Meet you at the top!

Normally I think of hiking and climbing as a summer activity like in the photo above. The mild weather this winter though, means hiking and climbing are a 12-month healthy family activity.  As I write this, temps this weekend are expected to be 45 to 50 degrees in the Badlands.

A challenge like this, stimulates my energy for days. So, even the every day challenges such as getting out of bed on time. At least that’s a challenge for me. And for those big climbing challenges, I get a huge reward.

It doesn’t have to be a huge challenge.  Even a recipe is a challenge, so is driving anywhere — avoiding the other nuts on the road. Like my uncle stressed when I was learning to drive, “You gotta drive 10 percent for yourself and 90 percent for the other guy.” Driving for the other guy?  Now THAT’S a challenge.

And the cool thing is, when I succeed in the challenge, the recipe, the road trip, the morning routine — I feel good about it.

That’s what happens when I head to the millions of acres of challenges in the North Dakota Badlands.

Boicourt Trail starts easy and can turn in to a challenge

It’s an easy stroll to the end of the trail — if you are not afraid of heights.

It starts when I step out of my pickup at a trailhead. All my sense perk up. An electric buzz of excitement charges me. Even on an easy trail such as the Long X Trail. Click here to see how you can do it, too.

The sound of the outdoors. The smell of sage and juniper. Right in front of me is a challenge of beautiful landscape. I instantly want to get to it, immerse myself in the hills, ridges, slopes, cliffs and walls of the Badlands. The challenge has started — where to go.


Pick a Peak

woman hikes up rock wall of a hill in the Badlands of North Dakota.

You’re right.  Good grips on your boots will help you to the top.

The pickup door slams. We strap on our gear — fanny pack, back pack, or waist pack, bottle carriers, cameras.

The best views are from the top, right? So the challenge I face is how do you get there? 

In the Badlands, there are several ways to get the best views. Mary is grinning. I’m grinning.  Anyone who is along is grinning.  It’s a grin of excitement and satisfaction.

So, we pick a peak. We walk and look. As we walk we see wildlife paths zigzagging up a hill. That could be a possibility.

Or we see two hills joined by a sloping saddle. If we can figure out how to get to the top, we will be rewarded. From the bottom of the hill, we estimate what the view must be from up there.  And that’s the challenge. How to get there.

Imagine the workout you will get if you find the right hillside to climb.

We pick a peak and go. Any time of the year works — even in winter.  (Or especially in winter!)


All ages

You don’t have to be Sir Edmund Hillary to get to the top of the world in the Badlands.

Oliver, my grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Over the years, I introduced my pre-school children to the hills.  My oldest son, now 40, got his first taste of Badlands hiking before he was two years old.  We hiked the lower level of the Cannonball Concretions Trail in the north unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The giant round rocks were as big as a planet to that little fellow.

So, over the years, I get kids involved and we go head to head with a physical challenge of fun – especially with a reward at the end, like a smores fest.


Go with your kids

If your peak-climbing partners are youngsters pick a smaller slope and let them burn off that youthful energy. If they are Preschoolers, or elementary-age kids, practice their Spiderman techniques.  When my grandson was just old enough to start school, his mother and I introduced him to the challenges she tackled when I took her to the Badlands. He became spiderman.

What a generational heritage to pass on!  

climbing a badlands hill

Who needs a plastic playground when you have a National Park to explore?

It’s okay, mom, if they get their jeans or shirts dirty, crawling, or sliding.  It’s part of the adventure. Kids learn by touch and by doing.  Sure, they’ll bring home some scuffed jeans and knees, but that’s an intimate encounter that connects kids to the environment. Imagine what it’s like for a youngster who comes up on a wall of rivulets.

how to photograph the beautiful badlands

What does it take to get up and over this section of a hillside?

Now that’s a climbing challenge that the school monkey bars cannot match. They will use their arms, their legs, their back, their hands to find a way up.


Go as a group

So, as a group, pick one high point to climb. Make it one that’s a challenge, but not too difficult. 

Or agree to circle round and hook up at the midpoint.


Meet in the middle

When we split up, we each pick a ridge to reach, one that ends up at the same hilltop. Along the way we check out each other’s progress, keeping an eye on each other to see what kind of challenges they are facing. 

This winter at Devils Pass, Mary crossed over on the saddle connecting the two hills, and then had the courtesy to kindly wave at me 100 feet below her.

We did that at Devils Pass in early December.  I went down the loose soil of the hillside, Mary went around the top. We met back at the pickup truck.  

It was a maximum challenge for me and I would not recommend it unless you are very physically fit and adept at sliding, jumping, crawling, vaulting your way to the next stopping point — hopefully one that will hold your weight and not crumble.  My goal was to find how deep is the valley at the bottom of Devils Pass. I estimated 100 to 150 feet. I didn’t make it to the bottom, but at 184 feet, I stopped.

Imagine that challenge: 184 feet of near sheer cliff face. Slip down that and you are tumbling down a 12-story building.


How to make it challenging

So, here it is: If you are in for a really big challenge, pick a tall hill. Some of the highest peaks in the state are in the Badlands, grouped near each other.  White Butte, Bullion Butte, Black Butte, Camels Hump, Chimney Butte.

High points such as Camel Hump, Bullion Butte and White Butte are on private ground, so don‘t trespass. But the high points in the national park are accessible. In the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, pick a peak such as the Matterhorn, or the peak on Caprock Coulee trail.

One of the toughest challenges is Chimney Butte.

A challenge to climb Chimney Butte in Emerald Green of the Grasslands and Badlands, North Dakota

Summer in the badlands and grasslands of western North Dakota and eastern Montana can yield a world of emerald green against a vibrant background of blue summer skies.

rocks are a challenge on Chimney Butte

Climbing what looks like an easy grassy slope to the top can be interrupted like this rock face on Chimney Butte.

The butte itself on public ground, but the base of the hill is private. Be as respectful as you would expect someone to be when crossing your lawn. Permission is freely granted to cross the hundred yards or so to the public ground – but don’t mess it up for others.  Do not litter or destroy private property such as fences.


Take these things for a successful hiking/climbing challenge

  • Take water. You will get thirsty.
  • Take breaks.  Climbing is good hard exercise
  • Take your camera. The views are unmatched. 
  • Take note of where you started and feel good about how far you have come to get to the top.







At the top of the climb

When I get to the top of a challenging hill in the Badlands, I’m pooped.  So, that’s all the incentive I need to sit and bask in undisturbed nature.  Sometimes when Mary and I meet up, we will park ourselves at a spectacular view and just sit.

mother bison and calf

Mom takes baby back to the herd.

One spring, in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, our long break at the top meant more than lots of water and a snack. It meant spying a newborn buffalo calf.  It lay in the grass a few yards from mom.  As the time rolled on, she got the calf up and going and they wandered off. 

Bison Calf Rouses From Sleep. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota April 2019

Bison Calf Rouses From Sleep.


The challenge of climbing down

the challenge of going down

Going down a hill can be as big a challenge as going up.

This is another challenge. As you might guess, the trip to the bottom is generally faster. On the way up, we look for short cuts to take down the hill. It seems counter-intuitive, but the way down the hills is trickier than the way up. 

Getting down is when I am most likely to fall.

Slippery Slopes in the Badlands!

Although the ground appeared dry and stable, moisture remained just under the surface crust. ‘Oily’ and ‘Greasy’ describe the badlands under such circumstances. On a slope, you will slide!

Especially if I’m worn out from the climb up. The hand of gravity is on firmly on my back pushing me a bit faster or farther than I’m ready for.  So, each step means hitting the brakes because once a tumble starts, it’s hard to stop. Imagine that. Going downhill is a challenge. So, this is the time to be most careful.


At the bottom

The views from the top are their own reward. Some of our most memorable sites and experiences in the Badlands have been after a long climb and a quiet spell at the top. We carry the visual images in our minds. Once we get to the bottom, it’s time for a picnic ground for an easy meal or snack. Mostly we are thirsty.  If we are with a group. we like to  make it a s’mores-fest.

A rugged heating system is a bonus if you’ve picked a peak made it to the top and back down on a winter’s day.

Here’s my promise.  Endorphins. The reward.  Like getting up on time in the morning, or making your bed, you will have started the day with an accomplishment.  When you pick a peak, you will have set a huge challenge in front of you and faced it. You’ll be so full of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals your body makes  Endorphins have a way of flooding your body – so much so that you will want to do it again.

Stay tuned for more family ideas

Whether it’s school vacation time, or the need to break free from long-distance learning, Beautiful Badlands is coming up with ideas for you to get outdoors, get some fresh air, get exercise and respect social distancing.

Think “smores fest,” or Ice Caves for ideas that even the youngest of your family can experience.



And while you’re enjoying the quality of life in western North Dakota, stop in one of the local small businesses to snack, eat and shop.  Take home memories!killdeer restaurant ad

More adventures you can take — sign up to find out

Coming up we’ll be highlighting different activities, adventures and explorations.  Sign up to be the first to know when a new idea is posted.  You’ll get a note in your inbox.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are the Badlands open?  Yes the Badlands are open.  Running up the center of the nation’s larges National Grasslands is the rugged terrain of the North Dakota Badlands.  As long as the roads are not drifted shut or mudded up, you can drive to any of the trailheads or campsites.  The small towns in the region such as Killdeer, Watford City, Beach and Belfield are open for business.

Is the Theodore Roosevelt National Park open in the winter? Yes it is. The entrance fee is collected at the visitor center instead of the entry kiosk.  Once inside the visitor center, maps and brochures will show you the best places to explore in the National Park.

Can I hike and climb anywhere in the Badlands? It’s all ranchland and cattle graze everywhere. Much of it is privately owned, so respect their home property as much as you want people to respect your home. However, the National Forest Service maps show public ground where you can hike and explore.  The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is open year round for hiking or snow activities such as cross country skiing and snowshoeing. 
Ad speaking engagement