The North Dakota Badlands as seen from the Maah Daah Hey trail

This is where you are headed when you follow the Maah Daah Hey trail, the wilderness of the North Dakota Badlands.

Explore Maah Daah Hey Trail — Imagine a 140-mile journey through the wilderness

on a mountain bike, horse or on foot. 

In North Dakota.

The Maah Daah Hey experience

 Its name is from the Mandan language and means “lasts a long time.” Its steep climbs take you to peaks where you see miles of rolling rugged wilderness. It’s not Central Park. It’s untamed, so keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, coyotes, deer and maybe even mountain lions; keep yourself healthy and hydrated. That’s the Maah Daah Hey experience.

The Maah Daah Hey trail in the spring.

The trail is open year round, and so even in late winter such as in this photo, hikers can follow from the hilltops or down below on the trail itself.

You can jump on the trail anywhere along the 140-mile route through Western North Dakota. I like to pick up the trail south of the Long X Bridge on Highway 85 south of Watford City. The trail officially starts at the south end near Amidon, North Dakota near the Burning Coal Veins on a section called “The Deuce.  It’s less rugged on the south end where the trail starts.

A shelf along the Maah Daah Hey trail in August

The Maah Daah Hey trail begins far south not far from the South Dakota and Montana state lines. It is dry country especially in August.

It ends 140 miles north at the US Forest Service CCC Campground in McKenzie County. You can follow it backward, or just a portion in the middle.  It loosely follows the Little Missouri River.  An active mountain bike culture in and around McKenzie County and Watford City make use of the trail year round, even hosting winter fatbike rides.

Two mountain bikers head south on the far north end of the trail

The cool weather of the fall provides the perfect temperature to pedal the trail, especially on the north end.

 Marked sections of the trail and offshoot trails, some only a quarter-mile long, are easily traversed by even the most challenged armchair explorer.

Bikers in the green grass of the trail stop to look at a map.

Two bikers pause on the trail, headed to the Ice Caves. The end of June and first part of July is a green time of year to follow the Maah Daah Hey. It’s pretty, but it’s the most active time of the year for flies, mosquitoes and other insects. It’s also prime rattlesnake season.

It has eight unique segments, each with distinct topography. It has at least six points of access and 10 campgrounds, most with RV access and running water.

Campgrounds along the Maah Daah Hey are quiet and can be a romantic end to a thrilling day of exploration.

The turtle is the sign of the Maah Daah Hey.

From each post, you can see the next post. The angled top indicates which side of the post is the trail. On the south end of the trail, red skies were created by wildfires hundreds of miles west in Wyoming and Montana.

The History

The trail was designed and built by the Forest Service and christened in 2000. In some ways, it took 30 years to make the trail a reality – that’s how long it had been discussed. The dream was to connect the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the South Unit near Medora and the North Unit near Watford City. The actual planning and building took about 14 years. It’s a difficult trail to maintain and your tax dollars have not been spent to keep it up. Locals including the Save the Ma Daah Hey trail group sculpt and mow the trail. The group hosts the annual Maah Daah H 100 mountain bike ride — 100-miles in one day. (Last year’s winning time was just under 10 hours!)

One of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps south of Watford City. Photo courtesy of http://cccresources.blogspot.com/2011/03/ccc-state-by-state-florida.html

Recommendation

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

Winter 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.

There is no bad time of year to strike out on the trail.  Each season presents its own beauty and challenge.  Outside of tourist season, you’ll explore a wilderness area that few people experience. It’s a bit more popular in the summer.  In 30 years of hiking and horseback riding the region, I’ve encountered fewer than a dozen other people.  On the popular points along the trail, once in a great while you’ll see someone.

A note of caution: North Dakota’s legendary afternoon and evening thunderstorms can make your hike thrilling, with phenomenal sites and challenging terrain. So, keep your eye on the sky.

After a storm rolls by, a rainbow presents itself.

Late afternoon storms are common, so keep an eye on the sky. You may get to catch a beautiful rainbow.

Here are two easy hikes or mountain bike trails near Watford City in McKenzie County that loop back to the Maah Daah Hey: The Long X Trail and the Bennett Creek Trail. Experienced hardcore hikers or mountain bikers can do either of them in a few hours. For the rest of us, it takes a day.

  • Long X Trail is about a six-mile long loop that starts at the CCC Campground 15 miles south of Watford City. It is a fairly easy hike staying mostly on the bottom ground along the Little Missouri River. About three miles west it loops around to the south and come back in on the Maah Daah Hey right where you started—at the CCC Campground.  
    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

Tip: Want to see a rare site? The best part of the trail for me is to pick a point on a tall hill and follow the deer trails, the switchbacks that lead to the top.  There, at the top of the hill, you will see a site almost no one ever sees

  • The Bennett Creek Trail is about 6 miles south of the Long X Bridge and CCC Campground. You’ll see the brown sign used to identify recreation sites announcing Bennett Creek campground to the west. You’ll drive through ranch country and National Grasslands, then suddenly drop down in to the Badlands. (The National Grasslands is about 1.2 million acres of Western North Dakota.) Follow the winding gravel road to the Bennett Creek Campground and that’s where the trail starts.

    The Bennett Creek Trail follows Bennett Creek, sometimes next to the creek bed, but often on the valley floor above the creek bed.


Here are two links to help you learn more:

 Maah Daah HeyTrail Association

In 2016, the New York Times adventure/outdoors reporter tried a section of the trail and captured beauty and rawness in this story.


I have never met anyone who cannot enjoy at least a portion of the trail. Portions are handicap accessible.  All of it is inviting for anyone to enjoy. Some of it ranks among the most challenging experiences in the world!

Click here to read of another exploration opportunity, the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Get out there, and get back to me. Tell me what you encountered.  I’d love to learn of your experiences.

Stay tuned. The next post will focus on one of the most attractive visitor experience: Devils Pass.  Don’t slide off!

Subscribe to this blog to get updates as we post ideas for exploring the Beautiful Badlands.

Type “McKenzie” in the subject line here and you’ll receive via email a 22-page white paper with World Class sites such as the Maah Daah Hey all within a short drive from Watford City in McKenzie County.

 

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