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Hiking North Dakota’s Badlands

You won't have a lot of company in North Dakota's badlands, which is why hiking the Maah Daah Hey Trail is so good.

Teddy Roosevelt once called North Dakota’s legendary badlands his “hero land” and later claimed that his experiences there prepared him for the rigors of the presidency. If that’s so, maybe we should require all presidential candidates to hike the Maah Daah Hey Trail before election day.

The Maah Daah Hey dips and twists for 96 character-building miles, paralleling the Little Missouri River and snaking through the Little Missouri National Grassland (which lies between the north and south units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park). Along the way, you encounter fantastic badlands hiking that makes you wonder why anyone called it bad in the first place.

In the first few miles, the Maah Daah Hey bounds from stark ridges to juniper- and buffaloberry-choked coulees, from wide-open prairies to big bluestem- and wheatgrass-covered buttes. But beautiful as it is, don’t expect much company. This is still rough-and-tumble territory, shaped by wind and rain and haunted by myth. Few venture here, but the rewards are great for those who do.

I kicked off my winding weekend trek at the northern end of the trail, hoping not to see another soul. The Maah Daah Hey obliged. In the late afternoon, before descending into the Bennett Creek drainage, I climbed a rise near Collar Draw. I breathed in the sage-scented air, then glassed the distant knolls in search of pronghorn, deer, and elk. What I saw was multicolored, knifelike ridges casting huge shadows, a kestrel hovering over a ragged cliff; and a bighorn sheep that serendipitously revealed itself before surefooting its way into a break.

Later, at my campsite in a cottonwood-shaded runnel, surrounded by side canyons and wildly shaped monuments, I realized that I was enjoying what Teddy must have felt after wandering this territory for the first time—tired, giddy, and darn near ready for anything.

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