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.


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.  












The Short Cut is the Long Cut Part 1 — Long X Trail westward

The Long X hiking trail follows the Little Missouri River Valley

The Long X hiking trail follows the Little Missouri River Valley

Hiking the Long X trail, you will wander over more than a mile of trail but only gets you one mile further in to the Badlands.  It’s the most primitive part of what is elsewhere a full access gravel road.  The gravel road may seem to be a short cut, but it’s actually the long cut through the Badlands wilderness between civilized areas.

It starts as a wandering path as though some critter aimlessly wandered about.  It’s old folk lore — the calf’s trail. I found the calf’s trail, or the Long X trail along the Little Missouri River, and sure enough, it wanders on a path so crooked it’d break a snake’s back.  Folk lore says that’s how highways start. Sam Foss wrote the words:

One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.

The calf’s trail I follow every year is a primitive extension of the Long X road. It zigzags through wilderness following the Little Missouri River which flows north from Wyoming and Montana in to North Dakota to the Missouri River. The Long X hiking trail never quite evolved to highway status, but it’s well-marked.

Each day a hundred thousand rout Followed the zigzag calf about.
And o’er his crooked journey went The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led, By one calf near three centuries dead.


Charlois and Long X Bridge wtrmrkThe name, “Long X,” is branded on a bridge, a trail and a road. It is from a famous cattle ranch on the Little Missouri River that pre-dates North Dakota’s statehood.  It was the north end of a cattle trail that dangled southward to Texas.  It’s gone now, but the name remains.

For decades, I’ve explored the valley where the Long X Hiking Trail threads. I always took with me my Austrailian Shepherd. Often other companions joined the dog and me — my daughter or son, or a friend. We relied on our sense of direction to get where we wanted to go — and get back again.  We’d keep one eye on the easy-to-follow Long X Trail, but we struck out on our own, running a parallel course between the Long X Hiking Trail and the Little Missouri River.

To get to the trail head, start at the Long X Bridge, south of Watford City. It’s south across the river from where the Long X Ranch once stood, 150 years ago. Drive a short one mile road to the CCC Campground named for the Civilian Conservation Corps, built in the 1930’s.

To get the Long X trail head, you'll drive through grazing or resting Charolais bulls.

To get the Long X trail head, you’ll drive through grazing or resting Charolais bulls.

Leave your vehicle; that’s as far as it will go. Now travel like the wandering calf on the Long X Hiking Trail, a well-marked adventure for those on foot, on bike or on horse.   (I’ve actually cross-country skied it in younger days.)   It’s marked by sign posts and directional markers such as these three that tell you where you stand and where you can go, if you want to follow the trail.

Long X trail head markers point the way down the trail, or to the Maah Dah Hey trail.

Long X trail head markers point the way down the trail, or to the Maah Dah Hey trail.

If you’re comfortable and can read nature’s signs, you can strike out on your own.  First-timers can safely follow the trail.

The Australian Shepherd is gone and so I don’t hike as much as I did when he was around. Still, I strike out a few times a year.  This spring, my hiking partner and I followed the general direction of the Long X Hiking Trail.  It was still early in the hiking season and the hills had not yet turned green, but at least they weren’t white with snow.

We stuck to deer trails because the marked hiking trail went up a valley where didn’t want to go. We spent most of an afternoon exploring the challenges of hills and bluffs that bank the valley carved by the Little Missouri River. After a few miles of flatland hiking on the valley floor, we picked a butte to climb to the top of the world. The view is restricted from the bottom of the valley, and we wanted to discover how far we could see from the top.

Long X Trail head with butte in background

About a mile away, the hill we ultimately chose to climb.

It took two-and-a-half hours to climb the butte. Little switch-backs made the hike longer, but less steep.  Our spring legs, out of shape from a confining winter were not strong enough to tackle the butte straight up. Back and forth we threaded our way up the butte on a path like Singer Sewing Machine zigzag stitch. We stopped every 20 minutes to rest our legs and scope out the encouraging view of how far we had come.  It was more encouraging to look at what we’d accomplished, rather than to estimate the climb ahead. The labor was worth it.Long X view of T Rsvlt Park and Little Mo wtrmrk

From on top we could see where the wandering calf trail called the Long X accompanied the Little Missouri River. “Magnificient” is the best word I can use to describe the view. “Endless” is another good word.  The bluffs and buttes extend a greater distance than I could estimate.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park corral across the river from us.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park corral across the river from us.

Not far off, we could see horses grazing peacefully.  Ranches and tourist points marked the view upstream along the river. . We scanned the distance with our cameras’ telephoto lenses, looking for herds of elk, big horn sheep or even a coyote.  In previous years, I’ve spotted all of them. What is spooky, though, is to know that this is also mountain lion country. The state estimates some 300 roam this region.  I wonder how many have lay hidden watching me in the same way that I sat on top of this butte watching the world below.

Long X view of buffalo wtrmrk

What caught our attention and entertained us for much of our rest break, was a sober reminder this ain’t the days of the wild west. A mere splinter of what was once lumbering herds of millions of buffalo grazed below us. A dozen head is all that are left in this valley to graze where 200 years ago, the land was literally covered with buffalo. Lewis and Clark, then a few years later, George Catlin painted and wrote of buffalo herds that could not be numbered — probably in the millions.  The Bismarck Tribune in 1880 reported that 2 hunters shot nearly 100 deer and antelope and 15 elk. Elk were so plentiful, the Tribune wrote that the two men shot 11 of the elk in about 15 minutes.  From our perch on the top of the butte, on the grassy mesa, we could watch across the river where a few head of buffalo grazed at the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but no elk.

With a bit of imagination, we could picture what it must have been like to ride across the grasslands to this great gorge and then to spy big black beasts — too many to number. Only a few head of the massive herd would be needed to feed, clothe and house the tribe or clan of Mandan or Hidatsa that lived in this area hundreds of years ago.  The tribes considered the buffalo to be their spiritual kin.  They thanked their gods for the provisions that the buffalo supplied, hides, meat, tallow, bones — all of which they used to live hundreds of years ago.  Today, buffalo are just a tourist spectacle.

The view from the mesa above the valley stretches for miles

The view from the mesa above the valley stretches for miles

We rested for nearly an hour at the top of the world. We talked and gazed across the region. The high-energy food from our backpack refueled our exhausted legs.  We drank the cold water we brought. We snapped several photos from our perch above the wandering calf trail.

When we left, we let gravity do it’s work. Two and a half hours up, but 45 minutes to get down.  We slid, fell, jumped until we were back at the bottom of the valley ready to parallel the river to get back to our truck. In all, we’d gone only about five miles west.  The round trip took five hours. The marked trail is about 12 miles long; a savvy outdoorsman could follow it all the way across the state in to Montana and Wyoming.Mary down the hill

Our day hike gave us enough of a taste of what life used to be like. Intent on following all we could of the Long X trail and road, we looked forward to following the longest part of the trail. It reached eastward — and that part we could handle by pickup truck another day. Our next leg of the journey would take us from the 1880 Long X Trail to the 1935 Long X Road.

I’ll tell you about that next — it’s a route you may want to sample — by vehicle if you’re not up to extreme hiking.  Start at the Long X Bridge and  head east. Next time I’ll show you what that looks like.

Click through a slide show to see more images of the beauty of the Badlands at http://www.mykuhls.com/Beautiful-Bakken

Or on Facebook you can find more North Dakota Badlands at


Christmas Season


Merry Christmas from Burnt Butte

Yeah, I know…kinda out of order — Christmas and all.  But this is a fun project I started this week using my North Dakota 365 photos from earlier this year.


I have a plethora of images to use, and it’s very hard to make up my mind which to use.  For example this one of the bridge in the Wilton Park is moody, but people seem to like it.

I like the one of the large deer herd bunched up moving across the prairies in Sheridan or McLean County.

I had forgotten about many of these images, some of them posted here on this blog, so it was a good reminder to go back and see what I’ve accomplished this year.

Obviously I used the same template for several of these images, merely adjusting the words  and of course changing the historic tale on back that relates to the images on front.

It would have been kind of fun to use some snow plow imagery and make some remark about making way for Santa or some kind of thing.

But generally, I tried to stick to more generic kinds of images from Central North Dakota including Wilton, Washburn, Bismarck, Center, McClusky and Wing. The Soo Line Railroad Depot that houses the railroad museum in Wilton is a natural for this kind of project.    It has that kind of “down home” feel to it.

The one I’m most proud of, however is the one on top. That one is not a template, but is a complete start to finish image that I worked up on Photoshop, including the page curl, the drop shadow, the background and of course the image itself.

In the end, I had 11 postcards but only turned three in to products for cash register impulse buys at local retailers.  I’m so jazzed by the whole process I think I’m gonna go make some more.

Got any suggestions?  Which do you like?


June 14

Sun sets behind Oliver County Buttes

I have a hard time, if downright impossible time imagining what Lewis and Clark wrote about these hills covered with buffalo.  When the Corps of Expedition reached this site on the Missouri River, about 15 miles south of Fort Mandan, it was coming on to winter.  The Corps stayed with the Mandan and Hidatsa  that winter and later Fort Mandan was built.  Here, however is where they wrote about vast herds of buffalo covering the landscape.

Today, its ranch country.  Mostly cattle over there on the buttes in Oliver County and some wheat along the bottom ground.  The entire Missouri River valley once looked much like this until the U.S. Government decided to use Indian Reservation land as catch basins for flood control down stream.  Land like this was taken when Lakes Oahe and Sakakawea were flooded behind the dams the government built.

On this particular day or evening, I was headed south to Bismarck along River Road. I could see the sun shifting the colors of the landscape in to a more rosy tint.  I found a place where I could pull over, then hiked a bit to get to the high point along the river where the buttes would visually “support” the sun.  I haven’t found the trick yet to shooting straight in to the sun and at the same time getting the landscape to be visible.  The sun will overpower the aperture and exposure of the camera and everything else will be a black silhouette, but this time, I think I got pretty close to getting the scene as it was.

Have you a spot near you where I can practice my sunset shots?

April 23

Giving me the evil eye

She kept her eye on me the whole time I was near.  I got no closer than the width of my pickup truck — she on one side, me on the other.  I suspect she’s had her share of attention from passers-by and so was not too jumpy, but I didn’t want to take my chances.  She didn’t cause me any concern, as I apparently didn’t cause her much concern, either.  I got her photo and left.  I didn’t use a flash, so the “red-eye” effect  isn’t from flash bounce.  It just is.

The buffalo at the Painted Canyon rest stop along I-94 near Medora gives buffalo free range.  It’s people who are in cages as they drive up to the building to “rest” at the rest stop and to take a few moments to see and photography Painted Canyon, or the buffalo wandering around the lot.

grooming herself?

It was obviously a rainy day as you can tell by these shots — a bit chilly, too.  So I wasn’t going to venture too far out on the trail to capture an image of buffalo.  They’re one of my favorite subjects to photograph, helping to illustrate North Dakota as the barely populated area which it is.  In the rain, however, I choose to stay a little more dry than were these furry animals.

Later in the day, the weather broke a little and on a drive through the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt Park, I got a moment to illustrate why you want to slow down rounding the curves in the park so you don’t run into a pedestrian such as this one.Or there are also these kinds of road traps you may wish to avoid. I don’t think a motorcycle would skid out; a car certainly would not, but it might leave enough of a mess that you’d get an aromatic reminder when the day heats up.

Buffalo road apples

March 2

I admit I was not paying attention to how close she was getting.  I looked up from my camera to see her eyes locked on mine.  Gentleman that I am, I excused myself properly and got back a safe distance from her.

The buffalo of the Northern Plains still fascinate me even after photographing them for decades.  I have heard of but cannot envision the millions of buffalo that wandered these unpopulated regions 150 years ago.  I’ve seen mountains of buffalo skulls piled high above the men who shot them for sport.  It is a black spot in American humanity.

Today the buffalo population has rebounded. Though no longer free to roam the Northern Plains, they are more numerous than they were 50 years ago. This cow was in a feed lot in either Morton or Oliver County. (I’m not sure where the county line runs.)  So, being a bit domesticated, I was not in an immediate danger as I would have been had she been completely wild.