There are rules to mountain biking the Maah Daah Hey trail in the Badlands of North Dakota. Here are four of the most important ones.
• If it’s raining, do not ride the trail.
• If it rained anytime in the past few days, do not ride.
• If rain is in the forecast, do not ride.
• If it looks like rain, do not ride.
Well, you get the idea.
We broke every one.
This was my third trip out to the North Dakota Badlands from my flatland home in Brooklyn. Three Septembers ago, my best buddy from college and her husband finally persuaded me to come visit them in Bismarck, N.D. They had lived for years in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies and they had clicked me into my first pair of clipless pedals and demonstrated jumping a curb. I demonstrated how to rip my t-shirt in two by running into the curb and flipping over the handlebars. But I eventually got the hang of it and spent summer vacations mountain biking through Aspen groves and rolling over rocks and tree roots on sections of the Colorado trail. Such picturesque single track is a rare find in New York City, so I spent the rest of the year looking forward to our next knobby wheeled adventure.
I was understandably sad when my friends packed up and moved back to their home state of North Dakota. I’d spent a summer in Grand Forks, N.D. back in college, and the only dirt tracks I remembered were through fields of potatoes and sugar beets. I got back on my road bike and figured that my days of gravel crunching out west were over. Until my friends dropped the Badlands bomb. North Dakota may not have many mountains, but it has one of the best kept mountain biking secrets in the west, the Maah Daah Hey Trail. “You won’t even believe that you are in ND when you see this place,” my friend wrote.
“Maah Daah Hey” is a Mandan Native American phrase, loosely translated to ‘an area that will be around for a long time’. And when I first laid eyes on it, from the back seat of a pick-up, it looked like it had already been around for a long, long time. The less than two hour, 130ish mile drive west from Bismarck to Belfield, ND along I-94 is mostly straight and mostly flat, but hang a right onto US 85 North for 20 miles and then a left onto Magpie Road, and the red dirt road starts to rise and fall and then swoop down into an ancient valley. That’s when you tell your friends to stop the pickup, so you can gape and take a photo. One of way too many.
The views are truly breathtaking. The soft greens of sage brush, wormwood, and prairie grass frame the muted rainbow layers of earth and stone that form the buttes and canyon cliffs. It’s like looking at a painting that took thousands of years to create, only it’s in 3D, and you are stepping right into it.
The Maah Daah Hey Trail was created in partnership by the North Dakota State Parks and Recreation Department, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the United States Forest Service. Almost 150 miles of ‘single track’ (trail usually no wider than the width of one or two mountain bike tires) or ‘cattle track’ depending who’s using it, curve and wind, climb and dive into canyons, around buttes, and through rolling grasslands. Horses and hikers, hunters and bikers are allowed on the trail, along with thousands of cows and a smattering of bulls, but vehicles are restricted to the red gravel roads linking the campgrounds and the oil and gas rigs. My friends parked their camper in Magpie Campground the first year I visited and we made a few out and back rides up and down the trail. I was just getting used to being back in the saddle, or rather in a rutted, bumpy track, and you can read about my sores and spills here.
Of course, adventure begets adventure, and by the end of our long weekend, we were planning our next Maah Daah Hey caper. A few other campers were in Magpie Camp that mid-September. Some were bow hunters, leaving early each morning to scout for elk. But one campsite featured a small trailer decorated with the winged wheel logo of Dakota Cyclery, a bike shop in Medora. By evening, the site was dotted with tents and a bunch of middle-aged guys in spandex were standing at the pump jack taking turns sticking their heads under the spray. We soon found out that the group was biking the trail from end to end, with Dakota Cyclery towing their tents, gear, and beer from camp to camp along the gravel roads. It’s possible to carry your gear with you, but the terrain isn’t very friendly to wide berth panniers or much extra weight (more on that later). There are, however, campgrounds every twenty or so miles, complete with clean toilets and potable water pump jacks. After talking to the guys about their adventures, we got back in our cozy camper (complete with shower, kitchen, and comfy beds) and started planning our own end-to-end adventure.
Riding with a mechanical engineer and a statistics whiz has lots of advantages. Derailleurs can derail and be fixed on the fly. And someone always knows the miles to the next meal. But where they really shine is plotting a no fail way to point A, B, and C with bunks and beer in tow. No extra hands needed. That next September it was us, our bikes, a pickup truck, the RV trailer, and one Suzuki motorcycle. Every morning we’d make it to a trailhead, get on our bikes and grind and grin our way to either the truck or the camper six or so hours down the trail. Then we’d either all pile in the truck and zoom back to camp, or I’d take a shower while my friends slid onto the Suzuki and go fetch the truck. If you’re not following the logic, I don’t fault you, but trust me, it worked. By moving the camper just a few times, we began our ride at Bennett Campground near the north end and made it to the southern end, Sully Creek in five days, well-fed and as clean as an RV shower can muster.
We all felt pretty self-satisfied, until I picked up a pamphlet at the local bike shop when returning my bike. “What’s this trail called the Deuce?” I asked the shop owner.
“Oh, it’s the newest section of the Maah Daah Hey,” she said. “They just opened it. It adds about fifty more miles.”
My friends and I looked at each other. So we weren’t at the end of the trail, after all? Honestly, we were disappointed for about a minute, because within that time we all figured we had a plan for next year. Every mile of the MDH, including the Deuce.
And that’s how we ended up breaking the rules…
Coordinating the dates that worked best for all of us, my friends plotted out the one hundred and fifty mile ride over eight days including one rest day, starting and ending each day’s ride at a campground trailhead. And beside adding in the last fifty miles of ‘the deuce’, we also would begin at the mile marker furthest north at CCC campground. We had begun the 100 mile ride at Bennett Campground, because the trail from CCC to Bennett cuts through about a mile and a half of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and bikes aren’t allowed. But we had a goal–to bike as much of the MDH as we could, and if we couldn’t ride a mile and a half, well, we would figure out a way to ride the trail before and after that portion.
The full rainbow that welcomed us to Bennett Camp this September should’ve been a good omen. After more than a few raindrops on the windshield on the road up from Belfield, the sky began to clear as we turned the pickup
and RV onto the gravel access road and we dropped down into the valley. The sun was low but bright in the sky at one end of the valley, and when I jumped out of the truck, I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped. Against a blue-black sky, a rainbow stretched from one shimmering corner of the valley to another. And if that wasn’t welcome enough, a trio of Black Angus teenage calves came trotting down the camp road, curious about their new neighbors. We all said hello in our own languages and regarded each other until one of the calves decided that some leftovers in a campfire ring were more worth checking out than us.
Despite a clear night sky full of stars, we woke the next morning to the sound of sprinkling on the RV roof. I pushed up the shade next to my dining table bed and it was covered in raindrops. Ugh. We all knew that rain plus Maah Daah Hey dirt meant mud, but we were full of first day optimism. “Let’s see how the day shapes up,” my friends said, checking the forecast on their phones. “It looks like this is passing through.” I decided not to ask what might be passing through next.
We spotted a tiny smudge of blue sky by lunchtime and that was all we needed to load our bikes in the back of the pickup and drive to the trailhead via the highway. We’d leave the truck at CCC camp, bike the trail back to Bennett, and pick the truck up later with the help of friends.
The blue sky smudge had disappeared when we unloaded our bikes, and the wind had picked up a bit. We took our requisite ‘before’ photos, had a nip of Jim Beam (a new tradition), and unlocked the cattle gate to the trail. We were on our way.
Now I do virtually no mountain biking the rest of the year. During the week, I try to work up a sweat at something every day, whether a gym class or a squash game. And I’ve been adding more hilly miles to my road bike excursions in the Catskills on the weekends. But as soon as I got on the narrow dirt trail that wound it’s way up a hill over roots and rocks, pushing steadily on the pedals to keep up with my friends, I knew it had not been nearly enough. Slender tires on a smooth surface have very little resistance. Gnarly knobby tires on a sticky, gritty surface remind me of wading through water. Slow.
But I wasn’t at the beach. I was on a mountain bike, and I felt the climb in my lungs and legs. When I run, it takes me at least a mile or so to warm up and stop feeling like I want to turn around and head to the ice cream shop. So it wasn’t exactly surprising that I was panting as I climbed a not-so-steep hill at the beginning of our ride. And then the rain began.
On the bright side, it wasn’t very heavy. Just enough to make us put our windbreakers back on. On the dim side, well, there was a very big, very dark cloud headed our way. But like lemmings, we didn’t turn around, we just kept pedaling forward, only faster now. Somehow, something smiled down on us. We got around the front edge of the cloud and the skies on the other side were a foamy mix of blue and white. It was turning out to be a lovely afternoon.
The ground below us, however, was not so lovely. Any low-lying area of the trail was either covered in puddles or slick with mud. And any trail beneath trees was guaranteed to be goopy, given that the sun hadn’t helped with any drying. We had learned from last year’s ride that our tires and shoes would pick up mud like velcro, so every time we arrived at a wet patch, we got off our bikes and either pushed them along the drier side of the trail or picked them up.
This latter option wasn’t working out so great for me. The year before I’d rented a Maverick, a very light bike, alas no longer made. ‘This bike loves to climb,’ I remember the shop owner saying. And it really did. I got up steep creek banks and around switchbacks with energy to spare. It was a joy to ride. But there was no guarantee that the bike would be free this year, so when one of my friends offered to lend me his beloved Yeti, I was more than happy. He had just bought a new bike—a 29er, as they call mountain bikes with larger, 29 inch wheels. But his old one (with 26 inch wheels) was full-suspension and top of the line when he bought it about a decade earlier. Plus, I’d be saving some serious rental fees. I was truly grateful.
I wanted to feel great about the bike, as well. But as soon as I got on the trail, I felt the difference between my stallion from last year and this workhorse. My bike had leapt up the trail, the Yeti wavered from side to side and seemed head heavy….because it was. It had a rack attached over the front wheel, as my friend does an annual ‘guys’ ride in Colorado where they carry their gear. And adding a trunk bag to it was helpful in carrying the toolkit and a few emergency supplies, should we need them. We all carried hydration packs, but they had limited space due to the three liters of water we needed to drink along the way. ‘The rack weighs nearly nothing,’ my friend assured me, as he added a tarp and some fluffy jackets to the bag before we got on the trail. I knew it was wise to bring some rain protection and warm layers. You build up heat while riding, but a downpour or a stop to fix a bike could quickly cool you down.
So far, I was doing the opposite, quickly working up a sweat by trying to keep the front wheel from wobbling. Then we started up a series of switchbacks under the swamp-inducing trees and I felt not unlike Sisyphus. When we got to a spot that didn’t have dry room for both our shoes and our tires, we picked up our bikes and my front wheel immediately plunged forward as if doing a downward dog into the mud. I twisted yogi-like to hold up the frame and the front fork. I didn’t want to blame the Yeti, but the front rack, trunk bag deal was for the dogs—and stronger muscles than mine.
But this was the first day, and I wasn’t going to let the mucky conditions take away from something I’d looked forward to all year. We finally emerged from the trees and onto the grasslands that gently roll for miles up above the canyons. The trail was much drier and we got in a number of miles before stopping for our favorite trail lunch of cheese sticks and beef jerky with sour patch kids for dessert. Get on a bike for a few hours, and it’s a four star snack, trust me.
Biking the Badlands on a good day is a beautiful thing. And after a sultry end of summer, over-flowing with crowds and the stewed stink of New York City, the high plains and cow-filled canyons, devoid of people but drenched with the perfume of sage and juniper and cool Dakota air was like a fresh, quenching, reviving tonic. No amount of rain and mud and pushing could get me down . . . but they don’t call them bad lands for nothing.
I’d been reading our 26th president’s vivid descriptions of the badlands in his book ‘Hunting Trips of A Ranchman’. An easterner like myself, Theodore Roosevelt had fallen hard for this still wild part of the country. Spending time on the two ranches he acquired just north and south of Medora, he put into words what he saw and admired around him—the ‘rolling hills’, ‘ground rent and broken into the most fantastic shapes’, and ‘steep high buttes whose crests are sharp and jagged.’ But what made the country ‘fantastic’ to look at, also made it challenging to get through. Roosevelt acknowledged that the ‘Bad Lands’ had been given its name “partly from its dreary and forbidding aspect and partly from the difficulty experienced in traveling through it.” I couldn’t agree with the dreary part, but not long after lunch, we were well into the difficult traveling.
After a few miles of rolling up on the plateau, we zig-zagged down into another valley—or ‘alluvial bottom’ as Roosevelt so poetically phrased it. Admittedly, I had to look up the word ‘alluvial’, which means made up of the materials left by a river. The word may sound lovely, but basically it means mud. And that’s what the trail had turned into. We would ride for a few yards and then the call would go out from whomever was leading, ‘Mud!” And off we would get—off our bikes and off the trail, picking our way through the prairie grass and prickly brush, looking for patches of crusted mud that was a bit firmer than the alluvial stuff. By the time we reached the section of trail that was off-limits to bikes, we weren’t even tempted to ride them anyway.
At this point, I began looking a bit more frequently at my watch. I had punched the chronograph button when we left the trailhead. Thanks to the damp morning, we’d left after noon, although none of us were that worried. While trail riding is much more time consuming than road biking, we’d done the same amount of mileage the year before in about five hours, with stops along the way. And we’d decided to stay on Central Time, so we also had another hour of daylight built in.
But four hours into our ride, I was wondering how long this might take. My friends were keeping track of the mile markers, but instead of coming upon one every fifteen minutes or so, it was taking two or three times as long. Despite our best efforts, our tires were collecting more and more mud. We all had picked up sturdy twigs along the way and by holding the branch firmly on top of the tire, we could walk along and scrape the mud as it rolled under the twig. At least that was the idea. But there was a lot of mud.
For the next few hours, we just pushed on. It wasn’t raining and the air was cool but not cold, so none of us were miserable. But there comes a time in a ride – er, walk – when you’re ready for it to be over. You’re ready for the rewards at the end, which for us was beer. My friends and I aren’t crazy drinkers, but we’ve all developed a taste for the bracing astringency of a crisp beer at the end of a ride. The first stop on the way from my touchdown at the airport a few days before was at Laughing Sun Brewery in downtown Bismarck. The brew masters there all seem to have the requisite hipster beards, but I’m not going to knock them because they truly know how to make some tasty and creative brews. We tested a flight and chose three of the lighter ales for our growlers, as those are best after a ride. The year before I had somehow convinced my friends to go with an excellent but very hoppy IPA and soon learned not to mix IPAs with Maah Daah Heys. At least not when we had to ride the next day. So we went with the refreshing New Minglewood Wheat, a dreamy Honey Golden Ale, and an easygoing Hammerhead Red ESB. And that’s pretty much all I was thinking about as I pushed the Yeti up and over and through mile after mile of alluvial muck.
We knew that around mile eighteen that we’d leave the MDH trail and turn off onto the trail to Bennett Camp. When I saw a trail sign for Bennett Creek around 6:30, I was heartened. I figured the camp must be close. And it would’ve been if a) the trail was dry, and b) we were able to ride our bikes. It seemed at least another hour before we finally saw the sign for Bennett Trail. At which point we gave a cheer, and visions of growlers danced in my head.
Until we started to lose our vision.
Following the Maah Daah Hey is wonderfully easy, thanks to the trail makers who put in enough sturdy and distinctive wooden trail markers that you can almost always be at one and spot the next one 200 meters or so away. The path itself is also pretty simple to stay on, but bikes and hikers aren’t the only one using the narrow track. It’s not uncommon to be biking along and see a crowd of cows further up the trail, and then they wander off creating new trails, along with the help of deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope. Any creek you come to invariably has numerous trails sprouting off of it, as animals are always coming down for a drink.
Which was was exactly why we got lost.
We had just slid down the trail to a creek bed, full of murky yellow water. There was a trail marker on the bank and across the creek the path clearly continued up the other side. So across and up we went. Only when we got to the top, dirt trails fanned out every which way.
“Does anyone see a trail marker?” one friend asked, as we tried one trail after another.
“No, but I see a bull,” my other friend replied. I squinted toward where she pointing. Because most Catskill farm cows are smaller in stature Holsteins, all Black Angus bovines look like bulls to me, so I just assume they are all big gals. This was one very big non-gal. My friend and I turned around and hustled back to the place where the trails divided.
We were in a long narrow valley. The sun was setting in the direction that we came and the colors in the sky were spectacular purples and pinks and dusky oranges. It reminded me of the sunset we’d seen the night before from the campground. In fact, the slender valley reminded me of the one we’d looked down from the campground. If my sense of direction and place was correct, we should be heading away from the sunset. And we should be heading there quickly. As soon as the sun dipped below the buttes behind us, the light would fade fast.
My friends knew that, too. One took off on foot in the direction I was guessing the camp to be, following the bluff along the creek. There didn’t seem to be a clear trail on our side, just tamped down scratchy brush that cows had trampled, but there was a chance he could spot the next trail marker. My other friend and I stuck closer to the trail that came up from the creek. In the pinkish fading light, she pointed across the creek, to a higher area where the hill rose up and along the other side of the valley. “That looks like it could be a marker,” she said. I looked where she was gesturing. There were plenty of trees and horizontal shapes, but a distinctive angled marker wasn’t clear to me. My gaze wandered and I looked down at the creek. It was my turn to wonder. “Doesn’t that look like a trail down there?”
At this point, everything looked like it could be a trail. And that’s when we spotted it. From our vantage point a little further downstream, we saw the marker by the creek where we crossed. But there was another marker just a few yards down the creek and a trail that went back up the bank on the same side. Why were two markers so close to one another?
And then as we looked, it dawned on us. In the middle of the two trails was a cleft, a crevasse. There was no way across, so the trail came down to the creek, around the bottom of the crevasse, and back up, never crossing the creek at all. Hallelujah.
I’d like to say that the next few miles were a piece of cake. They weren’t. They were a messy mess of a mess. The light turned gray and fuzzy and we only had one headlight between the three of us. The mud was unavoidable. It got so thick on the tires that they couldn’t turn past the bike frames until we picked it out. But then it got too dark to ride. On one long funnel of trail that led to a creek, we would step down and slide ten feet.But not long after our half hour detour in the bull pasture, we spotted the camper. Okay, it was still a white smudge in the distance, but we now knew the direction and that we’d get there – eventually.
An hour or so later, in the dark and a light rain, we all got back on our bikes and rode them up the gravel camp road to the RV. My friends’ friends had set up a small green tent and were hanging out in their car, out of the cold, waiting for us. I wanted to be friendly, but the adrenaline of finishing was quickly dissipating and the cold and damp air was seeping into the bare skin of my arms instead of merely cooling it. I was ready for a hot shower, dry clothes, and it was a toss-up between sleep and beer. Beer won.
A few days later, when we were back on the trail after letting the late summer sun spend a day sucking the moisture from the muck, we stopped at a rocky outcropping high above a prairie dog town. The chipmunky creatures poked their heads from their sandy holes and squeaked to each other up and down the pockmarked valley. We ate our cheese sticks and mused whether we would’ve made the first day’s ride knowing how much we wouldn’t be riding. It was unanimous: nope. We’d broken the rules of the Maah Daah Hey and paid for them in miles and miles of pushing and carrying, slipping and slogging. It wasn’t trail riding; it was trail torture.
But did it make every push on the pedal, every easy spin of the wheel on this sunny day in the seventies an utter pleasure? Yes, we all agreed that it had. Even the slow, low-geared uphills were a reason to grin while the quads burned and the sweat dripped. The rest of our trip (now cut and rearranged) felt almost easy – and as others will tell you, the Maah Daah Hey ain’t easy.
Our end to end ride will have to wait until another year. I raise my glass of Mingleberry Wheat to that.
— Epilogue: We had plenty of great weather on the rest of our ride — as the photos below attest. And the Deuce is spectacular, but that story will have to wait. . . .