Take a stroll in the Badlands
Think of it as a stroll in a wilderness neighborhood. Just as you might stroll around your village, neighborhood, retail area or local park, that’s what you can do in the Badlands. Here’s how we did it.
1. Pick and Choose
It takes a little planning. Weather and destinations are important to research and know. Once you decide on the when and where you take off for a drive. It could be across the state, or across the county, but chances are you will drive. For some people such as Sandy R. it’s one of her favorite things to do.
In the North Dakota Badlands, you have hundreds of square miles to choose for a destination. From Amidon in the south to Watford City and Killdeer in the north; there are more “strolling” opportunities than you’ll ever be able to sample. And if you need a written permission slip to get away for a few hours, they are posted throughout the miles of public land in the Badlands.
Good places to start are the Long X Trail south of Watford City, Bennett Creek Trail near Grassy Butte, or Burning Coal Vein trail near Amidon.
We chose Magpie. It’s a creek, a valley, a road, and a region.
First, we packed a lunch. We knew we’d be hungry on the way, or when we returned to the truck.
We chose this day because the sun was bright and the temperature was good. So, if you’re going to do any autumn hiking, the weather report is your friend.
3. Visually mark your trip
Along the way look for memorable markers. For us, giant formations such as Castle Rock welcome fall visitors to the North Dakota Badlands. (That’s the formation pictured at the start of this article.)
Getting to the North Dakota Badlands is like waiting for a curtain to be drawn back. You’ll drive across prairies and grasslands. Then, all of a sudden, there is the Badlands!
On this October day, we chose a middle region called Magpie. It’s accessible from Highway 85 almost halfway between Watford City and Belfield. You’ll be very impressed with the 16-mile drive from Highway 85 to the Magpie Campground. We’ve done it several times, and we are always impressed.
Like this recent trip north of the Elkhorn Ranch, we found it was a perfect fall Saturday for this trip. The temperature was perfect for hiking: 50 degrees. Water was flowing in the Magpie Creek, but it was easy to find a crossing.
These kinds of Saturday afternoons in mid-October are perfect to get outdoors — if you can tear yourself away from the sofa and the college football game.
The sun was bright and the sky was blue. Anticipation and excitement ruled our emotions as we headed out. We didn’t know what we’re going to find. So, along the way, as we drove across the grasslands, we watched the landscape get a little more rugged until we dropped down into the Badlands.
Our senses were pinging — sight, sound, smell. The colors in the fall are muted, but varied. The wind and the birds filled our ears with natural tunes.
The scents of autumn fueled our excitement: sage, juniper, cedar, and pure fresh air can be as comforting as grandmas’ fresh-baked bread.
Magpie is a regrowth area following the wildfire that erased the vegetation in 2017.
The valley and the road are named for Magpie Creek. It runs alongside a campground and the Maah Daah Hey Trail. We like it for a starting point because it is centrally located to get to either the ice caves to the north of devils pass to the south. They are two more of our favorite hiking destinations.
Off the beaten path
On this hike, we started by picking a direction and then picking a high-point destination. It’s our habit to get off the beaten path. We let the wildlife show us the way, following deer trails. In areas where cattle graze, the paths will lead up hills with a series of switchbacks.
Along the way, the neighbors stopped to watch, but they quickly turned and went about their business.
Along the way, we always found points of interest. “Oh look at that! An arch!”
A study of the Badlands is a study in wind and water erosion. Those two powerful forces scour the landscape and leave unusual natural sculptures.
We know from the top we’ll get massive views of miles and miles of landscape.
The reward is more than the stunning views; it’s a huge sense of accomplishment to turn around to see how far you have come. What looked like an insurmountable climb was conquered. Part of the reward is the boost to confidence and satisfaction from overcoming a natural challenge. Endorphins are bubbling.
Once at the top, we picked a fast route back to the starting point.
That’s the advantage of high point views, you can see things you can’t see from the low point — such as faster routes home.
Excited, stimulated, refreshed
At the top, the moment is celebrated by sitting quietly scanning the horizon we absorb the vegetation, the terrain, the forces of nature against the earth.
We don’t race. In three hours on this autumn hike, we covered a little over two miles out and back, and an elevation change of slightly more than 200 feet.
The most important part about getting back is finding your way — in the daylight. Do not stay out too long, especially on an autumn hike. It gets dark fast this time of year. The key is to turn around and look back every few minutes so you can recognize the route back to your starting point.
We recommend autumn hiking. The temperature is perfect — not too hot, not too cold. The sun is warm and the air is refreshing. Take more water than you think you will drink. Take a blanket to sit on, and don’t sit on a cactus!
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And if you’re planning a visit, time it to one of the events on our Things To Do calendar — the most comprehensive calendar in the west!