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.

Ride for St. Judes at Ft Lincoln

Custer's home hosts riders again -- a reminder of 1875.

Custer’s home hosts riders again — a reminder of 1875.

Shades of history were repeated for children at St. Jude’s hospital.  A century ago, riders here were in a protective mode. This time, they’re in a supportive role.

Riders organize before the start of the trail ride fund raiser

Riders organize before the start of the trail ride fund-raiser

It was more than 130 years ago when blue-coated riders rode the hills along the west side of the Missouri River at Fort Abraham Lincoln.  Soldiers were posted there to protect railroad workers building the Northern Pacific Railroad, but their mission changed in the ill-begotten battle at Little Big Horn.

This summer, nearly 100 riders covered the hills above the Missouri at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park to raise thousands of dollars for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  It was one of the best shoots I’ve ever been on. All the photos are here http://www.mykuhlsphotography.co/Events/St-Jude-Trail-Ride

Riders at the block houses

Riders at the block houses

I got a copy of the map where they’d ride and I intercepted them at various points such as at the blockhouses on a hill overlooking the valley.

A gorgeous day for weather, not too hot, not at all chilly, a good day for soaking up sun and riding without stressing the horses.

Past the blockhouses, the ride went past the original cemetery at the fort — an eerie reminder of life a century ago when people were considered “old” at 45.

Riding past the Ft. Lincoln cemetery

Riding past the Ft. Lincoln cemetery

Riders on hill

Riders in a line come up the hill

The ride started in the valley and went up the hill across the prairie and through the trees.  It was an easy pace — thankfully so that I could catch them at various points.

A family-centered kind of ride where children were more than welcomed — they were encouraged to get on board the powerful horses who gently submitted to the young hands.

Boy gets up Little girl rider

Then, it went back down to the river, and along the trees, out of the sun and in to the cooling shade.

Riding through the trees

Riding through the trees

Once back at the start, later that afternoon, a pot luck feed gave riders a feast that matched the greatness of the ride they just completed.  Grilled burgers, hot dogs and all the other kind of summer picnic food we love.

Good food, good chow line

Good food, good chow line

In the end, the ride raised several thousand dollars for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital — one of several rides in the nation to support the hospital.  Plans are already underway for next year’s ride.  Until then, here is where this year’s photographs are stored http://www.mykuhlsphotography.co/Events/St-Jude-Trail-Ride

July 26

Small town suburbia

It could be a scene from any suburb in America.  Moms gathered in the semi-shade while the kids play in the nearby pool.  It’s not any suburb, it’s Wilton.  A small town of 800 people along Highway 83, north of Bismarck.  Life in small rural towns in the Northern Plains is pretty much like life anywhere in America — most of the time.  Winters are legendary. They are rugged, but summers are intense with long hours of daylight for neighbors to gather and do what Americans do in the summer, relax and rejuvenate.  Well, most North Dakotans do, anyway, the ones in town. Their rural cousins are too busy this time of year to spend much pool time, but life in even a small town like Wilton is good.

July 11

Lillies in a vertical row

One of the most peaceful pleasures of home ownership is my flower garden. It’s not very much, but I keep adding to it year after year.  The day lilies in the back are something I hope I live here long enough to see spread in to an entire area behind my house.

I know I like lilies because back home in the hills and valleys along the Des Moines River in Iowa, lilies were a staple. They not only provide a summer-long green along the foundation of a home, they provide a long span of  flowering.  What I remember most about them is how they attracted humming birds.  I’ve never seen one in North Dakota, but have seen them in Lead, SD.

So, here the attraction isn’t the wildlife that flock to the lilies, but their beauty of themselves.  Their strong but delicate and “pretty” look are attractive to me. The  plants withstand the northern elements and climate.  They are hardy and they are delicate.

As a photographer, I like the fade from color to white that the flowers show.  Their long stamens expanding past the attractive  petals of the flower  make them ripe subjects for me to photograph.

June 13

Black Cat Rumble

It’s Friday night. Do you know where the good music is tonight?

Chances are, it’s where Black Cat Rumble is playing.  This is not your local garage band. You won’t find these guys doing all the cover songs that your local bar band

will be doing tonight. These are musicians who have soul.  Rockin’ blues, R&B, soul.

Sarah McMahon

Sarah McMahon on keyboard and vocals softens the edge of  Arnold’s gutsy guitar work.  But not much.  She’s got power and it is expressed in her fingers and her voice.

Arnold and Sarah

While Sarah has her own band and plays with others, she once was an integral part of the jam band FatDad.  Now she’s spreading around her talents and  on stage merges them well with Arnold Jordan.

He doesn’t play his guitar, he emotes through it.  His energy and  his vitality tear up the frets.  He’s not only a musician, but he’s an artist, and doggone it a good person whom I’ve had a beer with and have enjoyed getting to know better.

Dustin

Catch them when you can. I know they play in Dickinson’s Brickhouse as well as various points in Bismarck and Mandan.  In this case, it was the Buggies and Blues bandshell performance where they held up that end of the billing — the blues.

Adam

June 11

running the bases

A neighborhood game of tball at the local ball diamond is reminiscent of days gone by when whole neighborhoods of kids would get together to play ball at the school ball diamond, kinda like Spanky and Our Gang.  In this case it appeared to be a couple of baby sitters getting their charges out for some exercise and fresh air.

Almost tagged out

At least the teams were divided evenly, one big kid and one little kid — and they didn’t even have to stand to get picked to  a side. They just were divided up two on a side.

T-ball bunt

I used to shoot a lot of sports when I was a newspaper editor. Haven’t done it much for the last 5 or 6 years, but this was fun if not unpredictable.

Swing and a miss

Who’d have thought to bunt a t-ball?

And I don’t even know if they counted the strikes, but he didn’t care. He was having fun!

May 20

summer strummer

It’s the kind of down home folksy evening entertainment you’re lucky to find when  wandering around the home town.  This is Bismarck not far from the Memorial Bridge, Save Project Noise is the name of the enterprise where these locals gather on the front porch.

front porch

I’m glad to see these are young folk who are expanding, investigating and networking on a healthy activity.  It’s something that will carry them on in to their adult years.

I know a couple of these folks are not local. As I recall, they’re from New Zealand or Tasmania or Australia. 

This was a previously announced event, but the marketing must have been weak because there were no spectators at all.  That’s too bad because these young artists cold grow with the right encouragement.

After I shot a few images here, I too moved on, but now that I look back, I wish I’d stuck around.  I wish there were off-beat venues like this in every community. I’ve heard of one that used to operate in Dickinson, but I don’t think it’s there any more.  Is there one near you?