Imagine a 140-mile trek through the wilderness on a mountain bike, horse or on foot. In North Dakota.
That’s the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Its name is from the Mandan language and means “lasts a long time.” Its steep climbs take you to peaks where you see miles of rolling rugged wilderness. It’s not Central Park. It’s untamed, so keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer and maybe even mountain lions; keep yourself healthy and hydrated. That’s the Maah Daah Hey experience.
Pick up the trail south of the Long X Bridge on Highway 85 south of Watford City. The trail officially starts at the south end near Amidon, North Dakota and ends 140 miles north at the US Forest Service CCC Campground in McKenzie County. You can follow it backward, or just a portion in the middle. It loosely follows the Little Missouri River. Marked sections of the trail and offshoot trails, some only a quarter mile long, are easily traversed by even the most challenged armchair explorer.
It has eight unique segments, each with distinct topography. It has at least six points of access and 10 campgrounds, most with RV access and running water.
The trail is marked with angle-top posts, each one visible from the next point along the way, north or south, mile markers let you know where you are.
The trail was designed and built by the Forest Service and christened in 2000. In some ways, it took 30 years to make the trail a reality – that’s how long it had been discussed. The dream was to connect the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the South Unit near Medora and the North Unit near Watford City. The actual planning and building took about 14 years. It’s a difficult trail to maintain and your tax dollars have not been spent to keep it up. Locals including the Save the Ma Daah Hey trail group sculpt and mow the trail. The group hosts the annual Maah Daah H 100 mountain bike ride — 100-miles in one day. (Last year’s winning time was just under 10 hours!)
Sign posts at the CCC Campground start the trail and are posted alongside the entire distance.
There is no bad time of year to strike out on the trail. Each season presents its own beauty and challenge. Outside of tourist season, you’ll explore a wilderness area that few people experience. It’s a bit more popular in the summer. In 30 years of hiking and horseback riding the region, I’ve encountered fewer than a dozen other people. On the popular points along the trail, once in a great while you’ll see someone.
A note of caution: North Dakota’s legendary afternoon and evening thunderstorms can make your hike thrilling, with phenomenal sites and challenging terrain. So, keep your eye on the sky.
Here are two easy hikes or mountain bike trails near Watford City in McKenzie County that loop on to the Maah Daah Hey: The Long X Trail and the Bennett Creek Trail. Experienced hard core hikers or mountain bikers can do either of them in a few hours. For the rest of us, allow a day.
- Long X Trail is about a 6-mile long loop that starts at the CCC Campground 15 miles south of Watford City. It is a fairly easy hike staying mostly on the bottom ground along the Little Missouri River. About 3 miles west it loops around to the south and come back in on the Maah Daah Hey right where you started—at the CCC Campground.
Tip: Want to see a rare site? The best part of the trail for me is to pick a point on a tall hill and follow the deer trails, the switchbacks that lead to the top. There, you will see a site almost no one ever sees
- The Bennett Creek Trail is accessed south further south on Highway 85. About 6 miles south of the Long X Bridge and CCC Campground, you’ll see the brown recreation marker announcing Bennett Creek campground to the west. You’ll drive through ranch country and National Grasslands, then suddenly drop down in to the Badlands. (The National Grasslands is about 1.2 million acres of Western North Dakota.) Follow the windy gravel road to the Bennett Creek Campground and that’s where the trail starts. It’s about 7-miles long and loops around on the Maah Daah Hey.
I have never met anyone who cannot enjoy at least a portion of the trail. Portions are handicap accessible. All of it is inviting for anyone to enjoy. Some of it is ranks among the most challenging experiences in the world!
Get out there, and get back to me. I’d love to learn of your experiences.