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Dakota destinations: Family adventure leads to Badlands

A herd of bison is right at home in the park's south unit.(Becca McGaughey)1 / 2
River Bend Overlook in the park's north unit. (Becca McGaughey2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- Thanks to the movie "Fargo," many think of North Dakota as a state with brutal winters, people who talk funny and empty landscapes.

I'm here to tell you North Dakota gets a bad rap.

Sure, driving north on Interstate 29 to Fargo isn't the most awe-inspiring of trips, nor is motoring west across the Peace Garden State (though there are a few on-the-road highlights, like motoring up and down the rolling hills of Valley City, espying a glimpse of the white buffalo in Jamestown and seeing "the world's largest Holstein cow" in New Salem). But when you're finally a few miles past Dickinson, the few hours of general traveling tedium starts to become well worth it.

North Dakota's Badlands seemingly pop out of nowhere a few miles east of the old-time cowboy town of Medora, and the view is at once breathtaking and arresting. Upon first beholding this site 14 years ago, when I relocated from western New York to southwestern North Dakota, I immediately became obsessed with hiking in them. Never mind that my idea of a hike was sidestepping sidewalk traffic at a rapid rate on the streets of midtown Manhattan, not negotiating rugged terrain while having no shelter from an enormous sky; I wanted to walk in the wild, wild west.

Theodore Roosevelt came from New York to the North Dakota Badlands and got in touch with his inner cowboy. Who's to say I couldn't do something similar?

First night

Late in July, after spending a few days in the Black Hills of South Dakota (also beautiful) with my wife's side of the family, we traveled up north on U.S. 85 and its wide-open spaces to Belfield, N.D. Staying at the unspectacular yet certainly serviceable Trappers Inn ( for three nights, Becca and I, along with the kids, would stay with Bec's parents the first evening. Then, Grandma and Grandpa would take Grace and Zachary back to their place in Jamestown, leaving us two precious days to ourselves -- and to explore.

We did just that after a pleasant family evening in Medora. Highlights included a 15-minute-or-so re-enactment of a saloon shootout (Grace proudly smiled for a photo with the "bar girls" afterward), a round of mini-golf (I achieved a personal first with holes-in-one on the first two holes, yet still was edged in the end by Bec's mom) and an all-you-can eat dinner at the Chuckwagon Buffet. Dinner was respectable and filling. But for a real treat, I'd recommend ponying up a couple of extra bucks and experiencing the Pitchfork Steak Fondue, where you eat in full view of a setting sun while being sung to by the cast of the renowned Medora Musical ( The musical is also well worth seeing, but Bec and I had done that before and also weren't sure how patient the kids would be through the production.

Besides, we weren't here to see a play, necessarily. We were ready to get into the Badlands.

Day one

The next morning, Bec and I got in the van and headed north on U.S. 85 toward the northern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), located about 15 miles south of Watford City. This would turn out to be the only negative of our trip.

With North Dakota 22, which runs parallel to U.S. 85 and north and south from Dickinson, closed due to a landslide of a few weeks earlier, we had considerably more traffic than usual on our route. That wouldn't have been so bad, but portions of U.S. 85 were under construction and narrowed the highway to a single lane. So, we'd drive a few miles, get stuck behind a long line of cars and oil trucks (the oil exploration going on is worthy of a long essay in itself), and ultimately get moving after what was at times as long as 20-minute wait. It took us two hours to get from Belfield to TRNP -- about twice as long as it should normally.

After a tasty lunch at Watford City's Outlaws' Bar & Grill ( to fuel us up, we worked our way into the north unit. While the southern portion of the park, at Medora, is considerably larger and has a 36-mile scenic loop drive, the north unit's route is only 14 miles. Still, I remembered the north as being particularly scenic, perhaps more so than its southern counterpart.

In retrospect, I'm not sure if that's necessarily true. The one thing worth noting about the north unit is that one can feel far, far removed from civilization while in the midst of a trail hike. In the south, there are a few spots where our view includes sights and sounds from Interstate 94.

Our first stop along the north unit's scenic drive was Caprock Coulee Trail, a 1.6-mile round-trip trek that probably takes around an hour to complete. One may chuckle at the abbreviated length -- 1.6 miles -- of the trail, but there's plenty to see and take in at this distance. With shade a non-existent commodity and temperatures in the 90-degree range, this distance seemed wise, too. (This hike can also be combined with the Upper Caprock Coulee Trail for a 4.3-mile loop).

The trail takes hikers through one of many coulees -- a long, steep, narrow valley formed by water erosion -- found in the Badlands. The coulees are usually dry in summer, except during rare thunderstorms. Along the way, there are markings that point out examples of erosions, varying grass species, plants (sagebrush is particularly prevalent), lignite and bentonite (chemically altered volcanic ash), cactus, petrified wood and more.

Early in the trail, hikers have the option of veering onto the Buckhorn Trail, an 11-mile hike. We mistakenly took the Buckhorn path, but turned out upon realizing our error -- which was when we descended upon a prairie dog town about a mile in.

Once through with that hike, we opted to get our bearings straight -- and read the literature -- before stepping out onto another trail. Back in the car, we stopped to take in the wondrous River Bend Overlook before opting to walk the Sperati Point trail, a 1.5-mile jaunt from Oxbow Overlook that leads to the narrowest Little Missouri River gateway in the Badlands. The trail is a small segment of the Achenbach Trail, a 17.7-mile adventure that includes river crossings. Maybe, just maybe, we'll do a hike like that next time.

While we enjoyed the scenery during our hikes, we were a little disappointed that we didn't get a look at any wildlife. That disappointment would be temporary.

Day two

The south unit, at Medora, was far quicker to reach from Belfield than the north -- no more than 15 minutes or so. There's also more to see, so we got started earlier than the previous day.

Start traveling on the scenic drive route and you'll pass a couple of very nice overlooks (River Woodland, Scoria Point) before meeting up with the start of Ridgeline Trail. At .6 miles, this is a very short walk, but it's pretty as well as educational. Again, there are plenty of signs describing what you're seeing, and there's visual evidence of the role of fire, wind and water in the area.

There's also visual evidence of wildlife, too. It wasn't far from this trail that we came upon a herd of bison -- we'd hoped to see just one, but a whole herd! -- as well as a couple of elk a few moments later. Miles down the scenic road we also met a small group of feral horses, descendants of those that escaped from ranches of the area decades ago. Pronghorn can also be found there, we were told (not to mention about 35 bighorn sheep in the north unit), but we apparently missed them this time around.

Other short trails are worth checking out in the south unit, too. There's Wind Canyon Trail, a quick (.3-mile) walk along a ridge that overlooks the Little Missouri, the Jones Creek Trail (3.5 miles, which winds through the heart of the Badlands) and a very short trail to Buck Hill, one of the highest elevations in the park.

I would be remarkably remiss if I didn't mention the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a 96-mile trail that crosses the Little Missouri Badlands between Sully Creek State Park (near the south unit of TRNP) and CCC Campground next to the north unit. Now that we've done several of the short TRNP trails, Bec and I hope to at least sample the Maah Daah Hey on a future Badlands excursion. Something tells me, though, that more than a few short jaunts around our area will be needed to prep us for this more serious type of hiking.

Winding down

A key part of a Medora visit, other than seeing the surrounding Badlands, is just wandering around the town and window-shopping. Probably our favorite stop was Western Edge Books, which offered an outstanding array of literature, music, art and more specific to the region and its people. There are also plenty of souvenir-type shops that offer everything from T-shirts or much more upscale gifts.

I should also mention that one should definitely embrace Theodore Roosevelt's Medora legacy and attend the play "Bully," a one-act, one-man, 45-minute show presented Monday through Friday afternoons in the Old Town Hall Theater. We went after hiking the south unit; it was well worth the $5 ticket price.

And, though we didn't visit it, I have been to -- and recommend -- the Chateau de Mores and Visitor Center. Built in 1883, it's a 26-room summer home of the French nobleman Marquis de Mores and his wife, Medora, for which the town was named.

Golfers also take note: Bully Pulpit Golf Course, I'm told, is simply awesome, and the virtual tour you can take at Medora's website backs that up. A few years ago, it would have been hard to fathom a trip to Medora not including golf. Times have changed, though I do hope to someday bring a bag of clubs (and a whole lot of patience) to Bully Pulpit for a memorable and, in all probability high-scoring, round.

In the meantime, however, I'll simply revel in the beauty of the Badlands -- and suggest you do the same.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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