side. Ha! Drivers these days!! They just don’t know a good challenge, do they?!
That’s our ranch you see across the river. It does take a special type of stubborn to live out here.
Beautiful place! And we think it takes a special kind of tenacity and caring to live there. Kudos to you! Much admired!