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Saving the Maah Daah Hey Trail: Endless dedication, grit and love keeps trail alive in North Dakota

Posted by By Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor; Photos Copyright Chad Ziemendorf www.ziemendorf.com 3/18/2019 3:37:30 PM

The Maah Daah Hey (MDH) trail, located in western North Dakota, is the longest, continuous, non-mImage Copyright Chad Ziemendorf/www.ziemendorf.comotorized, single-track trail in the country. Now stretching 150 miles, the remote trail winds through the scenic Badlands, inviting visitors on foot, bike or horseback to take in the area’s stunning terrain and solitude.

There was a time, in the not so distant past, the trail was becoming overgrown, eroding away and disappearing into the rugged landscape, leaving it in danger of extinction. But one man’s visit to the trail in 2002 served as the catalyst for efforts to bring the trail back to life and sustain it for future generations through the Save the MDH organization. 

 

Discovering the MDH

“A friend invited me to the Maah Daah Hey trail and I didn’t even know what it was,” admits Nick Ybarra, executive director of Save the MDH, of his first experience with the trail as an 18-year-old. “We loaded up bikes and headed out to the Magpie Campground and woke up the next morning to the most beautiful, picture-perfect sunrise.” After riding the MDH for a short time that first day, Nick says he was hooked. “I was blown away at how incredible this trail was in North Dakota. We got to a point called Devil’s Pass and when I came around the corner it was a special experience. The Badlands just started to romance me.”

Shortly after his first trip to the trail, he started hearing about riders tackling the entire MDH trail, more than 100 miles, in one day. “I made that my ultimate goal,” he says. 

Nick joined the Air National Guard and went to college in Minnesota, but always made riding the MDH trail part of his summers back in North Dakota. Following graduation from college, he moved to his wife Lindsey’s hometown of Watford City, near the MDH’s north trailhead. 

In 2009, Nick met his goal of riding the entire MDH in one day. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” he says. “Conquering that challenge, I thought, ‘more people need to experience this.’ That is when I started thinking about a race covering the whole trail.”

 

The MDH 100

In 2011, the Ybarras hoped to launch the MDH100 race, a competitive event challenging riders to cover the entire MDH trail in one day. “As we got closer to the date of the event, we realized the trail was getting overgrown and other parts were starting to fade away, making it easy to get lost,” says Nick.

Instead, the event was changed to an out and back race on a well-traveled section of the trail near Medora. “Until that point, I never really thought of what would have to go in to maintaining a trail like this,” he says.

In 2012, the couple decided to host the MDH 100 event, free of charge, and just let participants ride the trail. “Sixty people showed up to race and every single person got lost,” says Nick. “The trail was actually worse than the year before. I had a decision to make. Was this something we want to keep doing?”

Getting to Work

Through research, phone calls and word of mouth, Nick discovered the U.S. Forest Service was charged with maintaining the MDH. “At the time, they were losing funding and staffing for maintaining the trail,” he notes. “I don’t think they really knew how bad it was.”

In 2013, conditions on the trail remained the same. “We asked the U.S. Forest Service how we could help, and they said, if we were able to get mowers, we could mow the trail.”

Nick gathered friends and initially planned to mow 10 miles of the trail. “By the time we got to the end of those 10 miles, we were exhausted,” he says. “We were reclaiming lost trails.”

In 2014, Nick and volunteers mowed the entire trail. “In the spring of that year, the grass was still short, and we thought we were good to go,” he says. “By the summer, it had all grown back. Now, every year since 2013, a core group of passionate trail users and volunteers have worked with the U.S. Forest Service to keep this remote trail from going extinct.”

 

At the Other End of the Trail…

Phil Helfrich spent a lot of time in the Badlands as a young man and says during one of his many deer hunting trips during this time, he noticed a strange post down in a valley. Through research he found the post was the beginnings of the MDH trail. “It was marking the Maah Daah Hey trail during the original concept, before they had a physical trail in place,” he notes.

“I thought of it as a way to expand my access to the Badlands, because the purpose of the trail was to go through the scenic portions of the Badlands,” he continues. 

Phil’s use of the trail, whether on foot, horseback and mule, or mountain bike, only continued to grow, which eventually led to his connection to Save the MDH. “The first time I met Nick, I was riding my horse and trimming a branch that was knocking hats off riders,” he notes.

Around this same time Helfrich says, while out on his bike on the trail, he was noticing some of the remote spots were getting harder to ride. “The U.S. Forest Service had lost funding for maintenance and we were in a wet cycle with a lot of erosion and overgrowth,” he notes.

He decided to start working on maintaining the trail. “I wanted to have a trail that, when I was using it, I enjoyed it,” says Phil. “But I also wanted to make it enjoyable for others.”

While Nick had started maintenance on the north end of the trail, Phil began work on the south end of the MDH near Medora. “When I found out Nick was taking care of the trail on the north side, I became competitive,” he says. “I wanted to have a good trail, but I also didn’t want him to do more than me.”

Despite both being competitive in nature, it wasn’t long before the two started working together. “He just didn’t give up,” says Phil. “And I realized I had the desire and ability to help him.”

But even in working together, the two never lost their spirit of friendly competition. “We got to the point where I would start at the bottom of the trail and he would start at the top and we would meet in the middle. He and I were killing ourselves,” says Phil. “But if you have an end game, you have something that drives you to that point, you get there more effectively.”

The decision of the two men to team up in their trail efforts was an important turning point in saving the MDH, says Lindsey Ybarra, co-founder of Save The MDH. “If Phil hadn’t joined the efforts, I don’t think Nick would have continued,” she notes. “And without Nick and Phil, the trail would have disappeared.” 

 

#SAVETHEMDH

In 2015, the Ybarras formed the Save the MDH foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission to save the MDH trail system from erosion, overgrowth and extinction. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service through a volunteer agreement, Save the MDH volunteers mow, trim, hand prune and shovel the trail with the goal to keep it findable, useable and enjoyable for all users. “Everything we do, we want to benefit all three of the major trail users and help make the trail identifiable and enjoyable, and so you can see where you are traveling and your surroundings,” says Nick.

The Save the MDH organization is run by a board of directors consisting of up to seven members, with Phil taking the helm as president of the board. “Nick elected me president to keep me involved,” he jokes.

The board and volunteers help fundraise, write grants, organize events, maintain the organization’s nonprofit status and complete trail work. In addition, the organization hosts eight events on the trail annually. “The events help to keep the trail alive and help to grow awareness of the MDH,” says Lindsey. “A lot of the proceeds from these events go back into the trail.”

The MDH100 race now includes five distances to accommodate a variety of riders, and other events include a trail race, mud run, 24-hour race, winter bike race and new snowshoeing event. Between all eight events, Lindsey says nearly 2,000 participants ride or run on the MDH. “We also have more than 150 volunteers that help with the events and 50 volunteers doing the work to maintain the trail,” she says. 

 

A Family Affair

Lindsey says her passion for the MDH trail has grown along side her husband. “I was born and raised in Watford City, 15 miles from the north trailhead, but my first time on the trail was when I was 19 and I met Nick. What was so cool for me was it was pretty much in my backyard and I didn’t know about it.”

As her involvement with the trail grew, so did that of her and Nick’s whole family. “We couldn’t have done this without them,” says Lindsey. “Our first years, our families were our volunteers. They were cooking for events, shuttling people and doing trail work. It was our families that helped launch our dream.”

Lindsey says she enjoys the peacefulness and seclusion of the trail, especially    while running. The Ybarras are now passing their passion for the MDH on to their two daughters. “They like going and both mountain bike on the trail,” she says. “It’s good for them and they get to see this part of North Dakota.”

“We all love the trail,” adds Phil. “It is a part of us, like a family member.”

Nick echoes this sentiment. “I believe it is the world’s greatest trail. It was my first love and where I fell in love with mountain biking.”

 

The Opportunity to Help

“With every trail, there comes a level of responsibility for the trail,” says Nick. “If we go back to nobody doing hands-on, hard work, the MDH is going to disappear. When you start putting in that work effort, you gain a greater appreciation for the trail and you are improving a small piece of the world.”

“The average age of our volunteer worker is 50 years old and we traditionally have more female volunteers,” says Phil. “My partner for the first three years was 65 years old. She walked step-for-step with me, doing all the work I did.”

Phil says the organization also welcomes help from groups looking for a work day or work weekend in the Badlands. “We encourage everyone to get involved. It’s the best physical conditioning. The reward you get from your input is hard to describe, but the first thing you think is ‘when can I come back?’”

He says there is a job for everyone, from greeting those arriving at camp to running water and supplies to trail workers to working on the trail itself. “Nick and I are the best at pushing mowers down the trail, but not at organizing,” Phil continues. “If you have an interest or special skill sets that can help, those things as well are very valuable to our organization.”

A line of #SaveTheMDH clothing is available for purchase at www.experienceland.org/save-the-mdh-store, and monetary donations are also accepted to support the trail efforts. “We are primarily funded by tax deductible donations,” continues Nick. “We use the funds to purchase equipment to clear the trail.”

At $5,000 per mower, equipment costs add up quickly. “We are really hard on them,” Nick says. “We are constantly using, repairing and replacing.”

The organization also recently purchased a few vehicles to use for trail work, even converting an old ambulance to haul equipment. Nick says the Hess Corporation also donated funds to purchase brush mowers and donated an enclosed trailer. Additional support has also come in from trail users and race participants.

“We are a growing organization,” says Phil. “If we can get the proper amount of volunteers to do what we want, nothing but good will come out of helping the government to maintain the trail, the citizens of North Dakota, and every traveler that visits the trail from the U.S., Canada and many foreign countries.”

 

The Future

“I feel like we have barely started,” says Lindsey of the Save the MDH organization and its efforts. “There are so many opportunities, and people are going to become more passionate about the trail. It won’t be hard to see it being maintained.”

Nick says the organization’s efforts are also focused on passing the passion for the MDH onto the next generation of trail users. “Our remote places are getting smaller and smaller and there are few places left like the MDH. We want to do the necessary and hard things to keep the trail alive, but also to train and teach people,” he notes. “Each year we have new people join us who have never done trail work. It has always surprised me how many people have got on board with my personal mission.” 

He says one of the most important steps in continuing to preserve the MDH is creating awareness and getting people to the trail. “You can see pictures, you can see videos, but you can’t understand how special of a place this is unless you visit it,” says Nick. “The trail needs traffic and visitors. It is open 365 days a year, and the more people on the trail, the better.”

The MDH will continue to have a strong presence in North Dakota well into the future, says Nick. “The Maah Daah Hey is something that has been and will be around a long time.” 

For more information, email nick@experienceland.org or visit www.SAVEtheMDH.com.

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