Three Different Badlands in One Day
The great prairies of the Northern Plains surprise me from time to time. By now, I’ve kind of gotten to expect that. It’s what happens when I wonder, “What’s over that hill?” And then I go find out. Like finding North Dakota Badlands cousin, the Montana Badlands.
So, when I heard about these other Badlands in Montana, I wanted to find out. After all, they couldn’t possibly match up with North Dakota’s Little Grand Canyon. Right? Well, I changed my mind. (You expected that, didn’t you? That’s why I’m writing this and you’re reading it.)
It seems when you mention “Badlands,” people automatically think of the South Dakota Badlands. They don’t think of North Dakota’s, and if they’re like me, they don’t think of Montana’s either. Well, that’s changed.
An Easy Interstate Road trip with side spurs
It was a one-day Interstate – plus side spurs – road trip for my wife and me. (She has that same quirk as me. “What’s over that hill has led us down two-track trails, across muddy streams, and into abandoned towns.) It’s that quirk that helped us see what’s over that hill in Montana.
Our mission: to visit three different Badlands in one day.
It’s easy to do, and you can do it too, for about the price of a tank of gas. Or less. You see, they’re all right off of Interstate 94. I’ve ignorantly driven by the signs for them, many times. Haven’t you? I won’t any more. Now, I even make special trips, and pull off the Interstate to see them.
One of them, I kind of knew about. My wife and I had a contract to photograph motorcycling in eastern Montana, including some Badlands scenery. That got us a sample of the first astounding Badlands landscape that’s not too far away. After that sample, we had to go back to see what’s there.
A challenge from North Dakota to the Montana Badlands
The North Dakota Badlands takes a lot more time to get familiar with than just a pleasant road trip. It’s taken me years. Of the three Badlands on this road trip, the North Dakota Badlands covers the greatest amount of land, but size isn’t every thing. Right? Montana’s two neighboring sculpted land masses may be smaller, but they are hugely impressive.
So, our challenge was to see if the other two were the same. That’s why we headed west. And that’s why we encourage you to do the same.
One Hour Away: Makoshika at Glendive
How many times had we driven by the sign on the Interstate and not stopped? Makoshika State Park. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. (“MAH-ko-SHEE-kuh?” No. “muh-KOE-shi-KA.”) It’s only about an hour west of the North Dakota Badlands. Those signs. Gotta have them.
On our first encounter with Makoshika, on that motorcycle photo shoot, we followed the signs for about 10 minutes. We were incredibly puzzled. “Huh? Now which way?”
We headed south down Glendive’s Main Street and then turned east. Okay. Now where?
We drove through an older residential district — east, south, east and there it was. The entrance to Makoshika State Park, right past the edge of town.
It couldn’t be any more jarring to our visual awareness. We were flabbergasted. One moment we were driving past old gas stations and houses, getting lost in an old part of town.
The next moment, we were in dinosaur country.
True to its Lakota name, Makoshika is “bad lands.”
A serendipitous discovery
We were rushed for time on that first visit, so later we headed back for a second, better look.
The beauty of this member of the Badlands Trio, Makoshika State Park, was unexpected.
From the first moment into the park, our attention was drawn up the road ahead, up the hill.
It beckoned us to go farther up the road.
A road going up over the hill? Geez, that’s like a drug to us. What’s over that hill?
The Park is immaculately maintained. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks developed the attraction for both kids and adults. The park encourages children to do more than stand and look, but also to get into the landscape. That’s how they will see firsthand that history goes back much further than expected – to dinosaurs!
What to do?
Makoshika promotional literature indicates you can do these things in this part of the Montana Badlands:
- Archeological Sites
- Bird Watching
- Fire Rings
- Geological Formations
- Interpretive Center
- Picnic Shelter
- Picnic Tables
- Toilet, Pit/Vault
- Water Drinking
- Wildlife Viewing
The landscape is stunning. Now, after those first two encounters, we are energized to follow some of the trails down into the rough terrain.
And that hill we saw when we first entered? It drew us up farther into the park. Now we know it goes right by a beautiful little campground. It’s why we look forward to our next trip, setting up our tent in one of the 15 campsites in the park. Each one seems to offer a perfect combination of access and isolation. I can already feel the joy of unwinding at one of those spots.
Oh, and I’ve never played disc golf in the Badlands. But, I’m going to do that in Makoshika. It looks like a fun way to get a sample of the Badlands.
Civilization at Makoshika’s front gate: Glendive
It seems that Glendive’s business community shares a challenge like other small towns with a very impressive attraction. The challenge is getting visitors to stop and visit.
We already knew from the books we’ve read about pre-statehood days in this part of the nation that towns such as Wibaux, Miles City, Roundup, Forsyth have deep deep roots.
Glendive does too. It’s an essential part of western history. It is an historic railroad, cattle town steeped in cowboy history. We knew that from our reading. What we didn’t know was the downtown business district includes unique stores and shops. Take for example a “cute” little bakery I like and my wife swoons over. The Trinity Bakery.
Oh, and between the downtown business district and the Interstate is a memorable green house and coffee shop. We wrote about it here.
It was so impressive we shot a bunch of photos. Enough that the owner got kinda suspicious of us. But when we gave him our Beautiful Badland business cards, he smiled. He welcomed the exposure. It’s kinda what we like to do. Tell others. Share our finds.
Half hour West to Terry
Okay, now we needed to hit the road and head west on Interstate 94 to the Terry Badlands. It’s not as well promoted as some of the more famous regions of Montana. I mean, everyone has heard of Virginia City, Glacier Park or Bozeman. But Terry? When people told us how much they like the Terry Badlands, we had to find out how they compare to the North Dakota Badlands.
Now that I know about it, I make it a point to stop in Terry
Terry, Montana is on I-94 about a half-hour east of Miles City. Or, a little more than an hour west of Medora. Just past Terry is the Powder River and historic landmarks.
Terry and Glendive make attractive neighbors to North Dakota’s Badlands. Put all three together in one road trip and we got a huge bundle of activities and attractions all within a short drive. It’s a Badlands trifecta road trip. Now that we’ve done it once, we’ve gone back for more.
I’ve pulled in to Terry, many times over the years, but only to gas up. On motorcycle trips, that gas station at Terry was handy, but I didn’t go any farther. “Stupido!”
On this trip we started at that gas station. We looked to the north up the road into the Badlands and thought, “I wonder what’s over that hill.” Next time.
This time we had to find out what’s in town. Haunted hotel, anyone? Yes, it’s there. The Kempton. Old haunted hotels always attract my wife.
This time, determined to find non-ghosts we sought out live people. We found out the people in Terry go out of their way to accommodate visitors. We talked to people on the street, in a coffee shop, the cafe, the hotel and at Prairie Unique. They were all fairly bubbling with enthusiasm for their Badlands. It was contagious. Some made sure we knew about this road or that road that go to special areas. We jotted down their ideas — a growing list of reasons to come back.
From the main intersection in town, the views on this cloudy day promised good sightseeing.
The antique shop and historic book store at the Kempton may take you a couple hours to soak in. The owners there dropped what they were doing to spend time with us. They introduced us to museum-quality finds in their store. And their bookstore is the kind of place where I could spend more than one paycheck. Their collection of regional history is worth an investment just to find out what riches are “off the beaten path.”
And as I mentioned, for people like my wife, the Kempton is a place to experience ghosts.
Terry is one of those “never die” towns.
After losing a large part of its railroad business, the town focuses on two attractions: Evelyn Cameron’s photography and the Terry Badlands to the north. Personally, I’d like to see a big deal made of Terry because of the Cameron gallery and the Badlands. Which way do you go? Art appreciation? Outdoor recreation? Not many towns can offer both to travelers. So, there I am, selling myself on another reason to go back to Terry.
Home of Evelyn Cameron
She is unlike any other old west photographer who ever captured cowboy life. Born into a life of wealth, Cameron moved to Montana with her bird scientist husband and set up ranching. Unlike the culture she grew up in, Cameron seemed to enjoy the hard dirt work required to build fence, shoot predators and till the dry earth. Even as a child in a privileged household, she was the one in her family of eight children who wanted to be outside.
Her photographic talents were ahead of her time, both technically and aesthetically. The word about Cameron’s photos is:
“…captivating, expressive and technically perfect. Considering that photography was still in its infancy, and that she lived in one of the least accessible places in the United States, Evelyn’s vintage photographs of the old west take on an even greater attraction and fascination.”
Roosevelt Slept here in the Terry Badlands
Back before statehood, when Theodore Roosevelt lived in the Badlands, he rode many cattle drives and of course hunted many regions. So, when we go through here, we stop to think what it must have been like for this maturing east coast man to ride for days in this country looking for stray cattle. Or looking for deer, elk or bison.
We didn’t see many strays, or wild game either. But we did find the roots of the town at our first stop: Prairie Unique. The folks there are cheerleaders for southeast Montana and very helpful for road trippers. They like to brag about what we were about to find on our road trip.
They encouraged us to go past the old RR bridge, now a one-lane auto bridge, to get a glimpse of what lies to the north. It hasn’t changed much since the days when Theodore Roosevelts hunted in this area and rode at least one cattle drive here.
Getting out of the car
For us, road trips are not solitary butt in car seat experiences. We find places to pull over and explore. Every road trip is enhanced by a little bit of time spent outside the car. This 6 hour road trip stretched into 10 hours because it isn’t enough to just see things out the car window. We love to get up close and personal. That’s why we spent a day in Terry, hiking up over some of the nearby hills.
If you’re one of those blessed people to have a horse to ride, we’ll envy you when you ride this region.
The Terry Badlands are not as steep or deep as the North Dakota Badlands, but they beckoned us to enter and wander. Since we knew Roosevelt camped, hunted, rode horses here, and probably wandered these same hills, we decided to do the same. We weren’t set up on this road trip for camping, so next time. That’s when we’ll satisfy our excitement to camp, hike, mountain bike, watch birds or stars here in the Terry Badlands.
Our first thrill was rattling across an old railroad bridge that now is a one-lane auto bridge. It took us to the end of the Calypso Trail. When we drove across the quarter-mile long, 1-lane bridge over the Yellowstone, we psychologically became aware we entered a new world. We were separating ourselves from civilization back at Terry.
An Undisturbed Wildlife Area
We found it was a perfect way to end our 3-Badlands 1-Day road trip before heading back home. It gave us a chance to see how “it used to be.” That’s because it is designated a “Wilderness Study Area.” That means it has NOT been significantly changed by human activity, including farming or ranching. It’s doggone wild!
It is considered to be one of the crown jewels of the National Landscape of the American West.
That’s why it’s a good place for
- Backcountry Camping
- Horseback Riding
- Mountain Biking
- Outdoor Activity
We’ve Planned Another Road Trip
After the good part of our road trip in Terry, we started planning when we can dedicate an entire weekend to the Terry Badlands. And if we want to road trip it, again, we identified a route to get us to places where we can hike and photograph the region.
Glendive northwest to Circle and Brockway, then back south to Terry.
Eastern Montana is a Road Tripper’s Delight
This is our third road trip in eastern Montana, and they all shared attractive elements to satisfy most road trippers. We’ve done the Sidney to Fort Peck loop. This is Lewis and Clark, Missouri River Country. We have hunted agates here, visited historic sites, met non-pretentious, easy to know ranch families and gazed at the beauty of rolling horizons.
And down south, there’s the Capitol Rock and Camp Crook road trip. We wrote about that here as a landmark for cattle drives.
Of course, we’re not the first to take note that this is good road trip country. Sure, our Badlands Trio gave us a mission, but there’s more. Click here and these guys will show you.
So, if you’re ready for the Badlands Trifecta, North Dakota and Montana Badlands, you’re in for the great experiences shared by all three regions: mountain biking, hiking, picnics, family adventures, history lessons, photo safaris. The North Dakota Badlands, the Makoshika Badlands and the Terry Badlands.
More adventure than I can handle in a lifetime — but I’m going to try.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there bugs and snakes in the Badlands?
I was surprised to find out people shy away from the Badlands because they don’t like bugs. It’s called “nature.” Bugs and snakes are part of nature. That’s not a bad thing. A balanced environment allows nature to take care of itself. When you hike out in to the Badlands you’re hiking in their territory. But its actually a very wise question. People want to be prepared, and that’s good. So, April through October, you’ll want to make certain you use insect repellent. Ticks can be more than a nuisance. They can make you sick
Where can I drive through the Badlands?
You need maps — or at least I do. When I first started exploring the Badlands, I had no idea what was beyond where I stood. I didn’t even know how to get to that “beyond.” Then I discovered the U.S. Forest Service maps. The world opened up for me! As you might expect, because of the broken terrain, there is no consistent east/west-north/south blocks of travel like in flatland farm country, or in a city laid out in squares. Roads are where they can be built without sliding away. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service maps detail many of the roads. Do not trust Google Maps. Usually Google maps are pretty good, but it only takes one misdirection and you end up driving over a cliff.
What are the Badlands/What are the Grasslands?
Regions. They are geologic and topographic terms for different types of land. Click here: John Bluemle is the best source for technical differences. For visual differences, travel Highways 85 between Belfield and Watford City, or Highway 23 from Dickinson to New Town. Much of the region is grasslands — slow rolling landscape covered in pasture, hay fields or crop fields. Both highways break from grassland pastures to Badlands rocky hills and you can easily distinguish the difference