Lemme tell ya a story about crawling into an Ice Cave
This was not my first time, and I’m planning on making sure it is not my last time. But it was a bit unusual.
It first started with getting there. I’ve done it more than one way over the last couple decades. Sometimes I’ve hiked north to the ice caves from the Magpie Campground.
It is about 3.5 miles. It’s a rugged challenge. The round trip takes about 6 hours or more.
This spring, we cheated a little. Instead of a full afternoon hike from Magpie, Mary and I drove the Ice Caves Trail Head. It’s just a mile into Billings County from McKenzie County.
We were happy to see that we weren’t the only ones to venture out to the Ice Caves on a windy Sunday afternoon. For only the third time ever for me, there were other people at the site. Over the years, there was one time I met one person there. Another time, two people. This time there were about half dozen. And that’s what made this adventure different. Other people are discovering the beauty of the Badlands.
The families we talked to said they read about the ice caves in our 10 Places blog.
That’s downright encouraging!
But I am getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back to the “getting there” that is the first challenge for people wanting to get to the caves.
Getting To the Ice Caves
First point of reference to get to the Ice Caves Trail Head is the town or the formation called Grassy Butte. It’s a wonderful little community with people who represent the best of the U.S. – cowboys, ranchers and farmers. We’ve met a lot of good people from Grassy Butte. During business hours, if you need to pick up one or two items, the convenience store could have just what you need.
The butte itself, Grassy Butte, is an historic landmark for cattle drives and explorers over the centuries. The unusual prominent mound can be spotted from miles away. On this trip we used it as a turning point to turn west on McKenzie County Highway #50. (It’s also the Beicegel Creek Road. How it got its name is a humorous story, and the name stuck.)
We drove west on #50 about 6 miles to Scairt Woman Road.
Local legend has it the name “Scairt Woman” comes from the sound of a mountain lion screaming into the night.
The drive is one of our favorites. The road is good, and the scenery interesting. At one point, the Maah Daah Hey trail runs alongside and then crosses the highway.
We turned south at Scairt Woman Road. Even though it’s only about 7 miles south, it took us a while to travel this section. It could be a transportation adventure if it’s even a little rainy. Otherwise, the road is well traveled.
Drat! Old Maps are Deceitful
On this adventure, a couple of things became painfully obvious. One is the uselessness of old roads and maps. The old maps, even those from 2008 are out of date. The routes we used to take do not exist. Much to our chagrin we recommended people get to the ice caves from the routes we used in the past. Those directions did not work for them. Now we know. They dead end, or they are altogether gone. Made a note to self: get rid of the old forest service road maps. Apologies to you if you took one of our errant suggestions. The accurate directions are above, under the heading “Getting to the Ice Caves.”
Rocks and Cattle
We drove through open range, taking it slow where cattle are on the road. Mama cows can be very protective of their youngsters, but they didn’t seem to mind posing for me.
Coming from a livestock farm as a youngster, I like to slow down just to check out the herd. For anyone who drives here, it’s a good respectful practice not to mess with a rancher’s livelihood – his cattle.
Along the way, we found several “Wow! Look at that,” kinds of geology. I’m not a rock hound, yet I’m always interested in what I see in the Badlands. I’ve never come back from a hike without at least one “wow” moment of geology. The textures of the Badlands never disappoint.
Winding through the geology, Scairt Woman Road got rough. Really rough. Also, it isn’t very wide, so when we met another vehicle, someone or both of us had to pull over. In both cases, we stopped and chatted.
One of these stops, his pickup window was down, mine was down. We leaned on the open window and talked about his work maintaining the road. He told us how the deep ruts baked in the mud got there. An oil field crane operator disregarded the weather and the warnings. He got stuck and left deep ruts. He said one of his tasks next week was to try to smooth out the crane ruts.
The Short Route is Easy Enough for Old Folks and Kids
So, like I said, we cheated this time and took the short route. So did families with small children and even a guy recovering from a tough winter –me. I’m not as agile and energetic as I was 25 years ago when I would cross country ski from a ranch up north down to the caves. The reward back then was completion of the ski trip and a big meal at the Little Missouri Grill in Watford City.
The second painful awareness from this trip is I ain’t what I used to be. This last winter was a bit of a setback. I had one heart attack, two cancer surgeries and one busted up clavicle and two broken ribs. (The bone breaks were the result of a surprising fall into a sink hole in the Park.) Never fear. I’m healthy and getting stronger every day! So, by the end of summer, I intend to have this condition improved.
Find the Entrance
It’s easy to walk right past the most accessible entrance to the cave. You almost need to know where to look. So, here’s how you can find it.
Follow the Ice Cave Trail. It passes in front of the entrance. There is a marker post at the entrance, and two flat rocks. It’s on the west end of the aspen grove.
Once you spot the opening below the trail, just dip down and crawl in.
It’s down a slight hill on the west end of the area. Spring runoff and rain flow oozes into the downward entrance. Then, because its cold in there, it freezes. A generation or two ago, families would picnic at the Ice Caves and use the ice from the cave to make ice cream.
I’m sure more than one person getting ready to make ice cream has slipped on the ever-present ice. Even if you are careful and know the potential for a slip, it can still happen.
Back in 2014 we found these maps of the caves, and as soon as we find out where they came from, we’ll include a link so you can visit the site. If you know the source, help us out.
She Slipped and Fell while in an Ice Cave
Mary bounced right back up after this fall:
The north side of the aspen grove and the Ice Caves area is a sheer face of rock.
I’m not sure if there is anywhere else in the Badlands with this kind of stark cut from the grasslands to the badlands terrain. There probably is, I just haven’t found it. So, I’ll put that on my bucket list of targeted locations.
After the cool immersion into the cave we headed back to the parking lot. Mary took the low road. I took the high road. We converged in the grasslands where a careful examination could show long covered wagon ruts headed to a slope down in to the valley.
Back at the parking lot, we enjoyed a picnic lunch before we headed back east.
The Conclusion of the Matter
It’s a fun little family hike from the parking lot, and we’re glad to see families come to the area. When you visit the Ice Caves you are strolling through a rancher’s rangeland. It’s how and where he earns a living. So, be nice.
We don’t like the disrespect some people show to the region by littering. We hope that if you’re out there, you don’t litter, but instead pick up the trash left by disrespectful people.
It’s spring and people are anxious to get outside with their families. Does this include you? We’d love to hear about your adventures, your explorations and see your photos. Hook up with us on Facebook.
We’re off to one of the more challenging flat trails in the Badlands — Bennett Creek.
Unlike some of the trails, it does not go up and down the hills, but it does follow a tricky and very deep cut creek. We’ll tell you about that in our next description of the 10 places in the Badlands that are open for your enjoyment. Be the first to read it when it is published. Just tell us where to send the notice that it is read for you to read. Enter your email address to subscribe. It’s in the box up on the top right.