5 amazing free or low cost world class points in McKenzie County

The county is larger than Washington DC, Rhode Island and Delaware. When settlers moved to the area, McKenzie County was known as an island and called the Island Empire. You cannot get to it without crossing water.stylized-map-of-mckenzie-county-map

The Missouri River, Yellowstone River and Little Missouri River set the boundaries of the county. They also contribute to the world-class recognition of McKenzie County.he largest county in the state, McKenzie County has always been fascinating, going back to the Dakota Territory days.

I was first intrigued by the county thanks to the historic McKenzie County Grazing Association, a rancher group intent on maintaining the industry and the environment that supports ranching. From there, my interest and my involvement in the county’s heritage grew.

There are five world-class points in the county:

  1. Four Bears Bridge
  2. Lake Sakakawea
  3. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
  4. Maah Daah Hey trail
  5. Rough Rider Event Center

Sure, you can take a day trip to buzz through all six locations, but why would you? We put this together so you can take advantage of vacation days, weekends or holidays through the year to explore the adventures, get insight and history of America. It’s  yours to enjoy.  Each site is free or very low cost.

Four Bears Bridge

The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $55 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design.  It won several international design contests and is recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.

Each sweeping arch is designed to transfer the load in to the piers and the rock bed 90 feet below the water. The chopped off cones at the base of the piers are designed to stand up to ice floes coming downstream.

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Walk the bridge to see artwork detailing the history of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation.  The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge.

Here’s what you can do here next to an internationally recognized engineering feat (and it’s free!):

  • Walk across,
  • Walk under
  • Follow the recreation trail,
  • Learn history
  • Have a picnic.

Lake Sakakawea

Lake Sakakawea is 180 miles long, providing public shoreline access from which sunrises and sunsets can be viewed.

Lake Sakakawea is 180 miles long, providing public shoreline access from which sunrises and sunsets can be viewed.

Damming the Missouri River at Garrison with Garrison Dam, created a magnificent 180-mile long lake with 1,530 miles of PUBLIC shoreline.  The Army Corps of Engineers says the lake covers 382,000 surface acres making it the largest manmade lake in North America where the entire shoreline is open to the public.

Pontoons, and other boats take full access of the 300,000 acre lake.

Pontoons and other boats take full access of the 300,000-acre lake.

It is world famous for its recreation, walleye fishing and its paddlefish snagging.

Here’s what you can do here next to this world-famous lake:

  • Hike the shoreline
  • Watch sunset/sunrise
  • Visit the parks
  • Learn history
  • Have a picnic
  • Fish
  • Boat (fishing, sail, jet ski)
  • Scuba Dive
  • Camp
  • Swim

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison roam freely at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are not domesticated, so give them plenty of space.

Bison roam freely at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are not domesticated, so give them plenty of space.

Undersold and over delivering as a National Park, the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TNRP) is on the south edge of McKenzie County.  It is a rugged wilderness with a variety of trails through the park to suit all types of hikers.  The roadway through the park takes visitors to the Riverbend Overlook cabin above the Little Missouri River.  Along the drive, it’s likely you will see a collection of bison or other species such as mule deer.

When Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1885, he was a skinny, young, spectacled dude from New York. He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life that TR experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.

–National Park System publication on the TRNP

On the Achenbach Trail, the views of the Little Missouri River Valley are outstanding.

On the Achenbach Trail, the views of the Little Missouri River Valley are outstanding.

It would seem a great number of visitors view the park through their windshield. They’re missing out. There are several trails in the park to accommodate all levels of fitness. One of the most challenging is the Achenbach Trail. It is 18 miles long and you can extend it into a two-day hike. (Anyone intending to camp in the backcountry must obtain a free backcountry permit prior to their trip. Permits are issued at the South Unit and North Unit visitor centers.)

Here’s what you can do here next to this National Park:

  • Hike
  • Picnic
  • Photograph
  • scout wildlife
  • access the river
  • research, browse books
  • drive

Maah Daah Hey trail (Otherwise knowns as the “lasting a long time” trail)

The world-class 125-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail attracts riders from all over the United States and many European nations.

The world-class 125-mile long Maah Daah Hey trail attracts riders from all over the United States and many European nations.

Imagine a 125-mile trek through Badlands wilderness on a mountain bike, horse or on foot. Mule and whitetail deer, antelope, wild turkeys, beaver, prairie dogs, and coyotes are often sighted, while an occasional golden eagle, red-tail hawk, or prairie falcon may be spotted soaring above. Bighorn sheep and elk have been reintroduced into the area and can be spotted by keen observers.

On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the Big Horn sheep.

On rare occasions, you can catch a glimpse of the Big Horn sheep.

Wildflowers such as this crocus adorn the trail.

Wildflowers such as this crocus adorn the trail.

The single-track mountain bike trail has attracted world riders to visit with their $4,000 bikes. You can rent mountain bikes on the south end of the Maah Daah Hey trail at Medora.

The dream was to connect the two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The actual planning and building took about 14 years. It’s a difficult trail to maintain through the erosive and wild Badlands. In recent years, your tax dollars have not been spent to keep it up. Locals including the Save the Maah Daah Hey trail group sculpt and mow the trail. The group hosts the annual Maah Daah Hey 100 mountain bike ride: 100-miles in one day. The winning time is just minutes under 10 hours.

There is no time of year that is a bad time to strike out on the trail. Of course, North Dakota’s legendary afternoon and evening thunderstorms can make the trail very challenging even for the most experienced adventurer.  dead-tree-in-the-brush-color-sig

Don’t be scared off by the massive challenge the Maah Daah Hey can present.  There are plenty of short-access hikes, here’s where you can get on the trail to get in to the Badlands:

  • CCC Campground
  • Summit Campground
  • Bennet Creek
  • Beicegel Creek
  • Highway 50 West of Grassy Butte

Rough Rider Event Center

img_3287Imagine a $100-million indoor swimming pool with a few extra features.  That’s a silly way to describe the Rough Rider Event Center.  It is an auditorium, arena, gymnasium, and indoor water park, swimming pool, walking track, two ice hockey rinks, convention center, coffee shop and restaurant. Concerts, conventions, hockey and basketball tournaments draw thousands of people to the Rough Rider Event Center.

Architect’s specs:

  • 22,000-square-foot multi-use field house
  • Three basketball courts
  • Removable artificial turf
  • 1,000-seat hockey arena
  • Separate practice hockey rink
  • 3,000-seat arena for sporting events and concerts
  • Eight executive suites
  • 12,000-square-foot gymnastics club
  • 10,000 square feet of convention space
  • Continuous elevated running track.

img_3279

Watford City visitors can use the facility for a surprisingly low fee. For $7.00 visitors can enjoy daily use of any open activities, including swimming.

Just because these are the six world-class sites in McKenzie does not mean there are no more incredible places such as the Long X Museum and Visitor Center, art galleries and coffee houses in Watford City,  Fairview Lift Bridge, the Cartwright Tunnel,  Grassy Butte and its post office, the Frontier Village, the museum at Alexander.

There’s a lot more to these five world-class sites. Type the word McKenzie in the subject line of the contact form to know:
  • more about each one
  • how to get to each one
  • recommendations activities at each site
  • the history of each site
It’s free!
We’ll send you a 20-page travelogue for free just because we think McKenzie County is worth bragging about and you will too.  So, have a good time.
 
Oh, and click to subscribe to this blog to learn more of events, locations, activities each week. Pictures, information, and helps each week are posted here.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy the cold that keeps out riff raff — healthy people do

It’s not easy keeping up your spirits when winter and polar vortexes catapult the thermometer in to a region well below zero.  What do you do to keep out the invading winter blues?  Some people fall prey to the knighthood of long dark nights when the kingdom of cold invades.

It is possible not to fall to the avenging onslaught of relentless waves of killer cold fronts, but you have to work at it. You have to look for it.  You have to venture out to see the beauty of the season.  That may mean adjusting your schedule a bit. The Golden Hour is mid-afternoon, that last hour when the landscape turns gold.  On a holiday, such as New Years Day, the first sunset of the year is mid-afternoon, about 4:30.  That is when I forced myself to break free from the clutches of the cold to get out with my camera to capture the day.

The first sunset of 2014

The first sunset of 2014

One of the things I’ve come to discover about North Dakotans is they accept the things they cannot change and change the things they can.  So, when record-breaking cold weather sets in, they know they can do nothing about the weather, but they can do something about their own comfort or their own activity.  Of course it’s easier to do nothing and fall prey to the demons of darkness.  Taking a step to fight back is what many healthy people of the cold north such as North Dakotans do every winter.

965859_719882948021983_1441034643_oskis point to the clearing other side of woods wtrmrk     Some will go cross-country skiing.  Cross Ranch, a quiet state park where groomed cross-country ski trails weave through a cottonwood forest that stood here when Lewis and Clark tugged their boats up the Missouri River.

For some of us, it means layering up.  I’ve spent the coldest days of the winter working in my anti-starvation work. Outside.  Attempting to stay warm while keeping the bills paid.I wear as many as 7 layers of clothing when I know I’ll be working outside. I caught this image of myself in the mirror of the tractor I was driving.

The John Deere way to view the winter.

The John Deere way to view the winter.

  • Short underwear
  • Long underwear
  • Jeans
  • sleeveless T-shirt
  • Long Sleeve T-shirt
  • Flannel shirt
  • Bib overalls
  • Hooded sweatshirt
  • Coveralls
  • Parka and
  • Hoodie face and neck protection

Camera and me in tractor cab

Not everyone has to work outside. And not everyone can resign themselves to the fact there are some things (like cold weather) that you just can’t do much about.  Sure, North Dakotans could sit at home and complain, and wait for spring, or they could get out and do something about it.  The North Dakotans I know choose to enjoy it.  For some, that means racing up a hill in to town.02-24-10 snowmobiles

Or for some who know they can’t change the weather, but they can change their activities, it means diving in to those winter hobbies.  I’m fortunate to have a wood shop where I teach myself how to build wood frames for my prints.

open door to wood burning stove logs inside

Wood burning stove keeps things warm and friendly on a cold winter night.

wood and the table saw  The wood stove sits quiet, unused and neglected much of the year.  However, this time of the year, it’s actually a rewarding way to get out of the cold.  I love burning wood to stay warm.

It’s all about attitude, isn’t it.  I think that’s one of the healthiest things about North Dakotans.  They work at keeping up their spirits when the cold keeps out the riff raff.  What’s a good way to enjoy winter and beat the winter blues?

How to silence the noise of the day.

I’m tired of the noise. Aren’t you? The noise of the election. The noise of culture clashes. The noise in my own head.

So, when an assignment to shoot landscape out west, came along, I jumped at it immediately.

hay field, grasslands and in the distance, the Badlands

The Badlands in the distance interrupt the hay fields of the National Grasslands

The assignment was to photograph 20,000 acres of land along the ND/MT border that hadn’t changed much since Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted there in the late 1800s.  20,000 acres is about 30 square miles of rugged ranch land; the Beaver Creek Ranch. It was a warmer than normal November day, and weather conditions promised good light and good temperatures for exploring.

The further west we went, the more noise I left behind.

On the North Dakota/Montana border we turned north off of Interstate 94 on to a state highway, (we = Mary, Gunnar the foster dog and me).  Instantly, traffic disappeared; as far as we could see, the two-lane highway was ours.  Our mission was to find the rancher who owned the land designated as PLOTS land – Private Land Open To Sportsmen.

Triangle PLOTS signs mark areas where hunters and others can enter even though it is privately owned.

The sign marks land set aside under a cooperative agreement with the rancher. It is Private Land Open To Sportsmen, or PLOTS.

We saw the triangle signs marking PLOTS land, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Oh-oh! The noise in my head started coming back as I searched fruitlessly for the region I was assigned to photography.  I was frustrated, and so was the dog.  He wanted to get out to explore, so did Mary and I.  We kept driving. The old saying about finding your destination in North Dakota is true: If you think you’ve gone too far, you’re halfway there.

We checked out one gravel road to the east.  A herd of antelope grazed in a hay field.  That’s not what we were looking for, but it was a promise of things to come. Things were getting quieter.

Antelope or prarie goats were often spotted by Lewis and Clark when they came through here.

Antelope – or prairie goats as some people call them are wary critters who keep a long distance from people.

 

Back on the highway, a bit farther north and we found it. The Beaver Creek Ranch.  And wouldn’t ya know it, there it was, right on Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek Ranch sign, PLOTS sign and map

The Beaver Creek Ranch PLOTS acreage is well-marked and includes a map that designates three parking areas. The area is for foot traffic only.

Earlier, I had called the rancher a couple of times and left voice mails, but got no reply.  I did get hold of one of the sponsors of the PLOTS program who told me to go on in.  He said I’d find at least three parking areas and recommended the one further in, back by the corrals.

The road starts out like a gravel road, and later it becomes a two-track trail. We rumbled and rocked across the basin where Beaver Creek meandered.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The bottom ground is the bottom of a basin that is sliced by Beaver Creek.  The rancher has one bridge but most of the time, he has to cross the creek by fords.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.

 

By the time we got to the corrals, the day was ending, the sun was setting and the moon was rising.  Now that may sound like a bad time to arrive, but it was a good time. It’s called The Golden Hour when shadows show contrast and the landscape is golden. There was no noise, not in my head, not in the surroundings.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

As Mary explored the hills and ridges to the south, I went north.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it's foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it’s foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

It wasn’t exactly silent, there is always a bit of a breeze rustling the grass and sweeping around the rocks.  But that’s not noise.  That’s a lullaby.  It’s soothing enough to make a fella breathe easy.   When I got to the top of the ridge and looked below me, the entire basin of Beaver Creek Ranch wandered northward from my perch.  The longer I gazed, the more I could see.  And none of it was noisy.

To the north, the rancher's access road snakes through the hills.

To the north, the rancher’s access road snakes through the hills.

I sat down and traced the distant trails where deer and cattle crossed the basin.  I scouted the hills to the north to trace where water flowed down to the creek, and where the rancher could access further pastures and hills to the north.

The sun was setting, the colors were turning gold and the contrast of shadows on the bluffs slowly covered the landscape.  And there was no noise.corral-rising-moon-sig-small

Once the sun disappeared, wildlife appeared.  Mule deer abound in the region.  mule-deer-pauses-inlight-sig-small young-mule-deer-on-ridge-toward-sun-sig-small mule-deer-doe-with-burrs-sig-smallThe area also includes turkeys, coyotes and elk.  There is evidence that an occasional mountain lion crosses the region.

It’s the absolute contrast to the noise of civilization, a part of North Dakota that many people don’t know about. Does that sound like something you could use in your world? Glad to give you directions if you want.

 

 

Reasons to see North Dakota in the fall, photo safari — Evening gold Pt 1.

sunflower-gravel-road-and-golden-hour-sig-small

Domesticated sunflowers never rotate with the sun unlike their natural cousins that follow the sun. That’s why this mature field of sunflowers face east with the sun at their back. (One reason I like this photo, besides the leading lines is the hot/cold contrast of ground color and sky color.)

This fall, I’ve taken to exploring the last hour of the day with camera and dog.  That’s  easy to do because the golden hour is actually pretty early these autumn days; the colors are warm and the contrasting light is illuminating.  The golden hour, the golden sunset and the golden colors are striking.

mike-gunnar-sunset-prairie

Gunnar the foster dog leaps through tall prairie grasses on our walks. The golden grass, yellow skies and his yellow fur compliment each other

About 4:00 or so, the dog gets pretty alert and by 5:00, he’s ready to go.   He’ll pace back and forth or stand by the back door until I am ready.  Then he gets to the truck to wait for me, and off we go to find an abandoned section line road to explore.

eight-wind-turbines

Even just eight wind turbines disrupt the horizon. Imagine what 105 turbines do to the landscape.

Up until about 8 years ago, there were more opportunities, but more than 100 wind turbines were set up south and east of me.  There’s not much enjoyment in shooting miles and miles of wind turbines.  I find them to be intrusive. So to avoid the wind turbines, now I explore west and north of Wilton, mostly north.  There are not too many golden hour opportunities to the west. The Missouri River is about 8 miles from me, the hills and valleys separate section line roads. I stick to roads and section line paths, staying off private property, so there are not many chances to get out and photograph the area without trespassing on a farmer’s property.  I’ve been heading north of Wilton where there are more gravel roads and abandoned section line roads.golden-sunset-north-of-wilton-corn-and-gravel-road-sig-small

Our routine is similar each night. We drive until we find a good place to stop, then walk, looking for patterns, images to capture. Well, I look for them. The dog, he’s just off running.  It’s his free time.

abandond-house-in-the-middle-of-he-prairie-golden-hills-dark-sky-sig

I couldn’t see any approach roads. It’s just a house in the middle of the stubble field.

Sometimes we come across a surprising revelation. In this case (photo below),  we parked the truck, hiked up over the hill and caught the lower valley beyond the hill. An abandoned house with no noticeable roads or lanes nearby, just sitting in the middle of a small grain stubble field.

mature-sunflower-head-with-bokeh-sig

No longer yellow and green, but still attractive with the nubbly texture of a raw sunflower head.

Other times we walk along a yet-to-be harvested field. As I noted above, sunflowers are some of the last to come off, weeks after small grains and beans.

john-deer-pulling-grain-cart-sig

Hauling roughly a half-semi trailer of grain, a powerful John Deere on tracks not wheels heads to the working combine to unload the combine hopper as it keeps moving down the rows.

Sometimes we’ll be headed down a trail, and can hear the sound of million-dollars of machinery working.  Fields are so large that farmers need a grain cart pulled by a high-powered tractor to collect the grain from the working combine out in the field, and then haul it to the end of the field and a waiting truck.

Drive or walk to the other end of the section and you’ll come up on the combine doing it’s season-ending work. .

combining-corn-john-deer-sunset-sig-small

Sunset behind, the farmer keeps working to finish his cornfield.

It’s not too profound of a statement to say that this is an agricultural area, but that does not mean there are not opportunities to get in to wildlife regions.  I’ll see what I can do to show you that, next time.  Do you have fall hiking areas in North Dakota that you can recommend?  What are section line roads like in your area?

 

Between the rancher's fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.

Between the rancher’s fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.

 

5 FREE things to do in North Dakota’s Badlands

Quick! Before school starts!

You’ve got a bit of time to gather the tribe of kids, family and friends to get out west and see a part of North Dakota that’s easily missed.  The best part is, the biggest cost will be your gasoline because there’s plenty to do in Western North Dakota that will build memories.  Here are five free things to finish out your summer memories.

#5 Fort Union Trading Post

Fort Union Trading post -- an authentic reproduction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fort Union Trading post — an authentic reproduction. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you and your family like regional history or Lewis and Clark experiences, then head to the northwestern part of the state, and get right up to the Montana border.  About halfway between Sidney, Montana and Williston, North Dakota is the Fort Union Trading Post.  Late summer, it’s a fairly quiet place for you to explore.  In June the rendezvous brings the era  of the early 1800’s to life.  Decades before the Civil War, settlers, trappers, soldiers and tribes from the Northern Plains met here peacefully to trade goods.

This free stop on your late-summer tour of western North Dakota is best enjoyed by older children and adults. (But don’t worry, there are several other nearby sites such as Fort Buford and the Confluence Center that will keep the younger ones entertained. Or the best for all family members is nearby. It’s #1 in this list.)

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river -- minus the wheat fields.

Approaching from Sidney, take a gravel road north to the river to see how the trading post must have looked to trappers and tribes from across the river — minus the wheat fields.

From inside the Fort, looking back to the other side of the river, in the trees where the  shot above was taken.

From inside the Fort, looking back to the other side of the river, in the trees where the shot above was taken.

  To keep the youngest members of your group entertained, you probably won’t stay here long, but there are two more stops nearby.  Head around the bend to Fort Buford where you can camp (for a fee) or explore the Confluence Visitor Center and get three views of early Plains life.

#4 Wander Medora (but is this really free? Ice cream has a cost.)

It doesn’t cost anything to wander the streets of Medora.  There are several good places to eat.  If you’re an ice cream lover you’ll get surprisingly large servings.  Ice Cream at Medora is actually a summer goal for many families.  It’s easy to get to Medora, right off of I-94, about 25 miles from the Montana border.

If you and your family want to take advantage of the exercise opportunity, take your bicycles.  It’s free to pedal the streets and trails nearby. Many families do. There’s no cost to bicycle the town, take the East River Road south of town,  or take the recreation trail across the Little Missouri River to the west of Medora.

An option that is not free is to rent bicycles in town. Or bicycle in to the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll have to pay the entrance fee.  Its entrance is on the edge of Medora.

A family takes advantage of the paved bicycle trails around Medora and out in the country.

A family takes advantage of the paved bicycle trails around Medora and out in the country.

Pay the entrance fee and take a bicycle ride in to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  Take supplies, though.  You will need to carry plenty of water.

Pay the entrance fee and take a bicycle ride in to the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Take supplies, though. You will need to carry plenty of water.

North Dakota’s legendary Maah Daah Hey trail is a mountain biker’s dream. Families can get access to as much or as little of it as they want — free.  You don’t need a bicycle. Your feet go with you, right? Take them and use them.

Maps of the trail are available on-line, or buy the most comprehensive map from the U.S. Forst Service.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

#3 Hike the Maah Daah Hey — head to the Ice Caves

Even short little hikes will keep the youngest in your family entertained if they know the destination is right down the path.  For a short hike with a rewarding destination, park at the Ice Caves Maah Daah Hey parking lot and take a half-mile hike to a cooling spot.   The Ice Caves is part of the Maah Daah Hey trail. It’s about 10 miles south of Grassy Butte on Highway 85 and then 10 miles west on a gravel road #713.  In the spring, snow run off melts in to the cave and freezes on the floor.  This time of year, there’s no ice, but it’s a great place to climb inside to cool off.

Inside the Ice Cave

Inside one of the Ice Caves

Hike around to the north of the Ice Caves to get a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands.

Hike around to the north of the Ice Caves to get a spectacular view of the North Dakota Badlands.  The caves are directly below where I’m sitting on the edge.

The Maah Daah Hey trail is marked with the turtle-branded sign posts, so it’s easy to follow the route.  Markers along the way give you information of different trails you can take

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves.  It's a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campround it's about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.

Hike the Maah Daah Hey to the Ice Caves. It’s a short jaunt, less than a mile from the Ice Caves Parking lot. From the Magpie Campround it’s about 3 miles, a full afternoon hike.

#2 North Dakota grasslands

A short hike in to the Long X Trail south of Watford City will open the valley to your family’s challenge. You can stay on the trail at the bottom of the valley, or pick a point and climb to the top.

Some of the best trails for a family are the Long X Trail south of Watford City on the southern edge of the Little Missouri River.  Near Grassy Butte are the Beicegel Trail and the Bennett Creek Trail.  Signs on Highway 85 direct you to both trails. They are easy trails, both give you a flat starting out point and provide hill-top challenges that reward you with a spectacular view.  Tall wooden markers along the trail are easy to follow.

The best views are from up on high.

The best views are from up on high.

Climbing seems is a favorite passion of children, so pick a high point that matches their skills.  Even the shortest of the tall bluffs and buttes gives kids a chance to build their muscles and their confidence.

A rest break is called for on the climb up a bluff off the trail.

A rest break is called for on the climb up a bluff off the trail.

Oliver, my grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Oliver, my 6-year old grandson likes the challenge of a good climb

Click here to Read more about the Maah Daah Hey south of Medora

#1 Fairview Lift Bridge and the Cartwright Tunnel

North Dakota's only lift bridge was retired from service before it ever lifted for a steamboat.

An autumn shot of North Dakota’s only lift bridge was retired from service before it ever lifted for a steamboat.

This free exploration will entertain the entire family.  It’s on highway 200 at the North Dakota-Montana state line.  To the west of the Fairview lift bridge, or on the right side of this above photo is the parking log and entrance to the fenced-off walkway across the bridge.

The safety fence gives families a safe place to walk the Fairview Lift Bridge.  Children love the view from high above the water.

The safety fence gives families a safe place to walk the Fairview Lift Bridge. Children love the view from high above the water.

Once you start the walk across the bridge, you’ll get a great view of the well-maintained park below where you can enjoy a picnic in the shade of the trees.

Below the Fairview Lift Bridge is a park where you can fish.

Below the Fairview Lift Bridge is a park where you can fish.

The final reward of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Cartwright Tunnel.

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

Built by hand, trains passed trough this tunnel until about 1986.

Until the mid-1980’s trains passed through the tunnel across the bridge.  It’s a quarter-mile long pass through the hill and provides children with a memorable experience — but take a flashlight. It gets dark in there until you get close to the opposite end.

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight bend in it. Flashlights illuminate the way.

The Cartwright Tunnel has a slight bend in it. Flashlights illuminate the way.

Exploring the tunnel thrills youngsters, but oldsters will be impressed with the knowledge the tunnel was built by hand by local ranchers and farmers using picks, shovels, ox or donkey carts.  It’s guaranteed that you will at some point utter one word: “wowl!”  It’s more impressive than you would think of a bridge and tunnel.

Click here to see the Facebook Page called “Beautiful Bakken” for more on the bridge and tunnel

The nearby Snowden Lift bridge is still in use. It’s downstream about 12 miles.  You can see more about it here.

Downstream (north) of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Snowden Lift bridge.  Though it no longer lifts, trains still cross the river on the Snowden bridge.

Downstream (north) of the Fairview Lift Bridge is the Snowden Lift bridge. Though it no longer lifts, trains still cross the river on the Snowden bridge.

Click here to see more about the Snowden Lift Bridge

Admittedly, these free family features are on the sparsely settled region of North Dakota. So, if you’re planning a visit, pack a picnic, or plan to stop in Sidney, Mt, Williston, ND, Medora, ND,  or Dickinson, ND for a bite to eat and a break from your day of discovery.  It’s all free, if you take a lunch, pack your bicycles if you want, and explore legendary North Dakota.

Five tips to get your best photos from the North Dakota Badlands.

Your camera -- never leave home without it. It's easier than you may think to get your stellar images of the North Dakota Badlandds

Your camera — never leave home without it. It’s easier than you may think to get your stellar images of the North Dakota Badlands

Want pretty pictures of the Badlands? Go buy a post card.

Want to capture your own one-of-a-kind keepsake memory of the Badlands?  Go get it. It’s easier than you think – if you are willing to slow down, get out of your car and look for it.

Just about suppertime, from any high point, venus' belt makes a good backdrop for your landscape photo.

Just about suppertime, from any high point, venus’ belt makes a good backdrop for your landscape photo.

There are thousands of square miles of unsullied beauty in the Badlands of North Dakota. In those endless horizons are millions of your own scenes to capture, frame and display back home.  Here’s how in five easy tips: Timing, Temperament, Tools, Tenacity, and Technique.

Timing – it’s all about light.  North Dakota is blessed with clean clear air.  Smog?  Nope.  Hazy humidity? Gone.   You’ve got unfettered access to the sun, almost.  You’re still 95,000,000 miles from it, but that’s close enough to get the shots you will want to display.

Avoid mid-day when the sun is high and bright. As you know, the Badlands are endless contours of bluffs, buttes, slopes, hills, canyons and valleys.  It takes shadows to show them and those shadows are strongest early in the morning or late in the day.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Shooting at the ends of the day means you also get the advantage of the Golden Hour when the solar Rapunzel lets down her golden locks and the landscape takes on a golden or yellow cast.   Generally, that’s the first hour and the last hour of daylight. Depending on where you are in the Badlands, you could be out at sunrise which is about 5:45 a.m. in June, or out at sunset which is about 9:45 p.m.

And if you like to take sunset photos – turn around.  Put your back to the sun and shoot Venus’ Belt as it appears in the east at sunset.

Tip: Late-day landscapes are better than noon-day landscapes

Temperament – take it easy, but keep moving.  If you want to jump out of your car, run to the edge of an overlook and shoot the scene, you are better off performing that activity at a gas station where you can run in and buy a postcard.    Sadly that’s what many people do, drive through one of the Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, pull over to the side of the road, snap a shot and head home.

Park your car, (you don’t want it to roll away down a bluff or butte) and walk.  If you’re stopped at a ridge or hilltop, you’ll have a relatively easy time finding a vantage point.  If you are down below, be prepared to hike. You don’t have to hike to the tallest point, but the higher up you go, the more you will see.  The trails that have been cut in the parks, or the Maah Daah Hey trail make it easy to walk to the top.  You can make your own trail as long as you are on public land.  Make a zig-zag “Z” pattern of switchbacks up the hill, stopping at each point on the repeated “Z” pattern.  It’s encouraging to see how far you’ve climbed and at each point, you get a new view.

Tip: Don’t get in a hurry. 

Don't get in a hurry. Take time to look -- and feel. You'll feel the shot more than you see the shot.

Don’t get in a hurry. Take time to look — and feel. You’ll feel the shot more than you see the shot.

Absorb – that’s the key activity. Absorb and feel what you see.  It takes a quiet and still temperament to absorb what you are about to see.  It’s in that moment of absorption that you can see the details, the shading, the colors the contrasts that will give you the image you want to capture.

Tools – we’re not talking camera gear here.  An expensive camera doesn’t take any better photos than an expensive computer writes a better document.  The tools we’re talking about here are an accurate weather report and a good map. If you have a GPS system on your phone, that can be handy, but a paper map is preferred. All of western North Dakota is covered by the US Forest Service maps.  The maps are matchless for showing you what you need to know:

  • Public groomed trails such as the Maah Daah Hey or other marked trails.
  • Gravel roads and two-track trails to show you where to get off the highways.
  • Points of Interest – historical, geographical and topographical.
  • Topography – the closer the lines, the more steep the terrain.
  • Water – most of which is not drinkable.

The U.S. Forest Service Maps are updated regularly. You can get the latest map from the visitor centers at the Theodore Roosevelt Parks, or at the US Forest Service Office in Bismarck, Watford City or Dickinson.  They cost about $13. They’re worth it!

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can take.

The U.S. Forest Service map costs about $13 and is the most valuable tool (other than your camera) that you can buy.

A GPS on your phone will give you the precise location at any moment. With that information, you can coordinate on the Forest Service map to see not only where you are, but where you are going.

A critical element is a weather forecast.  North Dakota’s weather is notorious for frequent and sudden changes.  It lies in the middle of the continent and several different weather systems from different direction influence conditions. So, one thing you can do is monitor trends before you set out on your photo safari.  About three to five days before your photo safari, look up the weather forecast for where you expect to go.

Forecasts are updated several times a day, so check twice a day, such as 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. every day.  Notice the changes or trends in the anticipated temperatures, rain chances or cloud cover.  That practice will give you more of a motion picture sense of what to expect.  Checking just once as you head out the door will give you only a snapshot of what to expect.  It’s better to see the weather pattern than the weather snapshot.

Beyond those specific tools, good shoes and proper clothing will allow you to not only get to the place where you can get a good shot, but will also provide you the comfort you need to be patient.   Warm enough when temps are cool, protective enough when mosquitoes are out.  Discomfort will prompt you to hurry your exploration for a shot, so get comfortable.

Tip: Prepare yourself with comfort and knowledge.

Tenacity – don’t stop, don’t give up.  The shot you’re looking for is over the next hill. Drive, walk or ride over the next hill and you’ll see something new.  If it’s not as spectacular as that scene two hills back, turn around and go back.  Or shoot as you go, it keeps getting better and when you get home you can decide which one is the best shot – but keep moving.

From time to time,  turn around.  It’s easy to get so focused on what is in front of you, that you may miss the beauty behind you. So, from time to time, turn around to see the scene you just came through.

Remember that point about absorbing the scene, the moment?  One of the greatest mindsets you can embrace to get the stellar shot you seek is to keep yourself prodded with this question: “What if?”  “What if I climbed that butte, what would I see?”  “What if I followed this deer trail, where would it lead?”

I wonder where that goes...is where great visual discoveries begin.

I wonder where that goes…is where great visual discoveries begin.

Parallel to that question is this postulate: “I wonder where that goes.” As you see a road heading over the hill don’t be afraid to check it out—with caution.

Take a short hike, or if you’re still driving and haven’t got out of your vehicle yet, take that two-track trail, but remember: it’s  good to be in a reliable vehicle. There are no corner service stations out here.  You need something to get over ruts and ridges and up and down the hills.

The point is this.  Just because where you are standing at the moment doesn’t yield the shot you are looking for, don’t give up.  Investigate the next curve, the next hill, the next trail.  Be tenacious in your search for the shot you want.

Tip: Be curious.

Technique – do what you do best. 

What is it in the scene that you want to shoot?  Is it the buffalo on the trail, the Little Missouri River down below, the abandoned jalopy?  Decide what is it in the scene that caught your eye, and crop out anything else that is distracting. Avoid visual distractions, zoom in on the subject.

Not all the intriguing shots are found on the trail. The next farm, the next small town may have a great shot. Zero in on what catches your eye, remove the background distractions.

Not all the intriguing shots are found on the trail. The next farm, the next small town may have a great shot. Zero in on what catches your eye, remove the background distractions.

It shouldn’t take a viewer of your photo more than an instant to determine what the photo is about.

Once you know what your photo is about, and are cropping out the distractions by zooming in on the subject, align the photo but don’t put it smack dab in the center of the photo. If you are shooting a landscape photo, don’t put the horizon right across the middle of the image.  In fact,  some time when you are out and about anywhere outside, notice how much of your view is sky.  It’s often the majority if your view, it’s one way you can capture what you see — include the sky.

On the vertical line of a tic-tac-toe board, the prairie dog!

On the vertical line of a tic-tac-toe board, the prairie dog!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whether it’s landscape you’re shooting, or anything else that catches your eye in the Badlands, remember the rule of thirds, and place your subject at or near one of the crosshairs of a tic-tac-toe board.  Even if it’s a close-up of an image like the face of a horse, put the eyes on the third.

Tip: Don’t abandoned basic photo techniques

 

The abandoned rail car in this shot is on the lower horizontal line of a tic-tac-toe board. (rule of thirds.)

The abandoned rail car in this shot is on the lower horizontal line of a tic-tac-toe board. The horizon is on the top horizontal line.  (rule of thirds.)

Like we said at the start of this article, the best times of the day to shoot the Badlands of Western North Dakota do not include mid-day.  At all times, when shooting outside, adjust the sun in relation to your subject. The sun should be at your shoulder.  Don’t shoot in to it, nor have it directly behind you.  If you put it at your shoulder, you’ll get the contrast you need to show texture and variety in your subject.

In all cases, the best advice is to borrow from Nike’s saying, “just do it, just shoot it.”

Tip: Just shoot it.

There’s more to capturing the image than merely taking the photo. The bragging rights come from the adventure you took to get that shot.  It bears repeating to your friends and family repeating the details of the work it took to get you to where you found that stellar shot. There are millions of vantage points in the North Dakota Badlands, got get on one and get your shot.

 

An amazing find — a little known Indian Scout Cemetery honors fallen U.S. Soldiers

Indian Scout Post #1 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation between White Shield and Parshall is a nearly forgotten veteran cemetery. The Old Scout Society has kept alive the memory of the tribal members who served in the U.S. Army since the time of General Custer. (photo courtesy of Mary Tastad of Mary's Photos)

Indian Scout Post #1 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation between White Shield and Parshall is a nearly forgotten veteran cemetery. The Old Scout Society has kept alive the memory of the tribal members who served in the U.S. Army since the time of General Custer. (photo courtesy of Mary Tastad of Mary’s Photos)

There’s no other place on earth like this place.  There is only one Old Scouts Society and this is the graveyard where the Society honors their war dead.  Here lay members of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who served in the U.S. military.

Relatives leave memorials at the site of their ancestors who served in the U.S. Military.

Relatives leave memorials at the site of their ancestors who served in the U.S. Military.

The tradition of scouts from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara goes back nearly 200 years.  Today, the Society is a group of relatives of those historic soldiers.  They honor the U.S. Army veterans of the Indian Wars and other tribal members who served in all branches after the Indian Wars.old scouts_0005

old scouts_0009

 

old scouts_0002Go back to the first Hidatsa scout, Sakakawea (Hidatsa pronunciation suh-CAG-a-wee-uh).  She and her husband Charbonneau helped the Corps of Discovery find its way west and back again.sagawea-picture-1

Later when the U.S. Army occupied this region to protect the railroad expansion to the west coast, Army commanders relied on scouts from these tribes to provide intelligence about the tribe’s hostile opponents, the warriors of the Sioux Nation. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara scouts carried dispatches, found food and water, tracked game and served as interpreters.

Several unrelated events converged to create the birth of the long-standing tradition of tribal members joining the U.S. military.  In 1873, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were stationed at Fort Lincoln, south of Mandan, North Dakota.  The Seventh Cavalry was to protect the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey crews who had been attacked by hostile Sioux.

A rebuilt blockhouse above Fort Lincoln marks the uppermost reach of the Fort where General Custer and his scouts once lived.

A rebuilt blockhouse above Fort Lincoln marks the uppermost reach of the Fort where General Custer and his scouts once lived.

Before Custer, hostile Sioux were at war with neighboring tribes, including the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara who had withstood the Sioux attacks, at first.  Then, small pox wiped out nearly all the three tribes so they banded together to defend themselves against the Sioux.  Forming a confederacy between the three tribes, was insufficient, they were not strong enough to battle the Sioux, so they aligned themselves with the new and stronger opposition to the Sioux – the Blue Coats or the Seventh Cavalry – the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

At first, the Arikara or Ree were the principal tribe to supply scouts for Custer.  From 1872 until the late 1800’s Arikara scouts were the backbone of the Army’s scouts.

A few soldiers are buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan including some of Custer's scouts from the Hidatsa and Arikara tribes

A few soldiers are buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan including some of Custer’s scouts from the Hidatsa and Arikara tribes

One of the earliest scouts was Red Bear who later was joined by his younger brother Boy Chief.  He was one of the first scouts to die in a skirmish with the Sioux while stationed at Fort Lincoln along the Missouri River south of present day Mandan.

Bobtailed Bull, one of Custer's favorite scouts in the Indian Wars against the Sioux is second from the left.

Bobtailed Bull, one of Custer’s favorite scouts in the Indian Wars against the Sioux is second from the left.

Boy Chief tells the story of his enlistment like this: “Bobtail Bull brought me to Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1872.  Bobtail Bull took me to headquarters to ‘touch the pen’ to my enlistment papers.  I thought the medical examination would throw me out, as I was very young.  But I passed.  In another building, an officer gave me a gun, clothing and two gray blankets.”

Bobtail Bull was one of the first Indian scouts to be promoted and receive a commission under Lt. Col Custer who often bragged of this Arikara scout when in Washington.  Custer said of Sergeant Bobtail Bull that he was a man of good heart and good character.  He promised that if anything happened to Bobtail Bull and his fellow scouts that “their reward will not be forgotten by the government.”

It is said that a good scout who was promoted as Bobtailed Bull was promoted, could earn more than the $13/month paid most soldiers and in some cases earned as much as $50/month

Sgt. Bobtail Bull was one of the first under Custer to fall at Little Big Horn. That was despite the fact that Custer would not use his scouts as a fighting force except for skirmishes. Bobtail Bull, however, boasted of his experience in fighting the Sioux and stood ready for whatever battle commands Custer ordered.

Custer used the scouts to find the enemy, report their movement and act as couriers.  On the day of the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer ordered Bobtail Bull and other scouts to “take the horses away from the Sioux camp. Take away as many horses as possible.”  Custer knew that a warrior on foot was no match for a soldier on horse.

Bobtail Bull's grave site is at Little Big Horn, one of the few Hidatsa Scouts in a marked grave off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bobtail Bull’s grave site is at Little Big Horn, one of the few Hidatsa Scouts in a marked grave off the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Bobtail Bull got separated from the rest of the troops. Sioux warriors grouped behind him, separating him from help and from escape.  A dense swarm of Sioux rode against him and he attempted to fall back. He was left as a solitary horseman, surrounded by circling warriors.  He was shot off his horse and so became one of the first to fall at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Like Bobtail Bull, Red Bear, Boy Chief and others the scouts who served in the U.S. Army from 1866 to 1914 at most western forts, these scouts served with fidelity, placing their unique skills at the disposal of the frontier army.  To the shame of the U.S. Government, many of these brave soldiers were harshly treated after they served the U.S. Army.  For some, prison, poor health, disabilities or even death was the future they faced after serving the United States.  Many have been completely forgotten.

(A contemporary of Custer who worked with tribal members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara left an influence on the people who remains today.  To learn of Harold Case’ missionary work see this link: http://wp.me/pOdPo-HP )

In 1979 the Old Scouts Society of White Shield was established. The group cares for and maintains Post #1 Cemetery at White Shield where several of the scouts of the Seventh Cavalry are buried alongside veterans of WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam.old scouts_0003

In 1983, the Fort McKeen Detachment, Old Scouts Society was officially formed. Organizers included the grandsons of Bears Belly who was one of the original scouts who served under Custer at Fort Lincoln.

The Fort McKeen Detachment of the Old Scouts Society is dedicated to correcting misconceptions about the scouts who served in the U.S. Army.  Members educate the public about the military scouts and work to keep alive the stories of how the historic scouts influenced American and North Dakota history.  They work to preserve and honor the gravesites of the scouts buried at Fort Abraham Lincoln south of Mandan.  They also help maintain the Old Scouts Cemetery west of Garrison, North Dakota on Highway 1804.

The Indian Scout Cemetery, also known as the Old Scouts Cemetery is near White Shield, North Dakota.  On New Years Eve, 2014, it stood quietly against the setting sun.

The Indian Scout Cemetery, also known as the Old Scouts Cemetery is near White Shield, North Dakota. On New Years Eve, 2014, it stood quietly against the setting sun.

As often as possible, I go past the cemetery, usually on motorcycle. I stop to tend to fallen flags and other markers left to honor this group of war dead who contributed much but received so little recognition for their sacrifice.  old scouts_0001Have you taken the scenic drive past Garrison, up to Parshall on 1804?  Did you see the Old Scouts Cemetery?

(This article is excerpted from a script I wrote for a documentary on the Old Scouts Society — yet unproduced. It is the product of months of research at the Fort Berthold Library, the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum and the North Dakota State Historical Society. For more information see http://www.mhanation.com/main2/history.html)

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The “new” Maah Daah Hey Deuce opens new explorations

Get out of your vehicle to explore the Badlands, the Bakken Oil region of North Dakota.

Get out of your vehicle to explore the Badlands, the Bakken Oil region of North Dakota.

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Exploring western North Dakota outside the comfort of your vehicle is possible for nearly everyone. You can pick a comfort level on the Maah Daah Hey Trail and enjoy the region that matches your physicality.  Portions of the trail are wide, easy and flat through the grasslands.

The turtle markers of the Maah Daah Hey trail guide travelers along the prepared route, but you don't have to stick to the trail, you are free to wander on public lands.

The turtle markers of the Maah Daah Hey trail guide travelers along the prepared route, but you don’t have to stick to the trail, you are free to wander on public lands.

Other portions are challenging. The Deuce is a bit of both. It’s not even a year old yet, but it’s getting a fair amount of attention.

Next to the Deuce trail, an outcropping of rocks, a shelf, invite hikers to walk along the side of a butte.

Next to the Deuce trail, an outcropping of rocks, a shelf, invite hikers to walk along the side of a butte.

Custer Trail, the route of the 7th Cavalry passes by the Deuce

Custer Trail, the route of the 7th Cavalry passes by the Deuce

It starts south of Medora near the Custer Trail and is about 40 miles long, and extension to the south of the original 100 miles to the north. Its real name is Maah Daah Hey II, the second reach of the world-famous cross-country trail. It snakes across hills and valleys until it reaches near Amidon and the Burning Coal Vein.  At the south end, the trail, as we explored it last winter is fairly easy. Like the 100 miles to the north, the trail is great for hiking, biking and horseback riding. With a series of camp grounds on the route, a multi-day hike, bike or horseback ride will now take a person 140 miles from near Amidon in the southwest to near Watford City in the northwest. Previously it was about 100 miles from Medora north to near Watford City. Easter Sunday, we looked for an early-season hike to celebrate Resurrection Sunday in God’s creation.

The road to where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri River

The road to where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri River

Out of curiosity we  first took a bit of a detour before heading out on the Deuce.  We drove toward the Little Missouri River, following map markers to check the Custer Trail.  If the Forest Service map is correct we drove a quarter-mile or so on the actual trail, then got out and walked where Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed  the Little Missouri River.  On the other side, we could identify the pass on the west side of the river where the 7th Cavalry undoubtedly marched to Little Big Horn. Then we doubled back to catch a good start place on The Deuce, parked the truck, packed our day-packs and camera gear and started out on an easy grassy stretch—for a while.   Deuce crocus 1deuce crocus 3   Along the way we saw several signs that spring is here, that there is new life after a long cold winter. Like some people celebrate the first robins, ranchers and prairie folk celebrate the first crocuses of spring.

The Deuce starts out gently as grasslands before getting in to rougher terrain.

The Deuce starts out gently as grasslands before getting in to rougher terrain.

We used the Forest Service map of the National Grasslands, checked the topography of the region and found a place where narrow lines on the map indicated steep terrain. At first it didn’t seem accurate because the start was so easy and flat. Then the valley opened up to some of the greatest hiking in the southern part of the Maah Daah Hey. (Generally speaking the southern sections of the Badlands are smoother, less rugged, and “older” than the northern end.)

The valley along the Deuce to the west.  The red hills are scoria.

The valley along the Deuce to the west. The red hills are scoria.

We didn’t go too far, just a couple miles, but in that space we came to the kind of terrain we were looking for. The narrow, hill-hugging trail wrapped around a butte, along a ridge and over a crest to give us a view of miles of The Badlands, the Bakken region of North Dakota.

The Deuce wraps around a bluff and follows a narrow ridge.

The Deuce wraps around a bluff and follows a narrow ridge.

Our Easter Sunday ham (sandwich) dinner and communion were in a sheltered area high on the ridge and out of the wind.

Easter Sunday's ham dinner resting spot next to a petrified log.

Easter Sunday’s ham dinner resting spot next to a petrified log.

From there we could look back to the pass where we had been earlier that afternoon, where the Custer and the 7th Cavalry crossed the Little Missouri and headed west through a pass.

In the distance, the low cut of the hills is likely where Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched 140 years ago.

In the distance, the low cut of the hills is likely where Custer and the 7th Cavalry marched nearly 140 years ago.

We could look the other direction and saw a reminder that it is not 1876; a Burlington Northern train pulled its way from Fryburg to Medora before heading west to Montana.

A Burlington Northern train heads north from Fryburg to Medora and west to Montana

A Burlington Northern train heads north from Fryburg to Medora and west to Montana

It’s our intention to go back to The Deuce to follow it closer to the Burning Coal Veins.  It’s a worthy addition to the Maah Daah Hey trail.  What would it take for you to explore The Deuce? Get more tips to visiting the North Dakota Badlands. Follow me here on Facebook at Beautiful Bakken https://www.facebook.com/beautifulbakken Or check out the website featuring western North Dakota and Badlands http://www.beautifulbakken.com

North Dakota is made for bicycles in the spring

An old Burlington-Northern rail bed opens up in the spring for a ride

An old Burlington-Northern rail bed opens up in the spring for a ride

Spring in North Dakota opens new horizons: the next landmark, the next vantage point, the next hill (everywhere except the Red River Valley). An advantage to being a sparsely-settled state is the open roads for bicycling.

Bicycles freely cross the DeMers bridge at Grand Forks.

Bicycles freely cross the DeMers bridge at Grand Forks.

In the eastern part of the state, with the flat-as-glass terrain, bicyclists cruise along and over the Red River on gentle paved paths.

Communities such as Grand Forks, Mayville and Fargo offer well-used paved recreation trails.

On the western end is the grueling challenge of the Maah Daah Hey trail. It’s more than 130 miles long through the Badlands and Grasslands of North Dakota.  Every year, mountain bikers attempt the Maah Daah Hey 100 — and last year, the winning time for the 100 mile ride was just under 10 hours.

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

Near the Ice Caves along the Maah Daah Hey trail, two bicyclists navigate the easy part of the ride, through the grass before hitting the trail

A few places are easy challenges, but the greatest share of the Maah Daah Hey trail is a world-class mountain bike route. It is a tougher pedal than I’ll ever do.  For those families who want to enjoy the scenic Badlands, they can take an easy ride through Medora and the recreation trail, or can venture on to other nearby easy routes.

In the middle of the state, here in the Missouri Slope region, open gravel roads allow a mix of level and sloped rides.

Late in the day,  a power plant on the horizon burns coal to make electricity to power homes in Midwest states.

Late in the day, a power plant on the horizon burns coal to make electricity to power homes in Midwest states.

Take northern Burleigh County, for example.

On the nights I ride the gravel roads, I find an evening pedal out to the hills gives a chance for a good strong exercise in not only physical, but a visual exercise. On high-traffic evenings, I may see as many as three vehicles sharing the gravel roads in one or two hours.  Most evenings, there are none.couple walk their dogs at bottom of hill

Sometimes a farm family may stroll the gravel roads with their dogs.

A farm couple walk the gravel road with their dogs.

A farm couple walk the gravel road with their dogs.

 

Farm kids put their ATVs to work riding around the country.

Farm kids put their ATVs to work riding around the country.

Other times, kids will use the family’s ATV to spread dust.  Most of the time, it’s just the lone bicyclist (me) out to capture evening atmosphere.

 

Overhead, geese follow the Central Flyway across the North American Continent.  They’re always talking to themselves so you will hear the flocks before you see them.  Some evenings there will be as many as four or five large flocks with hundreds of geese talking among themselves and heading north.

Canadian geese head north following the Missouri River.

Canadian geese head north following the Missouri River.

As long as I’m out in the country in the evening, I try to time my rides to capture sunset. The golden hour and the long contrasting shadow give much greater evidence to the uneven terrain when shadows roll over the hills and valleys. golden hour hill top with bicycle The environment picks up that warm golden glow. Across the river the sun drops behind Oliver and Mercer Counties.

The sun sets behind a tree row on a late afternoon North Dakota spring day

The sun sets behind a tree row on a late afternoon North Dakota spring day

An endless variety of weather conditions create an infinite variety of sunsets – the reward of an evening pedal on the back roads of North Dakota.OIL_2809

That’s my recommendation. Where do you recommend bicycling in your country?

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TR’s Elkhorn Ranch is easy, but not always.

Undeveloped historic site, the Elkhorn Ranch.

Teddy Roosevelt’s backyard at the Elkhorn Ranch. The house stood on the foundation blocks which are all that’s left of his ranch home

Off the beaten path – it’s exactly where Teddy Roosevelt wanted to be in 1883 – and so the Elkhorn ranch became his refuge. He’d just suffered a string of losses, including the deaths of his wife and his mother.  To get his life back on track he went where others have gone for more than 100 years – and you can go there too, if you’re willing to get off the beaten path.

Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskins as a  Badlands rancher

About 20 years before he became the 26th U.S. President, Roosevelt lived the life of a wilderness rancher.

To find the healing place TR called home for many years, you’ll travel more than 25 miles of gravel road through wilderness ranch area.  It’s a place of few people and many miles.  “The lives of such places were strangely cut off from the outside world,” TR wrote. “The whole region is one vast grazing country.”

To the ear, there is a great amount of peacefulness, but that does not mean quiet. Birds carry on loud conversations, particularly in the early morning and evening.  The wind itself is a sound that travels the musical octaves. In the evening, it’s the melody of the coyotes’ songs you’ll hear.

To the eye, distance and color become a stimulating visual entertainment.  When you think you can see no further in the distance, the next hill-top will unveil further horizons.  When you think you know what green looks like you’ll find more variations in the landscape – or in the autumn, brown takes on a rainbow of variations.

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch

Teddy Roosevelt raised cattle, hunted and lived in these hills surrounding his Elkhorn Ranch.  A thin red ribbon shows the road to his ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is a national treasure, undeveloped and barely marked. We needed a good map to find it; the U.S. Forest Service map is perfect for a search like this.  After a bit, we began to recognize the repeated Elkhorn sign posts directing us further down the road.

It's easy to get lost in the Badlands, if it were not for road signs like these, including the one to the TR ranch

The small sign with an Elkhorn icon indicates the way to the ranch.

The campground up the road from the Elkhorn Ranch site offers a bit of protection from the hot Badlands sun.  Tent camping is more than sufficient with the campground’s supply of water, firewood, and privacy.  Even though, we were in a public campground, it was still much like getting away from it all. In fact, one night, there were only two other campers in the campground.

To really get away from it all, a short hike up the hill to the north gave us a glimpse of the road we’d follow to get to the campground. The red scoria road winds down through the bottom ground trees to the clearing where Roosevelt set up his ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch.

The scoria road to the national landmark of Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.

The Elkhorn Ranch site is undeveloped, so it will exercise your imagination skills to envision what it was like 150 years ago.

“Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant.  But a few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the (Little Missouri) river. … The shallow stream winds as if lost.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

elkhornranch

 

The Little Missouri River is a wilderness through-route today, just as it was for Roosevelt.  It is a challenge to canoe or kayak, and the spring seems to be the best time to attempt a float, but it’s always a beautiful walk through the Badlands where Roosevelt ranched.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

The Little Missouri River in front of the Elkhorn Ranch house.

“The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms, first on one side and then on the other; and in an open glade among the thick-growing timer stands the long, low house of hewn logs.”

— from Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt 

We have hiked, canoed and driven the Little Missouri River as it flows northward from Wyoming and Montana to the confluence near Williston, North Dakota.  It’s a pleasant and non-stressful hike to follow its river banks. It’s easy to see why Roosevelt wrote often and vividly of the river.  We recommend hiking the river trails near the ranch.  Hiking the hills, bluffs and buttes above the Elkhorn is a minimal challenge to anyone is good condition and who has hiked some of the rougher terrains further downstream.(See the post on hiking the Long X Trail along the Little Missouri River — http://wp.me/pOdPo-Gi ).

Elkhorn campground sgntre

The Elkhorn Ranch campground offers shade next to the trees — a rare luxury in the nearly tree-less Badlands. The white dot along the campground road is my pickup at our campsite.

While the riverbank hike is enjoyable and calming, it’s the views from top that exhilarate.  Not only are the views mind-numbingly expansive, but there’s a sense of accomplishment from having hiked to the top of what appears to be an unpassable slope.  The key is “switchbacks.” It’s wise to never get in a hurry when heading up to higher ground – don’t attempt to go straight up.  Follow gentle rises back and forth across the face of the hillside, pausing to not only catch your breath, but to scope out the next set of switchbacks to take you to the next level.

Once at the top, you can see why Roosevelt lived here. He built his stamina and his skill at strategic thinking.  You can get a sense of the challenges he faced as an Easterner turned rancher.  When picking a trail for his cattle, or just for himself to get to Medora or Dickinson, Roosevelt planned his route. It was not easy to get any where.  He wrote, “The course outlies across great grassy plateaus, along knife-like ridge crests, among winding valleys and ravines, and over acres of barren, sun-scorched buttes.”

The Elkhorn ranch area is undeveloped and perhaps that’s best. It gives a visitor a chance to see Roosevelt’s nature as it was when he was here, an experience that prompted him to establish conservation measures and advance the national park system. Thanks to his time in these valleys and hills, Theodore Roosevelt became “the conservation president,” and doubled the number of sites within the National Park system. As President from 1901 to 1909, he signed legislation establishing five new national parks.

For the day-visitor it’s a moment of spiritual rest, visual stimulation, and a sense of accomplishment when you climb a hill, turn, and look back at how far you’ve come – a good life lesson.

What would it take to make you want to check out the site — accessibility, directions, time?

Elkhorn hills

The Elkhorn ranch trip is part of the exploration of Beautiful Bakken.

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