We kept track. Readers told us where they want to go, and so these six Badlands road trip destinations are added to our list of top Badlands attractions. ( I guess that makes them Destinations #11-16 according to our readers.)
Badlands Road Trip Destination #1
Indian Scout Cemetery
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think I’m the only one. When I park outside the gate and walk into the Indian Scout Cemetery near White Shield, I feel like I’m walking into a very special place. My dear friends who are members of the MHA Nation consider this sacred ground.
Why: Indian Scouts from the three tribes, (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) accompanied General Custer when the U.S. Army fought the mutual enemy of the MHA Nation. They have continued their role as scouts through every military action by the U.S. up to and through Afghanistan. Many of those scouts are buried here at the Indian Scout Cemetery between Garrison and White Shield.
Where: On the north side of Highway 1804 15 miles west of Garrison, about 40 miles west of U.S. Highway 83.
Tip: Members of the MHA Nation are extremely proud of their military service. Special recognition is given to people such as Chairman Mark Fox, a Marine, to Nathan Goodiron (Mandaree native who died in the Global War on Terror), to the veteran auxiliary. Each gravesite at the Indian Scout Cemetery holds great significance to the families and so you will likely see objects left at graves to honor the dead.
Badlands Road Trip Destination #2
Little Missouri River
I love this little river. It’s far more important than its size. It can be a fickle high and low River. I’ve seen it raging with ice chunks, and I’ve cross country skied it. In dry summers, I cross it in my pickup truck.
It holds a great place in U.S. Western History. Trail drives, sheep ranches, outlaw hangouts, the Little Missouri River flows with stories. It starts at Devils Tower in Wyoming and cuts through the North Dakota Badlands to the Missouri River between Mandaree and Killdeer.
Why: Geologists say the Little Missouri River was shaped and directed by glaciers. At one time, it allegedly flowed straight north toward Williston until glacial deposits cut off the northward flow and forced it to turn sharply west, south of Watford City. That’s where the Long X Ranch was established, where T. Roosevelt caught the boat bandits and herded them to Dickinson, and where the Maah Daah Hey today weaves along and across the river – when it’s ankle-deep or waist-deep.
Where: Highway 12 crosses the Little Missouri River at Marmarth. Road trippers follow along the river north to Sentinel Butte and Medora. Then, the gravel road known as East River Road follows it farther north. A detour away from the river to the east, and back to the river on Magpie Road, and Blacktail Road. That is where a crossing through the water on a ford is possible in a suitable vehicle.
The Long X Bridge at Highway 85 is a few yards south of the Long X Road that follows the river toward Killdeer. At Killdeer, Highway 22 crosses the river at the Lost Bridge.
Tip: A few weeks in spring, mostly May and early June, the river is deep enough for canoes and kayaks. Later in the year, it is barely a trickle. So, if you want to float it, do it in spring. If you want to cross it, do it in late summer. This video shows that it’s not very deep, but you do need to be cautious.
Badlands Road Trip Destination #3
Bison spotting at Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Why: Even though I’ve been photographing them for 30 years, I still get excited about a special video or photo opportunity. They are amazing beasts. Once nearly exterminated by careless hunters in the 1880s, bison herds have been strategically rebuilt for over 100 years.
Where: Drive the scenic drive in either the north or south unit. Do not approach bison. Stay in your vehicle. During spring calving and fall rutting, they are most unpredictable, but you can get a good view on a road trip from your car.
Tip: Both the north unit and south unit of the Park weave through bison country. Grassy areas for grazing and rocky areas for hiding. In the south unit, we’ve found bison along the road most often from the turn off to the east just north of Wind Canyon, heading toward Boicourt Overlook and trail, and to Buck Hill. Bison encounters are more likely in the north unit because it is smaller and more intimate.
Badlands Road Trip Destination #4
The town lifts my spirits. It’s so Quaint, cozy, charming, and quiet. But it’s the large flat-top hill or butte south of town that gives me a thrill – and a breathtaking view of the grasslands. Portions of the top of the Butte are private, but there are historical plaques at the top to give visitors a history lesson and a visual display of the grasslands
Why: Sentinel Butte is the second tallest peak or point in North Dakota. The flat-top hill is connected to a second butte by a lower saddle between the butte – which makes the prominence identifiable from Intestate 94. Sentinel Butte sits on the former North Pacific transcontinental rail line. The name honors two Arikara sentinels killed by Sioux in 1864.
Where: South of the little town of Sentinel Butte on the western edge of the state in Golden Valley County. Head south of town on a gravel road. The road turns west of the hill and if you pay attention you’ll easily find the road to the top. It’s not an easy road, but it is very memorable. Once on top, you’ll get blown a bit by the ever-present wind. Those pink rocks all over the top are feldspar.
Tip: Take it easy going up the hill. Once at the top you can spot old roads from 100 years ago that leads across to the other flat top and down into the private pasture ground below.
Badlands Road Trip Destination #5
In my dreams I see myself writing story after story of the events of Mondak. Like this one, I wrote a while ago. I do not think there is any town anywhere in North Dakota that has the wild history of Mondak.
Why: With good intent, Mondak could have been a major shipping site on the Missouri River and the Great Northern railroad. Its dual-state location is how it got its wildness – beer drinking on the west, teetotalers on the east. We’ve written about Mondak several times because it has so many hard-to-believe tales of nostalgic history worthy of a Hollywood Movie. The town was the scene of a lynching made possible by the construction days of the nearby Snowden Bridge. It sits across the road from the Fort Union Trading Post, and at one time, Mondak was officially called “Fort Union,” perhaps to market the town as something besides a wild west town.
Where: West of Highway 85 between Alexander and Williston on Highway 1804 north of Fairview, Montana and south of Bainville, Montana on the state line.
Tip: The land is private so do not trespass. However, the landowners are gracious and friendly and if you are humbly respectful you may get to peek into the jail and bank vault that once housed the important papers from Roosevelt County, Montana.
Badlands Road Trip Destination #6
Peaceful Valley Ranch
The first time I visited this historic ranch was to accompany my mother and my nieces on a trail ride.
Why: Tucked between tall bluffs and the Little Missouri River, the Peaceful Valley Ranch is many things to many people. It is a historic working ranch that was swallowed up by National Park. And it has been (maybe will again) the site of guided trail rides on rented horses.
Where: In the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about 9 miles north of the entrance/visitor center along East River Road.
Tip: The site is upgraded and modernized as of spring 2021. It’s a good parking place to start a hike on the CCC trail or a walk to the river – but remember, bison can be anywhere.
Getting to the Badlands is a wonderful road trip, especially when there are places such as Dacotah Clayworks to visit.
Frequently Asked Questions
What condition are the roads in the North Dakota Badlands?
Most are gravel, but they are in good condition, unless it’s been raining a lot, or there is a blizzard. A few paved roads include Highway 22, Highway 85 and Highway 16.
How is the cell phone service in the Badlands?
It is sketchy. Some places, mostly on hilltops, you can connect with cell phone towers.
Are the Badlands open?
Yes. The Badlands are a geographic detail of rugged hills, rocks and the results of centuries of erosion. It is ranch country, so the Badlands are always open unless bad weather makes traveling difficult.