Stop hibernating. Let’s go outdoors!

Eating Green

If there is one critter prevalent throughout western North Dakota, it’s the prairie dog. Cute and ‘cuddly’ to some, vermin to others, these little guys constantly entertain, and detain, tourists, with their animated antics.

It happens every year about this time. We get antsy to get out of the hibernation hole we’ve hidden in for several months.  Where to go? What to do?  Three of our favorite activities are rewarding this time of year. We excitedly look for green – but that’s a way off for now.  This weekend, officially stop hibernating.

It’s time to get some exercise, fresh air, and warm sun.

So where will it be? North, Middle or South Badlands?  What will you do, Drive, Hike or Camp?

Add these top tips to your essential destinations in the Badlands.

Drive

south unit wash out

The washout, or slide area in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park will remain much of the 2020 tourist year, perhaps the whole year. The North Unit also has some rough patches and could need repair this summer that could interfere with driving.

The scenic routes in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park – either the south or north unit are traditional favorites at any time of year.  

However until spring is in full bloom, the roads may be closed due to snow, ice or failure of the roadbed.

So, where to drive?

Magpie Road

A brown recreational highway sign directs traffic to camps and trail heads.

One of our favorite brown sign drives starts here, but there are several dozen along Highway 85 between Bowman and Williston that we resolve to explore in 2018.

It’s an in-and-out road. But it could easily be two different roads – that’s because the vistas are not the same headed out as they were headed in.

So, factor in a few sight-seeing stops and it will take you about 90 minutes.

It’s about 16 miles to a good turn-around spot, Magpie Campground The road off of Highway 85 starts straight and long. Then come the hills, the valleys, the curves, and the Badlands. You’ll probably slow down to about 20 miles an hour through much of the trip.

Once you get to the bottom, you can take a break at Magpie Campground. That’s where you can access vault toilets and parking areas for an exploration of either Maah Daah Hey or Magpie Trails.

At Magpie Campground, a map and trail open the way to the Maah Daah Hey

Spring on the Maah Daah Hey is a good time to hike when few if any other people are on the trail. Your footprints will likely be the only ones you see.

Take your camera

We like it because the road is in as good of shape as any in the Badlands.  It winds past spectacular views.  High up on top, you can see any clouds that may enhance or obscure sunset.  Down below you can spot deer and antelope.  Or off in the distance, you may spot a trail plotted with an attitude of wanderlust – wandering through the hills.

Hike

The first hike of the year is fueled by desire and mental release – and restricted by winter’s laziness.  That means you’ll feel like going out father than your body can handle on the way back in. Good boots such as these will help you keep your footing.

Long X Trail

That’s why we recommend a less challenging trail such as the Long X Trail. It’s historic as this link describes.  It’s scenic and well-marked.

The Little Missouri River divides the Long X Trail and the Maah Daah Hey trail from the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

 And if you are at the right place at the right time, you could get a bonus thrill — it’s a popular area for bighorn sheep.

CCC Campground

Good parking is available at any of the trail heads along the Maah Daah Hey Trail.  The Long X trail head is huge! (It is actually the terminus of the Maah Daah Hey.) It is the CCC Campground, an historic location where men lived when they built structures in the TR National Park.  Here at the CCC Campground/Long X Trail head, you’ll find picnic tables, fire rings, and public toilets are right there at the parking area.

It is a good road in and out of the CCC Campground to access the Long X Trail Head.

The CCC Campground is a recommended starting point for an easy day hike

The Long X Trail at the CCC Campground connects to the north end of the Maah Daah Hey Trail and creates a 6-mile easy loop

Follow the south bank of the Little Missouri River, across from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Then, as the river bed is farther north, the trail starts going farther south.  Along the way you’ll see rises and hills that may be accessible if it’s not too slippery.

This time of year, mud and clay can be hazardous to your hiking health.  New sinkholes appear, and old ones are larger than they were last year.  The Badlands are in a constant state of shifting and eroding.  And this time of year it is very evident. So, watch for slippery slopes. Wait until mid-summer to do any serious hill climbing.  If you stay in the grass, you’ll be alright. 

Prepare to make slight detours when needed to stick to earth and not go sliding to the bottom. Use a good sturdy walking stick or hiking staff and you’ll increase your stability on slippery ground.

Hiking this time of year can be pleasant. The sun is warm and the air is cool. Pesky critters such mosquitoes and rattlesnakes aren’t a problem this time of year.  Wood ticks start showing up about the same time wildflowers start to bloom and trees leaf out.  They’re hungry and your blood is just their type.  So, if you’re out when the ticks are out, good insect repellent will keep your blood in your own veins.

Optional 

Much much easier than the single track trail of the Long X is an old road bed that ultimately became a federal highway before it was moved east. From the CCC Campground hike up the hill on the old Highway 85.  It’s a road bed from 100 years ago. Imagine the traffic up and down this hill! We’d like to see it preserved as a remnant of history.

Camp

Burning Coal Vein

The road to the Burning Coal Vein parking area passes through the campground, across a cattle guard and up the hill.

The road to the Burning Coal Vein parking area passes through the campground, across a cattle guard and up the hill.

Before summer bears down on us full bore, go ahead and enjoy some cool weather camping.  If you watch the weather and have your go-bag ready, when you see a forecast for a warm dry spell you can be in your campsite in a couple hours.  Hit the road and head to Burning Coal Vein. We like camping this time of year at starting in April or May.

You can read more about it here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dpg/recarea/?recid=79457

We recommend it this time of year, because it is warmer and drier than the rest of the Badlands.  The Maah Daah Hey Trail starts here, and it’s an easy stretch where mud, slippery clay is less of a problem.

Starting down the hill at the beginning of the trail

The first few yards are the easiest when starting at 000 on the Maah Daah Hey trail at Burning Coal Vein Campground

Now it is marked as the Logging Camp Ranch.  This historic map from 100 years ago shows the forest, the burning coal vein and the nearby Little Missouri River.

1917 Dakota National Forest

1917 Map of the Dakota National Forest

Since fewer people camp this time of year, you’ll likely have the place to yourself. The tree-filled campground is sheltered. Spread out in the campground are eight secluded sites.

It is a region of the state that hosts the large pine forest that was officially the Dakota National Forest. Now it is marked as the Logging Camp Ranch.  This historic map from 100 years ago shows the forest, the burning coal vein and the nearby Little Missouri River.

Getting There

Getting there is half or more of the fun when you decide to stop hibernating.  On an Interior road from Medora, or down highway 85 you will get to drive into the grasslands and Badlands on gravel. Interior road, it is 30 miles south of Medora, ND on Forest Highway Road 3. Then, one mile south of Forest Road 772. Near the end of the route, access passes through private land.

Or 17 miles of gravel from Amidon. Just head west of the little Slope County Seat and turn on the road marked “Davis Dam.”  You’ll see signs marked for the Logging Camp Ranch and Burning Coal Vein.

Read more about the region of the Burning Coal Vein and the Ponderosa Pine Forest.  Here is more information about the Ponderosa Pine forest: https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr8/content/unit-iii-waves-development-1861-1920/lesson-1-changing-landscapes/topic-7-national-forest/section-1-forests

Now’s the Time for Raw Nature

The North Dakota Badlands are open year round.  Some people confuse the North Dakota Badlands with the tourist town of Medora which pretty much shuts down until summer (except for the courthouse, the jail, a bar and two hotels.)   The North Dakota Badlands, from Marmarth to Mandaree is nearly 200 miles of trails, wildlife and campgrounds — and if you go this time of year, you will pretty much have the region to yourself.  One of my favorite things to do this time of year is to dress warmly, head out and find a sunny hillside to sit and absorb the sounds, the smells and the site of raw nature.

One Big Yawn! A Lazy Spring Afternoon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

We observed a herd of feral horses roaming freely on the soft dormant grasses for a long time, and later lazily moving along, no doubt soaking up the warm spring sun. This guy yawned repeatedly!

I recommend you try it.

3 Ways to Stay Informed When You are Ready to Stop Hibernating

Buds of Spring! Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota April 2019

Buds of Spring!

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