Highway 16 Gravel and Hairpin Backroads Down to the River 

Do ya like gravel roads? How about gravel roads that can turn to mud?  Do you avoid them?  How about spring floods?

Marmarth street signs oh Highway 16

A “sign tree?”  It’s the only tree we saw out here. So, which way do we go? Marmarth, here we come!

The very thing that most people avoid is the same thing that attracted us to Highway 16. Dirt roads.  Or this time of year, mud.  We found a bit of it, especially as we took the lesser traveled trails. We’ve been blessed with four-wheel-drive vehicles for both traveled roads and off-roads.  So, we were ready when North Dakota Highway 16 turned to gravel, and later, south of Three V crossing, it turned to mud. But as far as the Three V Crossing, the road was good.

Explore Old Highway 16 south of Golva.

It was getting on to mid-day. We started at 4 that morning, and now would be a good time for a picnic coffee break on the tailgate.  Just click here to see how we got started.

Highway 16 ends

Highway 16 ends and it becomes Old Highway 16 and then the Marmarth Road

But, brrrrr, that wind was cold.  So, we deleted “picnic” from our itinerary — regretfully.  (We will be back when the hills are green, and the birds are singing.)





For the first 3 hours of the drive west, we’d been in darkness with a growing grey sky behind us.

Highway 16 ThelenThelen was photographic at sunrise during the Golden Hour of sunrise. Otherwise, it was unimpressive.  Maybe the abandoned town of Alpha would be better.  It’s always good to have a skilled navigator, a map reader who can dictate the distance and terrain ahead.  She got us where we needed to go — and beyond. Wouldn’t ya know it!  We drove right past Alpha.  When we went through the intersection, I turned my head to watch it disappear behind us.

So, because the road was soft, we turned around at the first driveway at a closed and guarded gate.  Sentries were posted. They did not let us out of their site.   It was cold for us, but not for them. We laughed at the large woolen coats they were wearing.


What’s it all about, Alpha?

Guard llamas at a farm near Alpha.

Okay, where was that building we just went by?  Was that part of Alpha?   To the north was a farmstead.  Was that part of Alpha?  Curiosity seems to have a way of motivating us.  Curious minds want to know. Was that Alpha we went by, or did we miss it?

Highway 16 Alpha Sentinel Butte

The farmstead north of Alpha looks like it’s at the base of Sentinel Butte, but its 12 miles away. That’s how big and tall Sentinel Butte is.

Some places call this a barn at Alpha. It’s not. We found out what the building really is.

Alpha Highway 16

The lone building at Alpha. Is it a barn? A what?

First, curiosity got the best of us, so we stuck our head in the building. Amazing! A gym, stage, concession area, even a piano.

The concert hall/gym at the Alpha Country Club

Alpha Country Club

Alpha Country Club refreshment area — complete with a weight bench at the far end.

“What is this place?” we asked each other. More than once. We walked around the exterior, and there in the concrete was a clue. Whoa!  A country club?  Yes!

Alpha highway 16

Scratched in the concrete outside the building.

There’s not much we could find about Alpha when we got home, except from old Golden Valley Chronical newspapers.  In the old newspaper archive online,  we found the town to be a center of rural population, even if Alpha never showed more than 20 people in town. It was a center of entertainment and dances.  So, it would appear, a dance hall at Alpha, the Alpha Country Club is only fitting.  Made sense!

Golden VAlley newspaper clipping about Alpha North DAkota

Golden Valley Chronical proclaims the Independence Day Celebration at Alpha. Dances and celebrations were the biggest stories to come from Alpha

Back on Highway 16 gravel and hairpin back roads

The Google Global Satellite map shows the further south we went, the more hilly the landscape became with several flowing creeks we had to cross.  The little white road straight east of the blue-marked Highway 16 shows Alpha on the edge of the rugged return to Badlands landscape.

Alpha is straight north of the Three V crossing. It’s in flat or level country that disappears south toward the Little Missouri River.

The road from old 16 to the Three V Crossing is an exciting up and down set of curves on a good gravel road. Extremely scenic.  We didn’t go much over 30 because the road wound around the hills and we were distracted by the scenery.  

highway 16 mule deer

Mule deer here and there along the road watched us drive by.


We’re not sure if we took the right road to get to the crossing. Later we found another route. The one we chose led through the Three V ranch and its hundreds of cattle in feedlots and on the range.

Highway 16 Three V Ranch

Three V cattle graze on the hillside. There are several calves in this photo. How many do you see?

Three V Ranch Highway 16We felt like we were trespassing.  Still, I’ve never seen such a ranch.  (Raised on a livestock farm in Iowa, we had nothing like this. I’d love to do a story on the ranch and its history!)


highway 16 Three V ranch

The road down the hill to the Little Missouri River and the Three V crossing.


There are no bridges across the Little Missouri River in this part of the state. Between Medora and Marmath, if you want to cross the river, you need to find a crossing or a “ford” that has been paved so you can drive across to the gravel road on the other side. 


Down the hill, we went to the Three V Crossing.  This video gives you a few seconds of what the last bit of the drive was like when we came to the Little Missouri River.

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We stopped

At the crossing, we were met with hypnotizing action. One after another, the ice chunks came to the rapids, disappears, reappeared or were broken up entirely.

highway 16 Three V crossing

At the Three V Crossing

  We parked the truck at the edge.  No way we would even think of crossing that water!

Who knew how captivating it would be to watch ice chunks race downstream? The concrete crossing now under several feet of water caused the rapids. We stood there for an hour watching the ice flow through the rapids, disappearing and coming out several yards down steam.

It looked like this:

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We should have been getting tired by now. We’d been at this for 10 hours, but we were still supercharged.  The landscape of the Badlands was only a part of the exploration. What was next?  We were headed to Marmarth on this back road, we knew that but what was in between or beyond?

Next time, geezers and fine dining.  It was all worth it.  You’ll see in Part 3.

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Part 1 is here.

Browse all the images on our Highway 16 exploration.  Be careful, they might make you want to do some exploring yourself!

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