The Badlands are not closed for the season
Explore the Badlands – hike, cross-country ski or fat tire bike.
No, it’s not 75 degrees and sunny.
Yes, the air is fresh and the snow is deep, and the Badlands are inviting you to dive in. Here’s the secret to breaking free of cabin fever. Just use the Long X Trail near Watford City.
Travel toward Watford City and stop at the CCC Campground1. That’s where you will see an unbelievably beautiful, pristine wilderness that few people ever see — Badlands in the winter; and that’s the attraction right there, pristine winter wilderness that few people see.
There are several reasons The CCC Campground and the Long X trail are the best places to get a little winter outdoor time.
- It’s an easy travel distance and route
- It’s along the Little Missouri River.
- The campground and the parking area are well maintained.
- The trail is well-marked
- It’s an easy trail.
1. Easy travel distance.
Highway 85 from Belfield to Watford City is a major federal highway, so you will have good luck with winter driving on that highway. Alternatively, you can head east across the state on Highway 200 toward Grassy Butte, and then north.
Up Highway 85, check out the historic Long X Bridge2 over the Little Missouri River. It’s south of Watford City, north of Grassy Butte. The closer you get to the Long X bridge the more the scenery perks up. It’s an impressive landscape at the bridge, colorful, striated, and beckoning. That’s just a hint of what’s to come.
The entrance to the CCC Campground (CCC is Civilian Conservation Corps, a 100-year old government works program) is at the very end of the bridge, just a few feet south. Head west one mile through a rancher’s rangeland pasture. Take it easy on the first couple of bends in the road. That’s where cattle could be waiting to greet you.
2. Along the Little Missouri River
At this section of the river through the Badlands, wildlife officials have stocked and increased the population of bighorn sheep. They’re not easy to see, but they stick around the Little Missouri River south of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
(At the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, you won’t see bighorn sheep, but you might see elk and certainly, the bison and the wild horses are there to greet you.)
The Little Missouri River is about as big as it gets right here. It’s getting close to the end. The river started near Devils Tower in Wyoming. Then, it snakes across Montana and North Dakota and empties into the Missouri River about 65 miles east of the CCC Campground.
The drive west is about a mile on a good gravel road, right along the Little Missouri River. At the Campground, park on the west end at the literal end of the Maah Daah Hey trail and the start of the Long X Trail. On the north is the Little Missouri River. Beyond that, across the river is the north Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The area is fairly undisturbed since ranching blends in well with the environment.
That’s why it’s easy to see a sample of the wildest of North Dakota’s wildlife — deer and bighorn sheep.
3. The area is well-maintained
The CCC Campground is where people unload skis, bike or strap on their day pack. Vehicles are safe, but lock it anyway and make sure you have the key secured in an inside coat pocket so you don’t lose it in the snow. There is plenty of room to park. With that first step out of your vehicle, you’ll want to pull on your gloves and hoodies — if it’s that cold. As I write this, it will be about 30 degrees, but some of these photos we took here were in below-zero weather.
It’s cold at first, but once you get going, you will warm up so that a lot of winter packing isn’t needed.
4. The trail is well-marked
If you decide to hike this trail, you won’t get lost; just follow the tall posts with the angular cut top. Each post is marked with a turtle, the sign of the Maah Daah Hey3 trail. This portion is also the Long X trail, and the posts are marked with the Long X. At each post, you can see the next post on the trail. (All of the trails in the Badlands are marked with similarly styled posts, including Summit Trail. But on Summit you cannot always see the next trail maker post. A large portion of that trail washed out and took the posts with the washout. That’s why it’s closed.)
5. It’s an easy trail.
At first, the slopes rise gradually along the base of the hills. People who hike or ski cut across valley floors between hills and ridges. Cutting across with the shortcuts that you make on your own will cut off quite a bit of distance on the trail. That’s because the trail switches back and forth to maintain a relatively easy grade for bikes. Hikers and skiers can cut straight across the valley floor, at least until you come to a deep ravine — then enjoy planning a way across the steep banks.
Here’s the cautionary note:
Don’t go too far. It’s easy to start the jaunt feeling fresh and invigorated by the air, the scenery, the activity. So, it’s easy to think all that initial energy will last. For every step you take along the trail, you have to repeat that step going back. Turn around or circle back early to save your energy for the return trip. It’s easy to overextend yourself. ______________________________________________________________
We like these winter hikes because when we get done for the day we are exhilarated by the fresh air, the and exercise. A hot meal at nearby Watford City is just 15 minutes away – and they know how to feed you there!
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Oh yeah…the footnotes:
1In 1934, men from Civilian Conservation Corps companies 2771 and 2772 established camps adjacent to each other on the north bank of the Little Missouri River, not far from the old U.S. 85 bridge in the area that is now part of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park. The CCC Campground at the head of the trail is a third campsite they built. There are other sites in the Badlands built by the CCC. Company 2771 moved out after a year, but 2772 remained here until the fall of 1939 when it transferred to a site in the South Unit, and that’s why it’s called the CCC Campground.
2The trail name, “Maah Daah Hey”, comes from the Mandan Indians. In the Mandan language, one word or phrase can describe a picture, feeling, or situation. In this case, the phrase means “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” The trail uses a turtle as the trail marker. The turtle was honored because of its firm determination, steadfastness, patience, long life, and fortitude. Here’s where to find more about the CCC Campground and the trailhead to the Long X Trail and the Maah Daah Hey trail.
Click here to read more about the Deuce. It’s the new extension to the Maah Daah Hey
3 The Long X Trail represents stereotypical historical, ranch life, that of driving large herds of cattle across the country from Texas to North Dakota. This achievement was first accomplished in 1884, when, under the leadership of A. N. Jeffries, the manager of the company, a daring band of Texan cowboys piloted a monster herd of cattle from the Rio Grande to the Little Missouri River. The herd was guided by means of a compass, and reached North Dakota in September, having left Texas early in the spring. This process was repeated each year until 1897, and in this way, the grazing lands of McKenzie county were replenished by new cattle