Maah Daah Hey Mountain Bike Trail
110 miles of North Dakota Badlandsby Jackie Baker
“Know what happened the time it hailed on us out there?” Loren Morlock asked his daughter Nancy. “I cried.”
Loren and his wife Jennifer, owners of the Dakota Cyclery located in tiny
Medora, North Dakota, have spent thousands of hours mountain biking in the
Badlands. They were a driving force behind the completion of the 110-mile
singletrack known as the Maah Daah Hey trail that connects the Theodore
Roosevelt National Park’s South and North Units. Nancy and her brothers
grew up riding portions of the Maah Daah Hey, but she’d never attempted
to ride the whole thing. I’d never even been to North Dakota.
“It’s not called the Goodlands,” Loren warned.
Nancy and I were attempting to ride the entire trail in two days. We began our ride from the beginning—that’s mile marker 0—just outside of Medora. Prairie songbirds were cheerfully vocal, the temperature was cool and the singletrack was unexpectedly rideable. What’s so bad about this place?
Well, one could quickly become irreversibly lost. Wooden posts branded with a turtle symbol mark the Maah Daah Hey. Riders should be able to stand at one post and see the next, but often plant growth or erosion made the posts hard to spot. Cattle use the smooth, rolling trail to find water, and they enjoy blazing their own paths—many dead ending after a few minutes, or continuing for miles. Several times, we had to backtrack until we could connect the trail. Were the cattle purposely trying to divert us?
The only indication you're not on a cattle track.
Wildflowers grew from petrified wood stumps. Cacti bloomed bright pink and yellow. The sharp buttes, hills and gullies of the Badlands created incredible vistas. Geologic formations like those of the southwest climbed to mesa tops that compose the flat prairies of the Little Missouri Grasslands. While the landscape was undeniably beautiful, the massive striated buttes, like the cattle, were not benign.
We had been making good time until the rain fell. I feared a reenactment of Loren’s hail experience, but the precipitation remained light. But as soon as the fine, eroding soil became damp, our tires collected pounds of thick clay. We carried our useless rides for several miles, slipping along the trail. Did I say the Badlands were beautiful? I meant to say unpredictable.
Kinda like oatmeal, but stickier.
Stagnant, scorching heat smacked me upside the head the next morning. I thought about hurling myself into the brownish green water trough we passed on our first climb. But the cattle had it heavily guarded. We were being devoured by horseflies despite being slathered in bug repellent. We crossed the Little Missouri River, passing through trees covering sandy grasslands. Aspen forests grew in gullies and on the sloping sides of buttes, providing small increments of shade and fast, tacky downhills.
Shortly into our ride, we passed the turnoff for the Magpie camp, our only source for potable water for the next 25 miles. Nancy and I had water in our Camelbaks and water bottles, so we kept riding—mostly to escape the bugs. Unfortunately, we hadn’t foreseen the lack of shade or the lengthy climbs we would encounter later in the day.
We ran out of water, but I was glad we hadn’t brought iodine pills or a water filter. What standing water exists on the trail is thick and murky, used for livestock, which hovers close to the water. I’ll admit I feared death by goring. An eerie feeling grew after traveling for hours and hours, and finding it was still just the Badlands, bovine, and us. I was happy to accelerate away from skittish herds, knowing that if it came down to it, I had a shiny piece of metal to sacrifice. Being thirsty seemed like a more reasonable alternative than tangling with these shifty guys.
The Storm Ranch, run by Ed and Judy Storm, fits into the irony of the Badlands. Just when we thought we’d gotten in over our heads, signs for the ranch appeared. I had thought we were literally hours from any form of human life, yet just a half mile from the trail sat an oasis. It was a pleasant surprise that saved Nancy and I from certain doom—or at least chronic dehydration. We decided to abort our mission and have Loren pick us up from Bennett Creek camp, about eight miles away. It was a smart move. We wouldn’t have been able to finish the ride before dark, and neither of us wanted to risk getting lost—or gored—after sunset.
Loren was right; it’s called the Badlands for a reason. I’m certain the cattle had it in for us from the start. Though we didn’t finish the trail, we did manage to outsmart them and return to civilization with all of our limbs intact.
For information on riding or hiking the Maah Daah Hey, including guide services, contact the Dakota Cyclery: (701) 623-4808; www.dakotacyclery.com.
For information on lodging and activities in Medora, contact the Theodore
Roosevelt Memorial Foundation: (800) 633-6721; www.medora.com.