Do what is says on National Take a Hike Day

It’s a day when you can get away with telling someone to “go take a hike.”  The day gets national attention, but it’s even better when you do what it says. Take a hike. A National Forest Service Map will show you thousands of miles of Badlands that are public ground and open to hiking.  However, when it’s been wet, like this year (2019) it’s best to stick to marked trails.  The clay is super-slippery, sinkholes are opening up and if you aren’t careful; you can slip into someplace you’d rather not be.

So, with that in mind, here are three trails that are easy to access and get you out and back quickly (and three tips to help you make it a good experience).

The trails are marked for the easiest and longest route.  You can take shortcuts that will increase the challenge but decrease the time.  You can also turn around before the end of the trail to decrease time spent hiking.

1. Burning Coal Vein/Juniper Spur

Find it 15 miles north and west of Amidon.

Length: About two miles, round trip hike. Allow 60 to 90 minutes.

The start

The road to the Burning Coal Vein parking area passes through the campground, across a cattle guard and up the hill.

The road to the Burning Coal Vein parking area passes through the campground, across a cattle guard, and up the hill.

The nearby campground has a vault toilet and picnic table shelters.

 Just up the hill from the campground, a couple of hundred yards is the parking lot for the Burning Coal Vein and Juniper Spur.

 You can go north on the Maah Daah Hey, but for a last-minute hike, we recommend going south on Juniper Spur. 


The National Grasslands border the North Dakota Badlands at the Burning Coal Vein

From the start of the Burning Coal Vein/Juniper Spur trail, it’s easy to see the differences between the National Grasslands and the North Dakota Badlands.

The trail

The trail is easily accessed, very visible and even includes steps on the steeper grades.  It’s a super-easy hike, but you don’t have to stick to the trail if you want to increase the length or the challenge of your hike.

We found that it is a good place to take a stab at bicycling the Maah Daah Hey — at least a few miles.

The highlight

An interesting point to see: North Dakota’s version of Machu Picchu. A tall, sandy hill that stands apart from the rest of the landscape.

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 Machu Picchu.


2. Bennett Creek 

Find it 7 miles north of Grassy Butte on Highway 85 and 4 miles west.

Length: About 5 miles. Allow 4 hours

The start

It’s a gorgeous drive to the Bennett Creek campground where the trail starts.  Just before the final descent into the valley, you’ll be tempted to pull over and photograph the view, and the remaining road winding down in the valley.  The trailhead is a favorite starting point for horseback riders and you’ll find corrals and watering holes for horses.

A Bennett Creek Trail marker.

Bennett Creek Trail markers are easy to see and follow. They follow easier terrain and elevation for mountain bikes, but hikers can take rugged shortcuts, keeping an eye out for the trail markers.


The trail

This is one of our favorite early-season/out-of-shape hikes, a good hike along the bottom of the Bennett Creek Valley.

Walking the Bennett Creek Trail along the creek bank next to a high wall.

The Bennett Creek Trail follows the creek. In the spring the creek has more water. In the fall, it’s easy to cross.

You can start where the trail begins, or take shortcuts down and up ravines to shorten the distance. You’ll cross the creek at least once, but in the fall, there is little or no water in it. It’s easy to get across, stepping from rock to rock.

The highlight

About a half-mile into the hike, the terrain gets very steep and rugged.  If you stay on the valley floor you’ll have no problems. Go up if you want to challenge yourself to get an immense and unforgettable view.  Follow deer trails that switchback on the face of the hill to get to a good viewing point.

The Bennett Creek Trail heads west along the valley floor of the Bennett Creek.

The Bennett Creek Trail follows the valley floor, but a climb up a nearby hill provides a good overview of where the trail is headed west.


3. Long X trail/Maah Daah Hey loop  

Find the Long X Trail 15 miles south of Watford City on Highway 85, east 2 miles of gravel on the south side of the Little Missouri River.

Length: about 5 miles round trip hike. Allow 4 hours.

The start

The CCC Campground marks the start of the trail. There, you’ll find ample parking, picnic tables, vault toilet, and a well-marked trail entrance.  This is the north end of the 140-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail.

The end of the Maah Daah Hey trail is marked with a metal post above the CCC Campground in the North Dakota Badlands.

The metal post marks the end of the Maah Daah Hey Trail at the CCC Campground and the Long X trail.

The trail

Like the Bennett Creek trail, this trail follows a valley floor, the southern side of the Little Missouri River Valley.  You’ll go up and down slight elevation changes.  You can cut across the longer loops, across ravines to shorten the length from one point on the trail to the next.

The highlight

Across the river, to the north is the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  From the Long X trail, you’ll get a view of the park that few people know about.  In the park, it’s difficult to judge the size and distance of bluffs, buttes, and hills.  From the Long X trail, you can better see how rugged is the Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota is blessed by one of the most spectacular national parks.  It’s well cared for and can accommodate any level of hiker.

In the south unit, for example, there is handicap accessible Boicourt Trail and Buck Hill trail.

For the more adventurous is Badlands Spur

And if you’re in good shape, try the Jones/Talkington/Paddock loop

In the North Unit, we like the Caprock Coulee Trail. The Buckhorn and the Achenbach are a bit more of a challenge


The North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is across the Little Missouri River from the CCC Campground and the Long X trail.

Across the valley floor and the Little Missouri River is the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


Last-minute hiking tips:

  1. Know for certain the exact time of sunset. Starting out, calculate the time until sunset so you can be on the return leg of your hike when your time is half over.  It gets dark fast, and cold too, if you are out past dark.  Layer up. You can shed clothes if you get warm, or add clothes as the temperature falls close to sunset.


  1. Take water. It’s easy to think that since it’s not hot, you won’t need water.  Yes, you do need water!  Take snacks, too, so you can sit and enjoy the autumn air and colors while you re-hydrate.


  1. Be visible. It’s hunting season.  The odds of you getting between a hunter and the hunted target are very slim.  Just to be sure, you want to be seen.  Wear blaze orange or safety green that you can buy at a sporting goods store or an equipment/tool store that handles reflective clothing.

What are other quick fall hikes that you like?

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