Lemme tell ya about one of my favorite day trips from Watford City I call it the Long Loop. It wraps around T Roosevelt’s ranch and hunting area.
Scan the itinerary. Then, go ahead and print out or save this map:
TR Ranched Here
Theodore Roosevelt cut a wide swath in life and in the Badlands.
This Long Loop covers the ground where TR ranched and hunted. The western side of this loop follows the western edge of his territory as a member of the Little Missouri Stock Growers Association. He and the Marquis d’ Mores were two members who monitored grazing conditions and forcibly kept a check on cattle rustlers and horse thieves along the Montana Territory and Dakota Territory border
In many of his books, you’ll find references to roundups and hunts between Dickinson, ND and Terry, MT. It’s the area that turned an asthmatic bespectacled fellow into a tough rough rider.
He wrote that along about June 1, ranches along the Yellowstone would take turns with their spring roundups. Roosevelt was done with his, so he took his hands and wagon to the Yellowstone to round up cattle.
What I find most incredible is that the Long Loop does not begin to cover all the ground Theodore Roosevelt ranched, rode, and hunted. But it’s a rough survey of the outer limits of his Elkhorn Ranch and surrounding areas where his cattle grazed.
It all starts at the Hub of the Badlands, Watford City.
I usually do it on a motorcycle — all day to get around TR’s “home turf” when he lived at Elkhorn Ranch.
They say a $50 bill in your pocket and a full tank of gas is heaven to a biker. And this route helps make it heavenly.
It’s the very area Roosevelt wrote about in his books like Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. It can be done by car or motorcycle.
It’s a favorite of motorcyclists., in fact It’s one of our top day rides on motorcycles. Year after year, we’ve talked to riders from Williston, Minnesota, or even Canada who ride the Badlands and National Grasslands.
This trip delivers remarkable history and adventures in the largest national grasslands in America, over one million acres of natural grasslands.
We call it the “Long Loop,” and here’s why:
The Long loop – Circling TR’s hunting and ranching land in the National Grasslands
The route is 250 miles of National Grasslands, Badlands, oil, and ranch country. The full day of sightseeing begins and ends in the Badlands Hub, Watford City. The land has changed little since the 1880s when Roosevelt hunted here.
All of this was where Roosevelt ran cattle, rounded up outlaws, and hunted to his heart’s delight. TR rode horseback for days searching out cattle and calves from draws and valleys in this region. He hunted this area where you are going and he wrote extensively about hunting deer, mountain goats, and antelope.
1. Long X Visitor Center or Kum and Go
A good place to start the Long Loop is at the intersection of the gas station and Visitor Center. We’ll return to this exact point at the end.
Head west to get on the Highway 85 bypass westbound. (Muscle memory gets me at this point. I’m used to just riding west on the straight highway out of town. That doesn’t work anymore. Dead end.)
Through Arnegard on past Alexander (20 miles)
Slow down for Arnegard. A cop is often posted on one side or the other of Arnegard to catch speeders.
At the stoplight at the travel center, curve north to loop around Alexander.
Back in “the day,” Alexander was a welcome stop for a cool drink of water at the town well. The well is still there, offering pure cold spring water.
The bypass is a beautiful road surface fresh from its construction. Four lanes for easy traffic negotiation. The route sails through small grain fields, canola fields, and oil fields.
2. Tunnel and Lift Bridge (41 miles)
North of Alexander, turn off 85 and continue west on Highway 200 for the tunnel and lift bridge. Notice the terrain begins to change, gets rockier. Also, more oil wells.
Just ahead is one of the most remarkable construction stories in the nation. The Cartwright Tunnel and the Fairview Liftbridge. Both were built about 50 years after Roosevelt was here. Read more here.
Did you know the bridge was both a car and train bridge? They took turns crossing. Of course, the train always got first dibs on using the bridge.
This is a hard temptation to pass up when we ride. We pull into Sundheim Park, head up to the parking lot and walk out on the bridge. (I’m glad to see the guard rail was repaired at the top of the parking lot. Someone tried to outrun the cops by going up here, crashed through the railing, and…. well, you know.)
The bridge is about a quarter-mile long. The Tunnel is about the same length. Together they are about a half-mile from end to end, or one mile out and back.. The walk always leaves a big impression on us: the immensity of the tall tunnel, built by hand, the complexity of the lift bridge allowing steamboats to pass underneath.
Back on the road, head west from the bridge through both Fairview and Sidney. They are good places to stop for food or fuel.
3. Montana Highway 16
Here at Sidney is what we’ve been looking for: the scenic Highway 16. It’s quite rare in these parts. Rugged hills mark the western edge of the valley. On the east side of us is the Yellowstone River flows north to the confluence with the Missouri River. Roosevelt writes of roundups he was in here with fellow neighboring ranchers. All along the valley is a huge irrigation system Roosevelt pushed for completion. He ranked it right up there with the Panama Canal.
Read about it here:
Look for agates
The river valley is a good place for agates. So, when we have time, we stop along the river to try our luck at finding agates. I’m not much good at finding them but Mary seems to find one or two. An agate shop about halfway between Glendive and Sidney is a good place for agate shopping.
4. The Other Badlands (64 miles)
Glendive is the halfway point on the Long Loop. And that’s good because here we get food, fuel, and beverages to quench our thirst. One of our favorite things to do is to grab picnic fixings from one of the grocery stores, head over to the southeast part of town and the famous Makoshika State Park. It’s another look at Badland’s, you’ll see it’s slightly different from the North Dakota Badlands. It’s picnic time at one of the picnic tables on the far end, in the trees. For me, that also means nap time. It’s nice and quiet.
Roosevelt knew the Makoshika Badlands as a rancher, helping fellow ranchers find their cows and calves in draws and ravines. He also knew the area as a member of the Miles City Stockman’s Association
The route from Glendive to Medora is Interstate time. For a few minutes, the speed limit is Montana-style – 80-miles-an an hour. It comes down to 75 mph in North Dakota. So, it doesn’t take long to get to Medora for a stroll around the tourist town, and the souvenir shops. Ice cream is a big draw for both families and bikers.
Sentinel Butte (8 miles)
10 miles east of Beach is one of the tallest points in the state, Sentinel Butte. Wherever T Roosevelt ranched or hunted in the area, he got his placement and reckoning from Sentinel Butte, the tall, flat top. Much of the top is private property, but there’s a good portion of public ground with a monument marker to the two Arikara who died while on lookout. You can drive to the top and see for miles. (Read more here)
5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park (62 miles)
If you buy a pass to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park here at the south unit, you can wind your way through the south unit. Then, hang on to it because it will get you into the north unit, later.
Wildlife abounds here. All of them were part of Roosevelt’s experience when he ranched here a the Maltese Cross Ranch and the Elkhorn Ranch. Just like TR, you could see bison, prairie dogs, and horses. Maybe a coyote or an elk. (Admittedly, bison were scarce when Roosevelt was here. They were nearly hunted out. It was the trigger event for him to become a leading conservationist.)
Visitors find more than one scenic stop for selfies and memory shots. The scenic drive around the park interior is in much-needed repair. Parts of it slid down the hill. Now engineers are designing and building a long new section of road to withstand the slumps that make the Badlands famous. Read more here.
While you are here, notice the “pyramids.” The free-standing hills or badlands humps. The Medora stop on the rail line in the 1800s called this Pyramid Park.
The exploration in the south unit will add about 2 hours to your travel time – depending on how many bison stop you on the road.
South Unit to North Unit (69 miles)
The day is long now, so from Medora, head east for a few miles to Belfield. Another good place for food and fuel. It’s the last good place until you reach Watford City.
Heading north on Highway 85 we’re back in the million-acre national grasslands until about 20 miles south of Watford City. Then, it’s back to the Badlands, with a long curvy road to the bottom and the Little Missouri River.
6. The North Unit
Here, the sculpting of the Badlands is more rugged and deeper than at the south unit. The cuts here from the prairie river are about 500 feet. They were about 300 feet in the south unit.
It’s a region Roosevelt wrote extensively in several books. And it’s also the famed location where he grabbed a couple of outlaws and marched them to jail. In Dickinson. Several days hike.
The two units of the national park are different. The north unit is smaller than the south unit, so it’s a bit more intimate. You’re likely to get a good photograph of bison in the north unit. I’ve had to stop and drop my kickstand when a herd of bison slowly ambled across the road and traffic stopped to let them. The 13-mile scenic loop is not a round trip, but an in and out 13-mile drive.
7. Head for Home on the Long Loop (15 miles)
It looks like this when you head for home:
Leaving the north unit, we’re on the last leg. Cruise up the hill to the north. Once on top, the entire world seems to change. It’s back to the million-acre National Grasslands for about 15 minutes and into Watford City. (On a motorcycle, we’re ready to put our knees back together again. In a car, we’re getting ready to eat.)
For us, one of our choices is not too far into town for our evening meal stop, Los Saguaros restaurant is the first option.
Back to our room and we flop down on the bed. Our minds are busy recounting the sites we’ve seen, and our bodies are tired. It is going to be a good night’s sleep tonight for sure.
The Long Loop is the longest of the itineraries at the Long X Visitor Center. We look forward to sampling them and writing about them. We already know at least one takes visitors to the peaceful, relaxing Birnt Hills..
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