5 FREE things to do in North Dakota’s Badlands

Quick! Now that school is on break!

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.

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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May 1

A little wetness, a little golden glow, and a little warmth.  Early spring in Bismarck. Someone is out riding their bike leaning it up against the Barnes and Nobles book store.  I’d been there as I often am looking, browsing, buying or at least drinking coffee.  On this night, as I pulled away, I liked the look of the deep blue evening sky, the golden lights from the windows and the rosy color of the bricks.  The season is warming up. Gone are the days of cold blue photos.  I like warmth.

April 14

Schwinn revealed

Remember that bicycle in the snow drift I showed  you back on January 24 or there abouts?

Well the snow is gone but the bicycle is not.  It’s still leaning up against the fence, but instead of a shroud of snow, springtime colors are framing the old Schwinn.  Using a long lens, shooting down the length of the chain link fence presents a good depth of field for the image.

breakfast

It’s nice to be able to see these things in spring that I had visited in winter. I’m getting out and about more in town, even going down to the Fiddlestix Cafe.  Typically, mid morning I have a bagel or English muffin with honey.  Today, I timed my breakfast to be mid-morning, about the same time a group has their traditional small-town chatter and coffee.  They had occupied those chairs along the table. Most had gone by the time I got this shot. To me, however, this looks like small town America and I’m glad to be a part of it.

January 24

The snow piled on this winter, burying a neighbor’s Schwinn bicycle in the snow.  The poor bike sat there all winter…and if it’s still there after the snow is gone, I’ll have to shoot it again.  This particular shot, I was able to play with and in some other blogs on other pages I’ll show you what it looks like when it is filtered.

Meanwhile, later that night…

…..more snow and Wilton’s Centennial Park provided the contrast between the yellow park lights and the blue snow.