Parks are Closed, Here’s Where the Badlands are Open and Healthy

Hiking Summit Trail, McKenzie County, North Dakota

Rolling hills in the grasslands above the badlands of western North Dakota might seem a bit mundane when viewed from a major highway, but once off the main roads and onto hiking paths. In the fall,  a myriad of textures, colors and smell abounds. When the sun lowers in the western sky and the colors warm, the prairies glow! Summit Campground and Trail area, just off of US Highway 85 south of the Little Missouri River, North Dakota.
Read about this beautiful area here:

The North Dakota Badlands are 150 miles of healthy outdoor awesomeness.  You can isolate, distance, quarantine all you want and get healthy at the same time.

Yes, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is closed until May 9, but did you know there are millions of acres open to your healthy adventure?  The Forest Service campgrounds, picnic areas and bathrooms are closed.  

More Healthy Ideas to Come

These 10 ideas are just a preview of what’s to come. Here is a brief introduction to whet your appetite for places you can go to break free of the tedium of isolation.   Between now and the end of May, we’ll explore each of these locations to give you an up-close and personal report of where you can go and what you can do while the state’s normal activities are closed due to the coronavirus, covid-19 issue.Watch for our series of stories from these spots in the interior of the Badlands.  We’ll run them one at a time for the next few weeks. Subscribe to get a notice in your inbox when each one is published.  It’s how to be healthy and enjoy North Dakota’s great outdoors.

Get healthy and get outdoors

From the northern end, to the southern end there are more places to adventure isolate than these 10.  Start in Watford City and then go here:


1. Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel

Fairview lift bridge a healthy walk

A tribute to the days of hard labor and low wages, the railroad tunnel was carved through a badlands hill, mostly by hand. They started from the top and worked down.  Dynamite would break up the rocks, and mules pulled carts loaded with the rock men scrounged out. The quarter-mile long tunnel is open for you to walk through, but time is taking its toll and the east end may collapse.  You’ll see when you get there.

A flashlight is needed for a healthy walk through the Cartwright Tunnel

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight crook about midway so that you cannot see one end from the other.

To get to the tunnel, you must walk across the quarter mile long Fairview Lift Bridge. The catwalk is fenced for safety and there are benches along the way to sit a spell and watch the Yellowstone River as it finishes it’s cut through America. It empties in to the Missouri a few miles north of the bridge.

Fairview Lift Bridge is an exciting healthy walk between the protective fences

A quiet place to take a healthy walk that is unlike any other walk — the quarter-mile long Fairview Lift Bridge.

To get there:

The dual architectural glimpse of history is near the North Dakota/Montana state line. Take an easy drive west of Watford City on Highway 85. The highway turns north to Alexander and beyond that is the turn on to Highway 200 to Fairview.  Pack a lunch and hang out at Sundheim Park below the bridge.

2. Long X Trail and the Maah Daah Hey Trail

A healthy stroll along the Long X trail next to the creek

The Long X Trail follows the bottom of the hills to the south and skirts around a creek bank. Late in the day, the sun makes the hills glow.

The Long X Recreation Trail is named for the famous cattle trail from East Texas to North Dakota.  This is pretty close to where it ended. The Long X Ranch was here at the river.  Thousands of head of longhorn cattle were walked here every year, following the greening of the grass in the open range.

The trail is a single track trail, good for mountain biking and for hiking.  When you are there, you’re in the Theodore Roosevelt Wildlife Area, south across the river from the National Park.  Challenge yourself.  Pick a high point and find the switchback wildlife trails that will take you to the top. The view is stunning.

strata in the hillside at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Layers of earth are obvious from the Long X trail, looking north across the Little Missouri River to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


One of the rewards of this region is wildlife.  This area is the heart of the Badlands herd of some 300 big horn sheep.

Big Horn Ewe Prances into the Badlands of North Dakota

Female big horns are called ewes and have horns that curve only slightly, as opposed to the large tightly curled horns of the rams. Ewes typically weigh 125-150 pounds. Photo by Diane Kay Photography.

They range in an area about 25 or 30 miles in all directions and are not easy to spot. So, if you see a small herd, you’re lucky.  Also in the area are mule deer and elk. Porcupines are often found in the brush. So, if you take your dog, beware of the possibility of the dog getting quilled.  When it gets much warmer, say summer time warmth, you may spot the occasional rattlesnake.

The Long X Trail starts at the terminus of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. This 144-mile long single track trail starts near Amidon in the southern part of the state and ends here.  It’s a world-famous single-track mountain bike trail, and is open to horse back riding or hiking.  You’ll find many trail heads connecting to the Maah Daah Hey, generally north of I-94 and west of Highway 85.

To get there:

These points are directly across the river south of the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, south of Watford City on Highway 85. Turn west from the highway on the Long X Road, a few feet south of the Long X bridge. It’s an old through-truss bridge that workers are replacing this summer.  About 1 mile of gravel takes you in to the CCC Campground and there you will find the Long X and Maah Daah Hey trails. The CCC Campground, picnic area, camping area and bathrooms are closed.  

3. China Wall

erosion has left its mark on the back side of the China Wall in the North Dakota Badlands

The highly eroded, soft side of the China Wall can be climbed with good hiking boots.

Feel like conquering something oriental?  Head to the China Wall.  It too is on the Maah Daah Hey Trail north of Bennett Creek and the Bennett Creek Campground. The campground,picnic area and toilets are closed for now.

Long before there was a even a country called China there was a China Wall. It’s an extremely narrow tall ridge. Geologically, it might be considered “razor sharp.” Pack a lunch and park yourself in the trees nearby for a healthy picnic free from crowds and distractions.

Wildlife here again includes mule deer, antelope and prairie dogs.  And if it’s a hot day, rattlesnakes may surprise you.  We’ve never seen a mountain lion here, but we’ve followed their tracks in hardened mud.

how to photograph the beautiful badlands Bennett Creek Trail marker

The markers make it easy to go out and back where you will discover what is just over that next hill.

To get there, start from the Bennett Creek Trail Head, west of Grassy Butte.

To get there:

Again, a drive in to the interior of the Badlands starts on Highway 85.  Turn west at the brown sign for Bennett Creek Campground, 7 miles north of Grassy Butte. Drive four miles west on gravel road.  Then at the t-intersection, turn south to Bennett Creek Campground. The campground, picnic area and toilets are closed.  And from there hike about 2 miles straight west.  It’s an easy to moderate trail.  

If  you turn right or north at that T intersection follow Forest Service Road 823 to the Maah Daah Hey Trail, about four miles of gravel road.  Park just outside the prairie dog town and hike up the hill about a mile to the south.

4. Ice Caves

They ain’t what they used to be, but one of the ice caves is still open.  These caves were more accessible just a few years ago until a rock slide closed off one of them.  The one that is still open enters in to a large room.  When water runs in to the room, it freezes on the floor.  Believe me. It’s a welcome end point on a hot summer day.

We crawled inside to shoot this video:

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves. It’s a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campground it’s about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.


The Maah Daah Hey trail goes past the ice caves, just a few yards west.

You can follow it north above the caves for a spectacular view.

The area above the ice caves is privately owned. We’ve visited with the rancher who is welcoming of people on the trail.  And as long as pedestrians respect his property, no littering, no campfires, don’t disturb the cattle, a friendly relationship will continue.

How to Get There

West of Grassy Butte on McKenzie County #50 (also known as Biecegel Creek Road) to Scairt Woman Road.  South on Scairt Woman Road about 8 miles.  Impassable when it is wet.)


5. Magpie Valley and Castle Rock

castle rock

Castle rock glows in the late day sun.

A brown recreational highway sign directs traffic to camps and trail heads.

One of our favorite brown sign drives starts here, but there are several dozen along Highway 85 between Bowman and Williston.

Magpie campground is along Magpie Creek in Magpie Valley.  (Makes sense doesn’t it?) It’s a starting point for various explorations — all free from quarantines, face masks and isolation. Still interested in getting to the ice caves? You can start at Magpie Campground and head north on the Maah Daah Hey Trail to the Ice Caves

Here at Magpie Campground, you can hike the valley straight south of the campground to one of the hill tops. The Magpie Campground, picnic area and toilets are closed.  It’s rewarding to find your way up and around the ridges overlooking the valley.  From a hilltop you may spot a herd of antelope or mule deer in the distance. 

For me, one of the most meaningful hilltops is south across the road from the campground.

This mesa or plateau is grassy and flat — and a good place to watch the sunset.

caleb looks at the sunset

One of my favorite images because that’s my son who took a weekend to hike with me from Magpie to the Ice Caves.

To get there:

Head south of the Sweet Crude Truck Stop at the intersection of Highway 200 an Highway 85. About 5 miles south look for Magpie Road.  Follow it west about 16 miles.  You may meet an oil field truck or a ranch truck. It’s a major gravel road. So, it can be dusty.  Park at the Magpie Trail Head on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, or drive a couple hundred yards to the campground entrance. The campground, picnic area and bathrooms are closed.

The Road to Magpie Valley is well traveled, and it was an access road when the valley burned up in a wildfire.  Getting there is half the thrill. It starts out in the grasslands and then winds down in to the valley.  It passes next to the imaginary fortress jutting out of the earth called Castle Rock.  It’s imaginary for those people who can imagine days of knights and medieval times.  The best time to view the peculiar formation is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The lowering sun casts long shadows up and down the rock face. 

6. Devils Pass

Imagine a slippery, narrow crooked path 150 feet above the canyon valley.  You have a team of horses, or a Model T Ford and you want to get across the valley. Devils Pass will get you from one side to the other, but it can be fearsome of you are afraid of heights. Devils Pass is marked with signboards, and is integrated in to the Maah Daah Hey Trail. So, you’re reasonably safe walking the 12-feet wide path over the drop off. On either end, look for seasonal flowers such as prairie crocuses or sweet clover. You may see mule deer, antelope or elk in this area.

The pass itself is a strange sensation to cross, however, the road there provides equally strange views — well strange compared to the rest of North Dakota.  

Beyond Goat Pass Road

Exploring roads on the US Forest Service map which lead to destination names always yields unending vistas of beauty in the North Dakota badlands.

To Get There:

Like so many of the destinations, the drive to the attraction is as much a thrill as a backpacking or mountain biking effort.  But you get to do it from your car.  You’ll want to take lots of photos of the landscape from these ranch roads. About 3 miles east of Magpie Campground on Magpie road is the intersection with Goat Pass Road.

A late September view of the North Dakota Badlands from Goat Pass.

You can get to the east end of Devils Pass from Goat Pass Road — which is a seasonal accomplishment.  Goat Pass Road starts like any other gravel road, but as it winds farther west and south, it begins to devolve in to a two-track trail that can be muddy.


Now Lets go to the Other Side of the Little Missouri River

7. Petrified Forest

This is a drive-by experience. You will pass many petrified stumps. But to get to the actual trail loop, you’ll have to wait. You can walk the roadsides, but not in the park. That’s because, technically this is closed until May 9 since it is part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. So, we can’t advise breaking park rules. However, if you are up for an afternoon drive in the country, you will pass by this point of interest on the way to Wannagan Campground which can get you to the Elkhorn Ranch. So, take a good map. Like the Petrified Forest Trail Loop, the Wannagan Campground, picnic area and toilets are closed for now.

The Maah Daah Hey Trail runs through this area.  You can walk it through the prairie.This is grasslands area, so if you stop for a moment, here is where you should be able to use your binoculars to spot songbirds.  A popular favorite singer is the Western Meadowlark.

To Get There:

Take the West River Road exit about a half-mile west of Medora on Interstate 94. Go north just over 3 miles and you will spot the turn off for the Petrified Forest.  You don’t have to go to the national park point to see petrified stumps.  They are along the way.  Your afternoon drive will be guided by a detailed road map. Use it to find Forest Service Road 726 to get past Wannagan Campground. 

8. Elkhorn

a healing place for healthy people

Foundations of the Elkhorn Ranch are all that remain after the building material was shared with neighbors

Still on the west side of the Little Missouri River, take a drive north to see what Theodore Roosevelt built. He called it his healing place. Much has been written about this place and the role it played in Roosevelt’s healing after his mother and his wife died on the same day, Valentines Day 1884. From the porch of the Elkhorn Ranch, Roosevelt penned many of his essays and books. It was here that the scrawny, asthma ridden young man became healthy.

golden hour hill sunset

The hill face across the river from TR’s Elkhorn Ranch is a hill he often watched as it glowed in the sunset.

The buildings are gone. The code of the west at the time was that if you picked up and moved out, the neighboring ranches could help themselves to the building material you left behind. When Roosevelt moved back east and became President, his ranch house material was shared with neighbors.  However, the rock foundations remain.

The walking trail to the site is an easy grassy path.  It’s possible to travel it by wheel chair.  Along the way, story boards tell the story.

To make this visit extremely meaningful, pick up a copy of Rolf Sletten’s colorful, pictorial narration of Roosevelt’s Ranches.  The book includes photos taken by Roosevelt of the Elkhorn Ranch site. You can see the same landscape features in the photos Roosevelt took.

To Get There

This is a bit of an exercise in navigation. Some signs along the road are useful.  Look for the Elkhorn Ranch Symbol. It’s sporadically spaced in the ditches and fence rows.

Turn north from I-94 at Exit 10, also called Camels Hump. Its the Sentinel Butte exit. Camels Hump is that smooth, grassy hump on the north side of the Interstate next to Camels Hump Lake.  Drive past it north about 25 miles north-northeast. Follow County Road 11 to Westerheim Road about 12 miles. Road #11 continues north, but you turn east on Westerheim Road.  Follow that gravel road about 1.5 miles then go north on Belle Lake Road. Follow Belle Lake Road about 10 miles. Look for the signs to take you down the hill to the Elkhorn Ranch Site. It’s both a state historical site and a National Park Service site.

9. Custer Trail Auto Tour

Custer trail a healthy tour

Custer was healthy when he passed through here.

Initial Rock is the destination for an afternoon drive. It’s where two of Custer’s Soldiers scratched their names in the rock on their Yellowstone Expedition.  

The Custer Trail Auto Tour can be driven in a day.  It’s about 80 miles.It is two segments, one of which takes you to the Battle of the Badlands, a U.S. military battle under General Sully against the Sioux about 10 years before Custer. The picnic area and toilets are closed at Initial Rock Interpretive Center.  However, you can walk the gravel roads and two-track trails that will give you a sense of the soldiers’ experiences.

It’s an easy drive today, but 150 years ago, hundreds of foot soldiers and cavalry riders struggled to find passage through the badland terrain and the Little Missouri River. Their challenge was to move wagons filled ammunition, weapons and supplies from the Missouri River south of present-day Mandan to their end point in what is now Montana.

After going through this region, Custer wrote to his wife Libby,

“We found the Little Missouri River so crooked and the Bad Lands so impassable that in marching fifty miles today we forded the river thirty-four times. The bottom is quicksand. Many of the horses went down frequently tumbling their riders into the water; but all were in good spirits, and every one laughed at every one else’s mishaps.”

To get there:

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.

Take exit #32, the Painted Canyon exit from I-94, south to Forest Service Road 739A and then 739.  The route is marked with Custer Trail signs.  You’ll follow Forest Service Roads 762 and 740. The trail winds west, then north to bring you in to the town of Medora.  If you start with a full tank of gas in Belfield, you will have no problem in these back roads areas. Cell phone coverage and of course gas stations are rare to non-existent. 

10. Burning Coal Vein

The rough terrain of the North Dakota Badlands includes towering sandstone hills.

Towering 60 or 70 feet above the trail is a sandstone hill we call Maachu Piccu.

150 miles south of where this list started is one of the older regions of the North Dakota Badlands. The terrain is softer than farther north where we started, at Long X, or at the Little Missouri State Park. (The Little Missouri State Park is not yet open for the season.)  They say that this southern end of the region near Amidon is still in the making. The fire smoldering below ground was obvious from the smell and the smoke to the early settlers 150 years. Burning Coal Vein has since become part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

The elevation is gentle, so if you want to get a first attempt at off road bicycling, this is a good place to start. It is mile marker 1 of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, which is open.  If you want an easy hike, head south from the Burning Coal Vein parking lot.  Pack a lunch and enjoy it on the trail. The picnic area, campground and toilets at the Burning Coal Vein Campground are closed.

To get there:

Located 15 miles west and north of Amidon. About 10 miles south of Belfield take Forest Service Roads 767 and 742 for about 20 miles. Or  a second route is a 14 mile drive northwest of Amidon. From Amidon, go west 2 miles on Highway 85 and turn onto the gravel road. Go west 1 mile and then turn north on road 742 and travel north 9 miles to the campground turnoff sign. The campground is 1 mile east of the sign

A Healthy Bonus Road Trip from Beach to Camp Crook

Marmarth street signs oh Highway 16

Which way do we go? Marmarth, here we come!

healthy crossing

Crossing the Little Missouri River.

A fun drive on a long gravel road is the old Highways 16 drive from Beach to Camp Crook. You may not spend much time with your feet in the outdoors, but the view out your windows will be great. Just east of Beach on Old Highway 10, head south.  You’ll go by or through Golva, and past the abandoned towns of Alpha and Thelan.  The road rides the western ridge of some gorgeous scenery around the Little Missouri River.  It ends up on Highway 12 at Marmarth.

healthy Marmarth

Once Marmarth was the busiest metropolitan in the region with an airport and large rail yard.

From there, it’s just a short drive, again on gravel to Camp Crook.  From there, back to Highway 12, east to Highway 85 or West to Baker, Montana and Highway 7.

Expanded information and photos — and video too — are coming up each week from each of these locations. So, get ready. We’re on a Western North Dakota adventure. We’re out to explore all of these healthy regions and then tell you about them.  The photos and videos will give you a good introduction to these regions. 

Just add your email address to the subscription box so you can get a note in your inbox each time a new article is published.

Or add yourself to the Facebook Page of Beautiful Badlands.  It’s a kind of “clearinghouse” of information for Western North Dakota.


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