Bikers ride this motorcycle day-trip following a route where Theodore Roosevelt hunted and ranched.
They start at the Hub of the Badlands, Watford City.
It’s one of the best motorcycle day-trips in western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
Bikers Circle the TR Stomping Ground
Theodore Roosevelt cut a wide swath in life and in the Badlands. It’s easy to see why bikers like to ride through Roosevelt’s stomping grounds.
Every year, we meet bikers who come to North Dakota to ride the region where TR hunted and ranched. He rode horse on cattle roundups and hunting trips from the Rockies to the Missouri River, from the Canadian Line well into South Dakota.
That’s why this route is so big. It circles his home turf.
TR Ranched Here
TR the “enforcer”
What I find most incredible is that this loop only begins to cover all the ground Theodore Roosevelt ranched, rode, and hunted. So, it’s a rough survey of the outer limits of his Elkhorn Ranch and surrounding areas where his cattle grazed.
Roosevelt and the Marque d’Mores belonged to the Little Missouri Stock Growers Association. They monitored grazing conditions and kept in touch with other ranchers. Sometimes, they also acted as law enforcement, forcibly keeping a check on cattle rustlers and horse thieves. As part of the Association, they patrolled the Montana Territory and Dakota Territory border.
Once you ride this area, it becomes easy to see where bad guys could hang out. (In fact — at one place on this motorcycle day-trip route, riders go by a spot where the Fort Buford payroll wagon was robbed. But that’s a different story.)
It’s a 250-Mile Motorcycle Day-Trip
The motorcycle day-trip 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 and wrote extensively about hunting deer, mountain goats, and antelope here in the grasslands and badlands. His book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail covers this same area as on this motorcycle day-trip.
1. Start — Long X Visitor Center
A good place to start the Long Loop is at the Visitor Center at the south end of Watford City’s Main Street. If you follow this route, you’ll return to this exact point at the end.
First, head west to get to the intersection and stop light on the Highway 85 bypass westbound.
2. Through Arnegard on past Alexander
Slow down for Arnegard. A cop is often posted on one side or the other of Arnegard to catch speeders.
Highway 85 turns north at the stoplight and the travel center. Follow the curve north to loop around Alexander. You won’t go into town, but will follow the bypass around Alexander.
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.
3. Tunnel and Lift Bridge
Follow Highway 200
North of Alexander, turn off 85 and continue west on Highway 200 to get to 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 why they are so amazing
Dual Purpose Bridge
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, then walk out on the bridge.
The bridge is about a quarter-mile long. The Tunnel is about the same length. Together, 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 then south through Sidney. They are good places to stop for food or fuel. Learn more about Sidney by clicking this link.
4. 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 is the Yellowstone River. It flows north to the confluence with the Missouri River. Roosevelt writes of roundups nearby when he worked with fellow neighboring ranchers.
Roosevelt’s Yellowstone Irrigation System
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 them. 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, at Savage, is a good place for agate shopping.
5. The Other Badlands
Glendive is the halfway point. And that’s good because here you can 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.
Roosevelt knew the Makoshika Badlands as a rancher. It’s said that he helped fellow ranchers find their cows and calves in draws and ravines there. He also knew the area as a member of the Miles City Stockman’s Association
Get on Interstate 94 and head east back to North Dakota. For a few minutes, the speed limit is Montana-style – 80-miles-an-hour. Then, it comes down to 75 mph in North Dakota.
At the state line, the first thing you’ll come to is a truck stop at Beach.
Ten miles east of Beach is one of the tallest points in the state, Sentinel Butte. Wherever Roosevelt ranched or hunted in the area, he got his bearings from Sentinel Butte, with its 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 sentinels who died here while on lookout. It’s a tricky gravel road to the top not good for motorcycles. (Read more here)
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 bikers.
6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park — South Unit
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 on this motorcycle day-trip.
Wildlife abounds here. All were part of Roosevelt’s experience when he ranched here at 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. (Bison were scarce when Roosevelt was here. They were nearly hunted out. It was the trigger event for him to become a leading conservationist.)
Park your bike at one of the pulloffs. You’ll find more than one stop for selfies and memory shots.
Repairs to the Road
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. Historically, in the 1800s, the Medora stop was called “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
The day is long now, so from Medora, head east for a few miles to Belfield where you will turn north. Belfield is another good place for food and fuel either right there at the junction of 85 and I-94, or downtown in Belfield.
Heading north on Highway 85 we’re back in the million-acre national grasslands until about 20 miles south of Watford City when the Badlands appear, again. It’s a nice ride down the long curvy road to the bottom and the Little Missouri River.
7. Theodore Roosevelt National Park — North Unit
Here, the sculpting of the Badlands is more rugged and deeper than at the south unit. The cuts here at the north unit drop down from the prairie to the river about 500 feet. The drop was about 300 feet in the south unit.
It’s a region Roosevelt wrote about 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 14-mile scenic loop is not a round trip, but it is an in-and-out 28-mile drive.
8. Back to the Hub of the Badlands — Watford City
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.
Lots of good places to eat at the end of your ride. Hardees, Smiling Moose Deli, Little Missouri Grille, Outlaws, and Stonehome Brewing Company.
In recent years, Watford City has pulled itself up by its bootstraps to be a modern big city with small town hospitality. We like to stay there often. There is much to do, to make it a weekend get way.
Watford City is a good place to spend the night. Our favorite hotel is the Roosevelt Inn and Suites. It has balcony rooms, and even hot tub rooms.
Optional Motorcycle Day-ride: the Famous Highway 22
While you’re in western North Dakota on a motorcycle motorcycle day-trip and looking for a good ride, here’s one. It’s pretty famous among bikers. The state pushes it as a scenic drive: North from Dickinson to Killdeer on Highway 22, past Mandaree and then over to New Town. It’s North Dakota’s most famous and most enjoyable scenic drive. It’s a good sample of the million-acre Grasslands, and a good sample of the Badlands at Lost Bridge.
Overall, traffic is heavier than it was 20 yeas ago, but nothing like it was 10 years ago. Passing lanes have been built, curves improved. A couple of roundabouts added. So, the upgrades help make Highway 22 from Dickinson to New Town a good biker ride.
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Frequently Asked Questions:
Where can I buy good gas for my motorcycle day-trip?
Watford City has several stations with 91 octane fuel. Sidney, Glendive, Beach, and Belfield also have high grade fuel for motorcycles.
How good is cellphone coverage in the Badlands?
It is sketchy. Usually if you are in sight of a community (Killdeer, Watford City, Grassy Butte, Sidney, etc.) you can get cellphone reception.
What is oil field traffic like in the Badlands?
It’s not much different than if you were riding during harvest near a community with a grain terminal. There will be trucks, but the roads are good, there are passing lanes, and visibility overall is good enough to be safe.
Day trips in cars is part of the Badlands experience. The most popular is Beach to Belle Fourche on backroads.
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