Don’t isolate this winter — explore the outdoors!

(See for yourself. Enjoy the winter photos.)

safe outdoor recreation with a camera in the Badlands

Sculpted landscape flattens out on a shelf overlooking the steep valleys of the northern part of the North Dakota Badlands.

Wow! Social critters like humans find it tough to isolate.

I’m fed up with the upheaval in normal social functions. I miss the life that used to characterize the Northern Plains. These days, I’ve grown very allergic to the call to isolate and the political battles and the pandemic brouhaha. So, it’s time to run wild–body, mind and spirit. Safely.

And now it’s getting to be more like winter. Which means, I’m not looking forward to a winter of isolation. I plan to get outdoors. 

Are you? After limiting travel and socializing this year, it’s frustrating to look forward to further isolation this winter.

Brown grass and room to play for a couple of Nokota or wild horses at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Time to run wild outdoors like these two nearly identical colts racing up a hill at the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.









That’s a recipe for mental meltdowns.   

So, what to do?

Here’s my prescription.

  • Use it as you wish.
  • Take as much of this as you want or need.
  • Apply as often as needed.
  • For external use only.


Play it safe

There is one thing we do to prepare to spend time outdoors: keep an eye on the weather, then change plans as often as needed. And then we go!  

grand canyon of the Badlands snowy road

Some would call this the Grand Canyon of the Badlands — a snowy road snakes through the valley, blue sky and clouds overhead.

Oh sure, we play it safe. Social distancing comes naturally in these wide open spaces.  And like the experts say, you don’t need to mask up when you are in the wide open spaces. We are no longer interested in hiding — especially when there are miles and miles of wide-open, safe, heavenly nature to enjoy.

Space is not an issue in the Badlands of North Dakota and National Grasslands. Fresh cool-season western air waits to be abundantly inhaled. That’s why I look forward to heading out to these cold-weather activities safely.

Here’s a rewarding idea: Head to Magpie, and Castle Rock. 

Explore the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

By car or by foot, it is important to dress appropriately. When we plan to stay in the car, we shed binding coats in the car. They prevent us from moving around in the car to look out the windows. We know we’ll want to turn and look, even opening windows to get a better photo.


snowshoe down the hill

We look for wildlife. It’s entertaining and enjoyable to use a long-distance camera lens or binocular to see the wild horses, other wildlife or landscape features at a distance. When we are alert, we spot coyotes and elk in prairie dog towns. 

Two elk make their way up a hill late in the daylight hours, after sunset in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

Two elk make their way up a hill late in the daylight hours, after sunset in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.


I am never less than amazed by the hardiness of the bison in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  That’s why I had to do a bit of historical research to find out how a blizzard is responsible for getting bison to thrive in the Park after they were nearly wiped out in the late 1800s.  Read about that here.


bison with snow on face

What a snowmask! It’s how these big beasts find forage in the winter. They sweep the snow out of the way with their face and dig down for grass.


1. South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

This is probably the easiest to access. It’s right on Interstate 94.  We have annual passes to enter the park, otherwise there is a daily entrance fee.  It can yield a good look at bison, deer or the famous wild horses of the park. Click here to see how they withstand a North Dakota winter.

When driving in, we stop at the Visitor Center. It’s a good time to ask how far we can drive. Since Park authorities closed the far end of the loop in the South Unit a couple years ago, it’s a good idea to find out what is open.

The drive entices us to step out of the vehicle. It’s important to use good judgement to know if the weather is safe enough for that – cold and snow can be tricky.

One good thing we learned and encourage you to do also is to bring water. Staying hydrated helps us stay warmer.

Look for:

  • Peaceful Valley Ranch

We like to take a swing into the ranch. It’s a good way to get an idea of what a ranch yard looked like 75-years ago. Often bison or wild horses are hanging out in the trees.

Peaceful Valley Ranch was one of the first ranches in the badlands of western North Dakota, north of Medora. It's the location of a popular hiking trail head in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Peaceful Valley Ranch was one of the first ranches in the badlands of western North Dakota, north of Medora. It’s the location of a popular hiking trail head in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


The marked pull-offs are there for a reason. They give us a chance to visually soak in endless miles of rugged rough and rolling badlands terrain.

  • Wind Canyon

We do not stop at Wind Canyon, at least not in the winter. It’s probably the coldest place in the park. Windchill, you know. Besides, the stairs can be icy, and snow covered. But we’re running wild, right? But we’re playing it safe, too.

  • Boicourt Overlook

We aim to reach Boicourt Overlook late in the afternoon. The long shadows help show the contours of the vista.  And if there is a bank of clouds in the west, we get see a great sunset from Boicourt Overlook

  • Boicourt Trail

The Boicourt Trailhead is a few hundred yards south of Boicourt Overlook. It is also a good easy place to get as much fresh air as we wish. Here’s a good place to get out and explore the easy trail. It’s handicap accessible for the first quarter mile. After that, the going gets tricky. But that’s the fun of it, right?  We’ve written about Boicourt Trail here.

2. North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

herd of bison in fall

As fall ended, we caught a distant herd of bison in the North Unit at the far end or the scenic drive near the Oxbow Overlook. That day, there were several small herds on the prairie. Later in the winter, they moved down in to the Little Missouri River Valley.

We like the ideas we get from the Park Ranger where to see wildlife. The park is known for bison, mule deer, long horn steers, an occasional big horn sheep or an elk. Bison are almost always in view, sometimes along the road where grazing is easier in the snow. We found this one sleeping on a sunny hillside.

When we have our long camera lenses or binoculars, we look for the bison and for mule deer.

  • Cannonball Pull off.

This easy access point is on the valley floor and is a good place to scope out the opposite side, the south side of the Little Missouri Park — if we have good glass. Sometimes the reward is a flock of big horn sheep across the river.

  • Long X pull-off.

Here, the view is a flat valley floor with a creek meandering along it. On the other side of the valley floor, protected from the north wind, is where bison like to hang out. It’s also a fairly easy trail in the winter.

bison graze snow winter

At the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, near the Long X Traill pull-off, bison graze easily through the snow.

Optimum Availability:

There is no bad time to drive through the Park – except dark. So, play it safe; the best time is when the sun is shining. 

After sunset, when the world turns 'blue', it can be difficult to spot wild life. We were barely able to see this elk as he crossed in front of us on this stormy evening. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

It was almost dark when this elk crossed the road. We were barely able to see this elk as he crossed in front of us on this stormy evening.

The landscape displays itself in the light with more than one presentation. In the winter that’s a short presentation. The sun sets incredibly early, so go at noon.

Warning: Once snow becomes a road-blocking element, the park closes the road at the Long X Pull Off.  When it is not closed, drive all the way up to Riverbend Overlook and Oxbow Overlook.

3. Road trip through Badlands Interior

When we want to stay warm and avoid winter’s discomforts, we like to take a drive to the interior of the Badlands. Nothing like a Sunday drive to isolate and explore. For example, as you can read here, we found invigorating challenges on Square Butte.

The roads are not likely to be muddy after the ground freezes, they are hard surfaced – even the ruts can be frozen into the surface.

We like to make sure we stay on marked BLM numbered routes. Our biggest helper is a Forest Service a map to guide our way, and to identify which pieces of ground are private. Don’t trespass.

Just because the hill you want to climb is marked “public,” it does not mean it’s an easy access. Be ready for a challenge, but as you can see here, from Custer Trail and Square butte,  the reward is stupendous!

Again, binoculars are good or a long reach telephoto lens on a camera.

Custer Trail

Custer Trail Signs mark part of the route Custer took through the Badlands to get to Little Big Horn.

South of Medora, Custer Trail Signs mark part of the route Custer took on the way to Little Big Horn.

The marked Custer Trail is one of the best roads to meander into the Badlands interior. It’s one of our favorites. Signs boards along the way will tell you the story of the 7th Cavalry’s last march through here. And if you make it to Initial Rock, if the road is open, we will go to Initial Rock where we wander around and check out where Custer’s soldiers scratched their names in to the sandstone.

All the way to the Black Hills

When we are ready to have a longer road trip – say, for example, two days, we head south from Beach to Golva, Marmarth, Camp Crook, SD and finally Belle Fourche, SD.

Traveling the interior of the Badlands on the road from Beach, ND,  to Belle Fourche, SD leads past Camp Crook. The isolated town gives a hint of the history that is here — cattle drives, outlaws, U.S. Army, Sioux warriors have crossed through here.

















Fort Lincoln to Fort Keogh

With a bit of imagination, we can recreate the Fort Keogh Trail. The historic Montana Fort connected with Fort Lincoln south of Mandan. 

Highway 10 and the parallel rail line are a good approximation of what was once a life blood of contact for the men and women at Fort Keogh. 

The railroad brought supplies and mail to Bismarck. Shipments were hauled across on a wagon that rode a ferry. Once across the river at Fort Lincoln the trail crosses the hilly prairies, grasslands and badlands and back to prairie to get to Fort Keogh.


Optimum Availability

This is best when the ground is frozen.  If there is more than a few inches of snow on the surface, it can be tricky.  What is a couple inches in one place, can be a foot in another windy canyon.

 Now when we are feeling really needy to run wild and be safe, good physical enticements lure us out of the vehicle into the clean atmosphere of a heavenly nature.

4. Fat bike the Long X Trail

Okay, a confession here. I think you have to be loco to do the annual The Poco Rio Frio ride.

It’s on the end of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, on the Long X Trail, south of Watford City in McKenzie County.

Each December, this outdoor recreation event is a bit much for us, but we love to go anyway as spectators and photographers. The fat bike, snowshoe and cross-country ski event is fun to watch. Someday, I hope to get an x-c ski equipment update so I can enter. 

poco rio frio a good ride in the badlands on a snowy day

A fat bike rider and a snow-shoer.

The fat bike thing? Well, that’s good for spectators who aren’t in the ironman mode to ride the Long X Trail. 

Optimum availability:

Early in the afternoon on the uphill slope of warming temperature trends. The road is usually well maintained and the parking area at the trail head is a big circle to drive around and park – even picnic if we want.

5. Pick a place to run wild and isolate with skis or snowshoes.

Anytime we’re at the Long X Trail in McKenzie County, we cross-country ski/snowshoe, if there is enough snow. When the Little Missouri River is frozen over, it makes a great level route for x-c skiing. Sometimes snowmobiles leave tracks to follow on x-c skis.

The Long X Trail itself isn’t too hard to x-c ski. It’s a challenge and we can only do it when we’re in good condition.  That’s why we avoid the Poco Loco Frio (see above).


No Snow Shoes? No X-C Skis? No problem! 

Try this outstanding winter hike from Summit Trail.


Optimum Availability.

Now that the Long X Bridge is open and functional, the inlet to the Long X trail is not exactly where it used to be – but close.  I’ve gone there a few days after a snow. Usually pickup or tractor tracks have been cut through the snow. 

Run Wild Safely

So, when we’re rally hankering to get out and get away in winter, we found plenty of rewarding ways to weather the winter, run wild and be safe. And it won’t even seem like you are isolating. 

One of the biggest bonuses is the natural high we get from exploring the Badlands outdoors in the winter. As you can read here, it’s an endorphin explosion.

We watch the weather for a couple days ahead of time, so we know what to plan for. One thing we know we’ll do is to shed the burdens of isolation and lockdowns. We’ll feel free and healthy.

poco rio frio a good race in the badlands

Nick Ybarra can be found nearly every day riding the Maah Daah Hey — winter or summer


Are the Badlands open in the winter?

Yes. The entire region of the Badlands in North Dakota, from Marmarth to Mandaree is open when whether allows.

What can you do outdoors in the Badlands in winter? 

You can always take a road trip through the region on an interior road. Visit the National Park. And if you’re in condition, you can x-c ski, snowshoe, or fat bike.

Is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park Open in the winter?

Yes, it is, year round. Some access restrictions may exist, so check in with the park ranger when you pay your entrance fee.  


Coming Up:

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is coming to the North Dakota Badlands — and we’ve been identifying his stomping rounds from Miles City, Montana to Mandan, North Dakota.  We’ll write about some of those spots in coming blogs so you can trace his cowboy heritage in what was the Dakota Territory and the Montana Territory.
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