For this Iowa farm boy, the extreme landscape of the northern tip of the Badlands was impacting. It was my first trail ride in the Little Missouri State Park. Fortunately, the horse I rode was well trained and handled the narrow paths, steep drop-offs, and unstable rocky ground.
These days, I go back on foot without my horse and take in the deep cuts, sharp cliffs, and massive terrific hills.
That’s why I’m glad the park is open now — though it’s a bit later than usual. A spokesperson for the North Dakota Parks and Rec Department said they delayed opening until it was ready. It took a little longer this spring to get the trails into a safe and stable condition for hikers and horses.
Fortunately, the opening is timed so visitors will see the region in some of the greenest colors ever. Its a very green year in the Badlands.
Even after all the care and attention they give the trails, some people still get in trouble. Every summer, some hiker has to be rescued or escorted back to the park shelters. Hikers who venture off the well-marked trails do so safely only if they are accustomed to finding their way up and down the landscape.
A Changing Landscape
The entire region here of the northern end of the Badlands is still being formed. It’s highly erosive. That’s why trails forged through the park each summer may or may not be accessible next summer. Rocks and hills slide to the bottom, rain cuts new channels and of course, wind sandblasts the ground.
The best part of navigating the Little Missouri State Park is the well-marked trails.
It takes weeks for park workers to mark the trails for easy, moderate, and difficult hiking. Follow the color-coded posts that get you into the steep natural features.
A Geologist Describes the Badlands
Longtime state geologist John Blumle says these are the deepest Badlands cuts at the park.
As the Little Missouri River winds through its 3-state trip, it starts with about an 80-foot cut in the terrain.
By the time the river reaches the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it’s about 250 feet deep. But that’s just a start because it gets deeper. He says in the Little Missouri State park, it’s a 650 feet deep cut from the top of the prairie to the bottom.
Now, after 40 years of exploring the North Dakota Badlands, I’m still taken aback by the jaw-dropping intense formations of rocks, clay, sandstone, mudstone and coal veins coursing through the park. Nodules and concretions help shape a landscape ranging from beautiful, to desolate – even grotesque.
I feel very small in some of the deepest places of the Little Missouri State Park.
When it hasn’t rained for a while and the trails are dry, you can see what I mean. Just head north of Killdeer about 20 miles on Highway 22.
Just before you drop down into the Little Missouri River Valley, turn east on a gravel road into the park. Stop along the entry to get a vast view of the Badlands. Go on in to the park, pay the entrance fee, and spend a day exploring the most rugged region in the state.
We’ll go back for a day hike just like we did a couple years ago, and wrote about it here with photos.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where are the Badlands in North Dakota?
The North Dakota Badlands start near Marmarth, North Dakota in the very southwest corner of the state. Then the Badlands follow the Little Missouri River which flows north. They reach farther north and become more rugged. So you will see a difference in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park south unit and the north unit. Then they veer east toward Killdeer where they end below the Little Missouri State park and the edge of Lake Sakakawea. From that point on, it can be a mud flat where the two rivers join because the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the Badlands along the big Missouri River.
Where can I camp in the North Dakota Badlands?
Twi parks welcome campers, including the Little Missouri State Park near Killdeer, and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park where camping is available at the south unit, the Elkhorn Ranch and the north unit. Incidentally there are US Forest Service and BLM campgrounds found between Highway 85 and the Little Missouri River.
Where are hiking trails in the North Dakota Badlands?
The Maah Daah Hey Trail is the granddaddy of all the hiking trails in the Badlands. So, find it on a U.S. Forest Service map. It will also show trails that link such as Bennett Creek, Burning Coal Vein or Long X trails.
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