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.
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.
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.
Marked sections of the trail and offshoot trails, some only a quarter-mile long, are easily traversed by even the most challenged armchair explorer.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
Here are two links to help you learn more:
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!
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!
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