Two Trails, Many Rewards

Yes, it’s winter.

No, you don’t have to stay indoors.

Yes, you can find easy hiking in the Badlands.  A short bout of fresh air and stimulating exercise does a body good.

That’s why we hit two trails in the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park this month.  Both of them were easy to access. They have curbside parking at the head of the trail.  Both of them include a gentle slope to get you to awesome vistas.

You’ll have the trail to yourself; there are fewer tourists to get in the way of your photographs.

Summer vs. Winter hiking

We write a lot about hiking the Badlands every summer.  The days are longer and you have time to enjoy the beauty on trails such as the Achenbach in the North Unit or the Jones Creek Trail in the south unit.  You can plan your return to your starting point by 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.  Not in the winter.

In the winter, best hiking is when temperatures are at least 40 degrees and winds are under 20 mph.  This winter, we’ve had many of those days. Some days, the temps in December have been in the 50’s in the Badlands. So, dress in layers, and be prepared to open up your jacket.  You’ll undoubtedly work up a sweat, and that works against you when it cools off.  So, a “wicking” layer is important.

You have just a few warm afternoon hours to get out and back to your starting point by 4:30 p.m.  Yes, 4:30 p.m.  It gets dark early — and cold.  We pushed it a bit too late; it was getting dark.

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So when we took a stroll on these two easy trails, we didn’t get too far out because we wanted to get back before sunset.

Ridgeline Trail

This half-mile-long trail gives you a little workout at first, then gives you resting points at the top.

snow covered ridgeline trail

From the top of the Ridgeline trail approach — a snow-covered set of steps. They can be slippery, so make sure your boots have good tread. Or walk off to the side of the steps in the snow and grass.

About 10 miles into a scenic loop of the South Unit, you’ll find the parking area for Ridgeline and steps taking you to the top.  Because the steps are on the north face of the slope, they don’t get any sunshine and can stay snow or ice-covered.  So, make sure your shoes have good traction and you step on solid gravel or crunchy snow.

The View from the Top

Once at the top, you can rest on a bench that gives you a good view of the hills north of you.  At the top, you’ll find a region that has recently been burned to stimulate prairie regrowth.

Follow the trail to the south side of the hill to get a view of a basin. If you’re lucky, you’ll see wild horses or bison below.

ridgeline trail looking north Looking straight north from Ridgeline Trail. It’s an easy trail, only about a half mile, but it is rewarding.

Turn Around

Pleasant valley ranch Once a working ranch, now Peaceful Valley Ranch. stands empty in the middle of the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Follow your steps back down to where you started. Then turn and drive back to the junction on the scenic drive There, you can turn north past Pleasant Valley Ranch.

The drive will likely give you a peek at mule deer and bison.

Wind Canyon

Near the end of the road to the north, Wind Canyon trail is on the west side of the road. Again, a parking area will give you a convenient start to the easy trail.  It’s a little shorter than the Ridgeline Trail, less than a half mile – or in city terms, 6 blocks.  The prize on this hike is the sculpted soft rock formations touring over the Little Missouri River.

wind canyon trail little missouri river yellow cliffs Wind Canyon Trail, a short half-mile hike runs along the cliff overlooking the Little Missouri River.
rocks split

Rocks split from the wall. Wind Canyon Trail follows the cliffs on the east side of the Little Missouri River.

Rocks Shaped by the Wind and Weather

There are two protected lookout points to see the Little Missouri River valley below.  At the end of the trail, you’ll find a popular area where bison like to graze in the winter.  For them, it is protected from wind and provides adequate grazing.

bison golden hour

Take Wind Canyon trail as far north as it goes, then drop down below the hill to walk “backcountry” to see where the bison like to hide.

Faces Hill

Turn around at the end, and follow the trail back.  Along the way, you’ll pass what we call Faces Hill.  Numerous rock formations have created creepy skeletal formations.

We like to tell a story to our visitors that many, many years ago, a trapper and his son stubbornly refused to yield to a local native who had great power.  They marked their ground and told their native encounter “You can’t remove us from here. You’ll have to bury us here. We’ll be here forever.”

The native man obliged and left them where the man and his son staked out their territory.  It’s unclear how soon thereafter they died. It could have been that night.  And sure enough, they’re still there, today.

(Note: We made up the story and never tell it the same way twice, but its great fun watching our guests ponder and think as they spot a face in this hillside, or a face in that rock, or eyes staring at them from someplace else.)

face in the rock on wind canyon trail

Look round on Wind Canyon Trail. The west-facing hillside has many faces.

Spot the faces and head back to your car.

Now What?

The fresh air and moderate exercise is your reward for the day.

But wait! There could be more. As the sun disappears behind the western horizon, keep your eyes extra sharp.  That’s when wildlife gets active.

Besides the bison, and the mule deer, you might be able to catch one of the wild horse bands.

We got a moment to watch elk by one of the prairie dog towns.

Those are the two easy, half-mile hikes we recommend.

There are days, this winter when the weather will let you enjoy more time in the backcountry.  We’ll show you the rewards of that kind of hike coming up.

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Of course, all the images we post here are available for sale.  You can buy them as wall art, or keepsakes such as coffee cups, mouse pads, refrigerator magnets, etc.

Headed west?

Time your trip to match an event planned this winter in the Badlands.  This free resource will provide you links you can check to see what’s happening in a specific location.  It’s some of the links we use when we put together our Things to Do calendar, the most comprehensive calendar available.

Here’s the order blank to let us know where to send the resource guide.  It’s an attractive guide with the information and links you need to stay up to speed on events and activities in Western North Dakota and Eastern Montana.