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.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

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.


DRIVE TIME: The northernmost trailhead for the Maah Daah Hey is about 3 hours (175 miles) northwest of Bismarck.

THE WAY: From Bismarck, take I-94 west to US 85 north near Belfield and drive for almost 50 miles. The CCC campground and Maah Daah Hey trailhead are signed on the left, immediately before the bridge across the Little Missouri River. The southern terminus is in Sully Creek State Park, just off I-94 near Medora.

TRAILS: If you can’t hike the whole 96 miles, I recommend a 30-mile, point-to-point hike in the northern section. Jump on the Long X Trail at the CCC campground. After a 5-mile tour of the Little Missouri River Valley, the trail connects with the Maah Daah Hey. Head south for 25 miles to Forest Service Road 809 (just off County Road 50). Other access points allow you to carve the trail into any number of segments. The Forest Service plans to establish campsites every 15 miles along the trail.

DAYHIKE: For an 11-mile loop through the river valley, start at the CCC campground and hike the Long X Trail to the Maah Daah Hey. Instead of continuing south, follow that trail north back to the campground.

ELEVATION: Many of the buttes top out at 2,700 feet, while low points along the Little Missouri River are about 600 feet.

CAN’T MISS: Bennett and Cottonwood drainages for hard-core badlands scenery.

CROWD CONTROL: This is a multi-use trail (for hikers, horses, and bikers), but it’s rough country. You may see a few other people, but crowds are a North Dakota Tourism department fantasy.

GUIDES: The best map is the Forest Service’s plastic-coated Little Missouri National Grasslands, Maah Daah Hey Trail ($7, or $6 uncoated; see Contact below).

WALK SOFTLY: The trail is full of switchbacks. Don’t cut them. And be careful not to disturb archaeological relics or fossils.

CONTACT: McKenzie Ranger District, (701) 842-2393 (northern part) or Medora Ranger District, (701) 225-5151 (southern part), Dakota Prairie Grasslands; www.fs.fed.us/r1/dakotaprairie.

Trending on Backpacker