Find an old road bed like old Highway 85, and you find an easy hiking trail. You also find a clue to what it used to be like to have to get across the Badlands.
These days, we are hiking some of the old roads that used to cross the Badlands. For example, Devils Pass, and the road leading to it from the west.
It’s also a way to get to the flooded town of Elbowoods.
Old road beds are easier to see and follow in the winter. In the summer, it can be tough because they become overgrown and harder to see.
Here’s our latest find:
Forest Service Road 842
When we learned the new Long X bridge is not the first, or second or even third crossing the Little Missouri River we started exploring the history of old river crossings.
The Long X bridge is the fourth crossing to reach what used to be called The Island Empire. McKenzie County cannot be reached without crossing a river. In the old days, that meant crossing on the ice or through the water on a ford. Later, ferries carried people in and out of McKenzie County. Then came bridges.
Travelers needed roads and what they used, could barely qualify as roads. They were more like dirt paths or two-track trails. That’s what we love to find and hike.
On this day, we wanted to find the route down the hill from the grassland prairies on the south side of the steep valley of the Little Missouri River and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It is Forest Service Road 842. It once was U.S. Highway 85.
Old maps are a gold mine for finding roads that are now easy hiking trails.
In this case, you can see it on the map, a dotted black line from the bottom, across the river past the ranger station. The broken red line running east and west is a portion of what used to be the scenic drive through the park.
A time traveler on that original Highway 85 would freak out with today’s high-speed drop to the valley bottom.
And likewise anyone using today’s vehicles would freak out trying to use the old paths. They’re not always safe for vehicles. However, they’re perfect for foot traffic. That’s why they make excellent easy hiking trails.
Old Highway 85
Old Highway 85 is the closest direct road that runs the length of the Little Missouri River and the North Dakota Badlands. On the highway, you’ll see directional signs to trail heads and campgrounds. So, it’s a good feeder highway to get you in to the Badlands.
Eventually, it will be a four-lane highway from Watford City to I-94 at Belfield. That means it will be one more step removed in modern terms from the old winding highway.
Thanks to old maps we found on line, we plotted how to get on the original U.S. Forest Service Road 842. Once we knew where to look we saw that it is actually marked on both ends, in the grasslands and down below in the river valley.
We followed the old highway; today, it’s a two-track trail. On the south end, It passes through a large, lush pasture where a rancher grazes his cattle. This is his “home turf.” Be respectful. It’s what good explorers/hikers do.
Close the Gate!
So, by all means! Close the gate!
If you come to a closed gate, close it after you pass through — both directions, even if for just a few minutes!
The trail passes by an area where vehicles are not allowed. Obey the signs. The land isn’t made to hold traffic and vehicles can start fires that will wipe out thousands of acres of pasture.
We were on the trail marked for vehicles. It was frozen with snow and ice. That made it easy to follow. If it were spring, it would be muddy and rutted. Still, traction is uncertain on the hillside. So, we parked, and walked.
From the Top
Old Highway 85, or Forest Service Road 842, is accessible from either the top or the bottom. We didn’t know that at first. So, we weren’t sure what we’d find as we started down the hill and around the first curve.
The old highways is treacherous.
Narrow passes and steep drop offs would have made it a challenge for vehicles in the 1920s.
Today, the dangers are even greater since the road is not maintained. Red warning fence marks sink holes that could swallow an ATV or in even a pickup truck.
In addition to the red plastic warning fence, the rancher wrapped the sink holes with barb wire to stop his cattle from falling in.
A panoramic video gives you an idea of the rugged beauty travelers navigated until about 1959.
Old Highway 85 from the Bottom
We hiked back up the hill. Whew! That was a lot more work than hiking down the hill. We followed the trail back to the modern high-speed Highway 85 — very aware of the difference in grade, speed and landscape. Again, we closed the gate, and headed north on the highway.
What a difference. There is no comparison between today’s wide smooth highway and the old trail. We recorded this three-minute video to show what it’s like going down the modern highway. It’s picturesque and smooth.
We turned in at the CCC Campground entrance, the western extension of the Long X Road. It’s a mile of gravel, again through a rancher’s pasture. You’ll drive across a couple of cattle guards, or Texas Gates, before you get to the CCC Campground. This video shows it is a bumpy ride headed across the valley floor to where the road goes up the hill.
Sure enough, there at the bottom of the hill we had explored, we found Forest Service Road 842, the original U.S. Highway 85. The trail curves across the flat, and up the side of the hill, but not before dipping down in to a deep ravine. That’s where we stopped.
Planning to Return
Next summer, we’ll make it a loop from the bottom, up the winding trail, across the top, and back down to the CCC Campground. Summit Trail is also at the top, and we may hook up with it to follow it down the hill to the Maah Daah Hey trail that ends at the CCC Campground. It will be a long day hike.
For now, the easiest option is just hike one direction on the old Highway 85 road bed, then turn around and hike back. We recommend starting at the bottom and hiking up. That way, when your legs have had a workout, the easy part of the hike is all downhill.
In the other direction at the bottom the old highway heads north to the river. There, it once crossed the river on the Chaloner Ferry, then the Roosevelt Bridge. Our goal is to hike the river bank and see if we can accurately locate the ferry crossing and the bridge crossing. We have discovered that all up and down the Little Missouri River, we are challenged by treacherous river crossings.
Those Forest Service Maps
You can get useful maps at different locations to give you an idea of where to go. A map of Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota, by US Forest Service is available on eBay. You can go right to the source and get a Forest Service Map from the U.S. Forest Service offices in Dickinson, Watford City or Bismarck. The maps are also available at the visitor centers at the north and south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Subscribe to get the first notice of when a new North Dakota Badlands story is posted. You’ll get a note in your inbox when a new story is published.
Or you can follow us on Facebook. It’s clearinghouse of information and events in the Badlands.
We’re available to help you plan your hike. Just ask! In fact, we can hook you up with tour guides who take visitors in to the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park where you can encounter bison, wild horses and other wildlife.
We can speak to your group about the wonderful opportunities for exploring the North Dakota Badlands. You’ll be the rock star with members of your group when they see what’s available for them to to explore this summer.