Warmth begins to trickle back to my shoeless feet after fording my mountain bike across the knee-high water of the Little Missouri River. A trail post further down the bank is emblazoned with the outline of a turtle, which is a Mandan Indian symbol for "long, fruitful life." At this point of the ride, a turtle seemed more appropriate to the speed at which I was pedaling. Trail posts beckoned me to higher ground and soon the effort of climbing the skinny trail etched into the hillside was rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of the Little Mo below.
I spent the waning days of September with Loren Morlock, owner of Dakota Cyclery Bike Shop in Bismarck. Our goal was to explore the freshly laid Maah-Daah-Hey Trail near Devil's Pass, a hilly divide located about halfway between the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Chilly autumn evenings have transformed the grasslands into a rainbow of vibrant hues. Hillsides and creek banks are splashed with the yellows of cottonwood and ash umbrellaed under a big, deep-blue North Dakota sky.
For years North Dakotans have had to load up hiking gear, mount bicycles on car racks and pull horse trailers across Interstate 94 in search of adventure vacations in more well-known destinations in the Rocky Mountains. The Maah-Daah-Hey now offers non-motorized recreationists the same opportunities, all within a day's drive for most state residents.
The trail gets its name from the Mandan Indians that once roamed these parts. Maah-Daah-Hey translates to "grandfather" or "be here long." Starting in the north, at the CCC campground near the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the trail snakes through the badlands for over 120 miles and connects to the south unit of the park. The trail serves more than just as a connecting point between the two parks, it also skirts the bustling resort town of Medora with a dazzling array of loops. The trail's southern terminus reaches Sully Creek State Park along the banks of the Little Missouri River.
The beauty of the trail is that it can be experienced in sections. There are six trailheads and each one offers its own unique terrain. The character of the land changes from open grasslands to rugged badlands to river bottom country. According to U.S. Forest Service Trail Coordinator, Curt Glasoe, "You travel along for miles, then turn around and backtrack and think you're in a different place."
While not wilderness, a simple turn of the trail will leave you thinking otherwise. Erosion is king out here, working away on mounds of sandstone and clay, molding the sediment into pedestals, mounds and slabs. Petrified wood appears, seeing the light of day again after many solidifying centuries buried under the muck of an ancient rain forest swamp.
Build a trail and it's certain to attract modern-day explorers. September 1998 brought the first bikers to trek the entire length of the trail, via mountain bikes. Dale Heglund, Jason Hageness and Brad Davis, all from Dickinson and all members of the Badlanders Bike Club, departed from the CCC campground near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to pedal their way more than 100 miles to the Sully Creek campground near Medora. Using shuttle vehicles they averaged 28 miles per day, camping under starry skies highlighted with dancing northern lights while being serenaded by coyote calls. "The trail far exceeded our expectations," said Dale. The trio didn't meet any other trail users but did encounter several curious ranchers. "One fella on a tractor waved us down. He had never seen a mountain bike before and wanted to see what kind of guys ride those things!" said Dale.
A lot of thought was put into the construction of the Maah-Daah-Hey. A prototype of a swinging gate was designed. Trail users simply lift up the gate and pass through. The gate gently swings back in place, keeping the bovine population in the proper pasture. That keeps ranchers pacified. In fact, local ranchers liked the design so well that they use the swinging gates to help move their cattle, according to Glasoe.
The Maah-Daah-Hey is just a stone's throw from Theodore Roosevelt's old ranch homestead. There is not much left of The Elkhorn. Browse around the lovely cottonwood grove long enough and one can conjure up visions of a young TR, with his wide sombrero and wire-rim glasses, robustly working on his fledgling ranch. Near this spot on the river, he had discovered that one of his boats had been stolen. The persistent TR and two hands tracked the thieves for an astonishing 300 miles before finally apprehending and hauling them off to jail in Dickinson. TR did not tolerate stealing.
The trail is rough and as rugged as TR's demeanor. Loren and I pedal out of a creek bottom and climb onto another tabletop butte that's laden with thorny things like prickly pear cactus that can puncture inner tubes. Loren applies another patch to his rear tube. Out here you definitely earn your miles, while no climb is more than 400 feet at one time, the repetition of many climbs can assure a good nights sleep at one of the trail campsites.
Horseback adventures too
Mountain bikers are not the only outdoor enthusiasts exploring the grasslands and badlands. Horseback riders are also mounting steeds and hitting the dusty trail. Glendon (Swede) and Jean Nelson have been running a guiding service, Little Knife Outfitters, near the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park for the past seven years. Clients worldwide saddle up to experience the Maah-Daah-Hey. Little Knife offers anywhere from a one day out-and-back trip to a full-blown five days that covers the trail's entire length.
Pinnacles and mounds of the badlands are often hidden from view. When first-time visitors crest the grassy plains and get their initial glimpse of the badlands terrain below, there is usually a gasp, said Nelson. Clients also get an education as Nelson fills in tourists with local legends, TR history and explains the local flora and fauna. If that doesn't interest them, "We have a pretty good line of b.s. we lay on 'em," chuckled Nelson.
Swede knows what he's talking about. He grew up on a nearby ranch, knows horses and even competed in local rodeos. When asked questions out on the trail, he said, "It's hard to stump me."
Nelson is excited about the prospects of the Maah-Daah-Hey. "It is the first real adventure trail we have had in western North Dakota. It's the only place where you can spend five days seeing something different."
In the beginning
The genesis of the trail is as intriguing as being on it. Glasoe says the original idea to build a trail connecting the two units of the park began more 15 years ago with groups of horse riders. Many public meetings brought forth other interested trail users like the Badlanders Bike Club representing mountain bikers from the Dickinson area. Plans were discussed, input evaluated and ideas implemented. Aerial photography surveys and quad maps presented options to trailblaze the best route through the many twists and turns of badlands topography. Also a priority was avoiding human development, mostly in the form of oil well sites. With plans in hand, construction began in 1995.
Everything seems to have been well thought out. The self-closing gates enable trail users to pass through without dismounting steeds. Trail grades are kept under eight percent to help battle erosion and to enable users to conquer any divide. Trail markers themselves are a thing of beauty. The solid wooden posts come complete with engraved mile markers to help keep trail users orientated. The markers are spaced 400 yards apart and sit high enough to serve as beacons. The setting of a special stainless steel trail post highlighted the grand opening ceremonies of the Maah-Daah-Hey this month.
The Maah-Daah-Hey takes its travelers down a narrow swath of trail in a broad expanse of wild country. The trail covers both sections of the national park where mountain bikers are prohibited from pedaling but hikers and horseback riding are encouraged. I laced up my hiking boots at the remote wilderness section of the southern unit. Columns of petrified wood made the hike truly unforgettable. A lone, very large buffalo bull blocking the trail jolted my senses.
The Maah-Daah-Hey will only get better according to Glasoe, " We will have six campgrounds spaced about 15 miles apart in place by the end of 1999." By the year 2000, trail maps will be complete with vital information like location of the campsites and the route's nine artesian wells. When asked about the trail's future plans, Glasoe replied." Ten years from now I envision spur routes leading to new and exciting sections of this wonderful country."
No matter the mode of transport: whether there are hiking boots to be laced, mountain bike gears to be shifted or cowboy boots placed in the stirrup, the Maah-Daah-Hey beckons adventurous souls. And best of all, it's in North Dakota's own backyard.
For more information:
Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, 1-800-MEDORA-1
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 701-623-4466
North Dakota Tourism Dept., 1-800-HELLO-ND
U.S. Forest Service, 701-225-5151
Little Knife Outfitters, 701-842-2631 or 701-628-2747
Dakota Cyclery, 701-222-1218