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.

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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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three happy, hardy, healthy ways to get into the Badlands — The Poco Rio Frio race

Snow tires on a bicycle? You bet.  It’s a “fat bike.”

fat bike rider on the Maah Daah Hey trail

Riding a fat bike, a trail rider in orange heads out for a two to 5 mile loop on the Maah Daah Hey Trail

If you put snow tires on a specially built bicycle you’ve got the way to travel through the Badlands. Your tourism opportunities just took a turn for better health.  South of Watford City at the CCC Campground just off of Highway 85, you’ll find an easily accessed and groomed trail for hiking, xc skiing, snowshoeing or fatbike riding.

Not just the tires, but the entire frame, sprockets, gears and axles of a fat bike are set up to help riders through the snow.

Not just the tires, but the entire frame, sprockets, gears and axles of a fat bike are set up to help riders through the snow.

Explore. Exercise. Get away from the crowds – unless of course, it is the Poco Rio Frio race.  Then you have an additional benefit of getting with like-minded people. Outdoorsy, healthy, happy.

Riders, hikers, snowshoers and cross country skiers could take a break around a camp fire, get a bite to eat before their next loop on the trail

Riders, hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers could take a break around a campfire, get a bite to eat before their next loop on the trail.

 

“I think the best part is getting with other out here, friends to share this experience with, “said organizer Nick Ybarra.

Ybarra promoted the event across the region. One week before he’d organized a snowshoe trek on the same track.  It packed down the snow that otherwise would be as much a four feet deep.  The afternoon work by Ybarra, his family and friends turned the trails in to perfectly groomed trails for riders, showshoers and cross country skiers.

A cross country skier navigates the Long X trail on a two to five mile loop.

A cross country skier navigates the Long X trail on a two to five-mile loop.

Here’s the story on the fun day of snowshoe packing the trail

So, when riders hit the trail, it was packed and ready for their fat bikes.  Riders from as far as Fargo, Hazen and Bismarck racked up miles on two loops through the upper Badlands, one 2.5 miles, the other 4.5 miles.

 

 

A rider starts out on the packed and solid Maah Daah Hey loop that will bring him back around on the Long X trail in the Poco Rio Frio race.

Sean Hatten on one of his many laps to his first place, 54-mile victory!

Around and around the loops they went. The longest ride of the day was 54 miles! Both with their unique challenges such as the portion over the creek that empties in to the Little Missouri River. It’s frozen now, and in the morning, it was glare ice. After snow fell mid-day it became a smooth track easy glide for a short section to break up the heart-racing, deep breathing of the hills riders pedaled up and coasted down.

Riders looped around on the head of the Maah Daah Hey trail. Or they followed the Long X trail, or both.  The goal was to make as many laps as possible in the allotted time.

The Poco Rio Frio race included 19 fatbike riders, 42 snowshoers and two cross country skiers. After each round, they marked their mileage at the relief tent.

The Poco Rio Frio race included 19 fatbike riders, 42 snowshoers, and two cross country skiers. After each round, they marked their mileage at the relief tent.

Click here to see a gallery of photos from the Poco Rio Frio Maah Daah Hey fun day

More than 40 people on showshoes explored the loops in the Badlands in the Poco Rio Frio race.

More than 40 people on snowshoes explored the loops in the Badlands in the Poco Rio Frio race.

The miles added up…30, 40, 50 miles or more logged at the relief station at the head of the trail.  Here’s where riders laughed, ate and powered up for their next set of loops.

A rugged heating system welcomed riders who needed to rest before their next loops

A rugged heating system welcomed riders who needed to rest before their next loops

Collin Kemmesat is the General Manager of fat bike dealer Epic Sports in Bismarck, and he was as pumped as anyone about the Frio race.

His knowledge and experience could help with any mechanical issues, but mostly he was there to rack up fat bike miles.

Collin has a passion for bikes. “Fat biking has not peaked,” he said.  “It’s popular all year around.  Winter riding is best when there’s not a lot of snow. “This winter’s near-record snow depth has curtailed some of the fat bike riding. That’s why the packed trail for the race was a great opportunity.  Kemmesat said trails along Harmon Lake north of Bismarck, and other trails in the capital city are getting more interest.

For the Ybarra family, outdoor adventures involves every one, starting early in life.

For the Ybarra family, outdoor adventures involve everyone, starting early in life. Check out his website http://www.experienceland.org

Ybarra has taken on the care and use of the Maah Daah Hey trail, organizing a half-dozen mountain bike rides a year on the trail.  His goal is to bring back the popularity of the trail as it was 10 or 15 years ago. The 130-mile trail that loosely follows the Little Missouri River to southern North Dakota will become increasingly more well-known in 2017 as Ybarra and his happy bike trail friends put out the word.

Click here to read more about events and opportunities on the Maah Daah Hey

What can we do to help you get started riding or hiking the Maah Daah hey?  Name it in the comment section below.

 

 

Snowshoe the Maah Daah Hey

 

A metal post marks the end of the 130-mile Maah Daah Hey trail south of Watford City, along the Little Missouri River at the CCC Campground.

A metal post marks the end of the 130-mile Maah Daah Hey trail south of Watford City, along the Little Missouri River at the CCC Campground. http://www.mykuhls.com/Landscapes/Beautiful-Bakken/i-jthmcjM/A

Nick Ybarra loves the North Dakota Badlands, he invents ways to share it with others: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, winter camping, and his favorite –fat bike racing. “I’m addicted to the (Maah Daah Hey) trail.  I’m on it at least once a week,” Ybarra said.p1090364little-girl-in-sled-pulled-behind-snowshoes-sig-small

 

On this day, he’s enjoying the trail with a dozen others on snowshoes – and two dogs without snowshoes.

 

Using the Maah Daah Hey trail on snowshoes is a family affair — even those who have yet to try it on their own are introduced to the adventure.

boy-dog-man-on-snow-shoes-above-little-mo-sig-small

 

First-time snowshoer, Heidi Carns dressed for the weather and donned the snowshoes with her husband Rick. In warmer weather, the pair rides the trail on bikes. She said, “The beauty is unreal. Everyone should enjoy the Badlands.”

Nick Ybarra leads the way for a group of Sunday Afternoon snowshoe hikers.

Nick Ybarra leads the way for a group of Sunday Afternoon snowshoe hikers.

Once the group started out, Ybarra led the way, setting the pace for the short 2-mile loop on the Long X and Maah Daah Hey trails.  For some on the hike, once around was not enough, and they repeated the loop a couple of times.nick-leads-group-sig-small

That’s good for Ybarra because the snowshoeing is packing the trail for the next week’s fat bike race.  The packed snow will give the fat bikes a good surface to race around the course as many times as they can in a day. It’s called the Poco Rio Frio.

Nick Ybarra is committed to utilizing the MDH 100, Maah Daah Hey trail. The summer's Maah Daah Hey 100 is the preeminent mountain bike race of the year.

Nick Ybarra is committed to utilizing the MDH 100, Maah Daah Hey trail. The summer’s Maah Daah Hey 100 is the preeminent mountain bike race of the year. Learn more here: http://www.experienceland.org/

As advertised, the POCO RÍO FRÍO… FREE, FREE, FREE-OH! Fatbike. Snowshoe. Ski. Sunrise to sunset. 8am – 6pm. Beautiful 3.5 mile groomed single track loop made up of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, Long X Trail & a “POCO RÍO FRÍO” or “COLD LITTLE RIVER.” Do as many laps as you care to. Winner gets bragging rights. BYOE. (Bring Your Own Everything). REQUIRED: everyone must have their own gear, food, drinks, and warmth… start your vehicle, build an igloo, bring an ice-fishing house, bring firewood…. whatever it takes to keep yourself warm & safe is 100% up to you. HQ will have free unlimited water & keep track of your laps.  Story to come next week.

Or if you’re like me…not p1090373up to the challenge…it will be a good day for photos, or to just hike.  Anyone with good hiking boots who dresses warm can hike the region, you don’t need snowshoes.

Click here to see what hiking the region is like.

What would you need to try snowshoeing in the Badlands?  Want to rent snowshoes? You can.  I can steer you to the showshoe rental guy in Watford City.

See more in the Beautiful Bakken gallery. http://www.mykuhls.com/Landscapes/Beautiful-Bakken

Five reasons to use the Long X to break free of dreaded cabin fever

Explore the Badlands – hike, cross country ski or fat tire bike.

No, it’s not 75 degrees and sunny.

Yes, the air is fresh and the snow is deep, but that does not mean North Dakota tourism season over.   Here’s what we do.

We travel toward Watford City knowing we’d stop at the CCC Campground1.  That’s where adventurers see an unbelievably beautiful, pristine wilderness that few people ever see; and that’s the attraction right there, pristine wilderness that few people see.

There are several reasons The CCC Campground and the Long X trail are the best place to get a little winter outdoor time.

  1. It’s an easy travel distance and route
  2. It’s along the Little Missouri.
  3. The campground and parking area is well maintained.
  4. The trail is well-marked
  5. It’s an easy trail.
1. Easy travel distance.

Highway 85 from Belfield to Williston is a major federal highway, so we have good luck headed up that highway. Alternatively, we’ll head east across the state on Highway 200.

long x bridge spans the Little Missouri River

One of the few remaining through truss bridges in the state, The Long X Bridge marks the end of the Long X trail that begins in Texas. It spans the Little Missouri River which begins in Wyoming.

Up Highway 85, we always like to check out the historic Long X Bridge2 over the Little Missouri River. It’s south of Watford City, north of Grassy Butte.  The closer we get to the Long X bridge the more we perk up.  It’s an impressive landscape, colorful, striated, and beckoning.   That’s just a hint of what’s to come.

The entrance to the CCC Campground (CCC is Civilian Conservation Corps, a 100-year old government works program)  is at the very end of the bridge, just a few feet south.  We head west through a rancher’s rangeland pasture.  So, take it easy on those first couple of bends in the road. That’s where cattle are often milling about.

A herd of Charolais awaits drivers headed to the CCC campground and the Long X Trail. Just drive slowly through the herd an all will be well.

A herd of Charolais awaits drivers headed to the CCC campground and the Long X Trail. Just drive slowly through the herd and all will be well.

2. Along the Little Missouri River

At this section of the river through the Badlands, wildlife officials have stocked and increased the population of big horn sheep.  They’re not easy to see. The river you drive along started near Devils Tower in Wyoming. It snakes across Montana and North Dakota and empties in to the Missouri River about 65 miles east of the CCC Campground.

Mule deer are plentiful in the Little Missouri River valley.

Mule deer are plentiful in the Little Missouri River valley.

Most of the state's big horn sheep population thrives along the Long X Trail

Most of the state’s big horn sheep population thrives along the Long X Trail

The drive west is about a mile on a good gravel road, right along the Little Missouri River. At the Campground, we park on the west end at the literal start of the Maah Daah Hey trail and the Long X Trail.  On the south is the Little Missouri River. Beyond that, across the river is the north Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The area is fairly undisturbed, since ranching blends in well with the environment.

That’s why it’s easy to see a sample of the wildest of North Dakota’s wildlife — deer and big horn sheep.

Winter-ready dogs love the chance to get out for some winter exercise

Winter-ready dogs love the chance to get out for some winter exercise

3. The area is well-maintained

There is plenty of room to park.  After we step out of the truck, we pull on our gloves and hoodies.  It’s cold at first, but once we get going, we warm up so that a lot of winter packing isn’t needed.  Here’s where people unload skis, bike or strap on their day pack.  Vehicles are safe, but we lock it anyway, and make sure we have the key secured in our inside coat pocket so we don’t lose it in the snow.

The parking lot and campground is well maintained for easy access.

The parking lot and campground is well maintained for easy access.

4. The trail is well-marked

If  you decide to hike this trail, you won’t get lost; just follow the tall posts with the angular cut top. Each post is marked with a turtle, the sign of the Maah Daah Hey3 trail. This portion is also the Long X trail, and the posts are marked with a Teddy Roosevelt brand.  At each post you can see the next post.

mary-hike-long-x-little-missouri-river-sunset

5. It’s an easy trail.

At first, the slopes rise gradually along the base of the hills.  People who hike or ski, can cut across valley floors between hills and ridges.  It cuts off quite a bit of distance on the trail since it switches back and forth to maintain a relatively easy grade for bikes. Hikers and skiers can cut straight across, at least until you come to a deep ravine.

The slope is easy to navigate even in the snow or on cross country skis.

The slope is easy to navigate even in the snow or on cross country skis.

_________________________________________________________________

Here’s the cautionary note:

Don’t go too far. It’s easy to start the jaunt feeling fresh and invigorated by the air, the scenery, the activity. So, it’s easy to think all that initial energy will last. For every step you take along the trail, you have to repeat that step going back.  Turn around or circle back early to save your energy for the return trip.  It’s easy to overextend yourself. ______________________________________________________________

We like these winter hikes because when we get done for the day we are exhilarated by the fresh air, the and exercise.  A hot meal at nearby Watford City is just 15 minutes away – and they know how to feed you there!


Oh yeah…the footnotes:

1In 1934, men from Civilian Conservation Corps companies 2771 and 2772 established camps adjacent to each other on the north bank of the Little Missouri River, not far from the old U.S. 85 bridge in the area that is now part of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park.  The CCC Campground at the head of the trail is a third campsite they built. There are other sites in the Badlands built by the CCC. Company 2771 moved out after a year, but 2772 remained here until the fall of 1939 when it transferred to a site in the South Unit, and that’s why it’s called the CCC Campground.

2The trail name, “Maah Daah Hey”, comes from the Mandan Indians. In the Mandan language, one word or phrase can describe a picture, feeling, or situation. In this case, the phrase means “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” The trail uses a turtle as the trail marker. The turtle was honored because of its firm determination, steadfastness, patience, long life, and fortitude. Here’s where to find more about the CCC Campground and the trail head to the Long X Trail and the Maah Daah Hey trail.

Click here to read more about the new extension to the Maah Daah Hey

https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dpg/recreation/recarea/?recid=79454&actid=29

The Long X Trail represents stereotypical historical, ranch life, that of driving large herds of cattle across the country from Texas to North Dakota. This achievement was first accomplished in 1884, when, under the leadership of A. N. Jeffries, the manager of the company, a daring band of Texan cowboys piloted a monster herd of cattle from the Rio Grande to the Little Missouri. The herd was guided by means of a compass, and reached North Dakota in September, having left Texas early in the spring. This process was repeated each year until 1897, and in this way the grazing lands of McKenzie county were replenished by new cattle

Click here to read more about the Long X Trail 

                   and here is more, too.

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.

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