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For Julie McKenna, Debra Morrell and myself, the Dakota Five-O was just a stop on the way to a bigger adventure – the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota.  Since you’ve heard all about the Dakota Five-O, we won’t dwell on that other than to say that Debra did claim 2nd in her age group and Julie did awesome as she had never done anything like that before.  After a beautiful day of racing and sunshine, it started pouring rain by 10pm, which meant that we were packing up our sopping wet tents and getting the bikes on top of the car in the rain the next morning and then onward to Medora, ND.  There was such an intense side-wind all the way north, Julie’s bike tipped over, saved only by the two wheel straps.  As it was impossible to do anything in that wind, we just had to make room for her bike inside the car.  Once we got to Medora, we opted for a motel room in order to dry out before starting out on the trail.

                The Maah Daah Hey Trail is a 100 mile long multi-use trail across the prairies and badlands of western North Dakota, connecting the Northern Unit of the Roosevelt National Park to the Southern Unit.  How the Forest Service ever marked out such a trail is beyond my comprehension.  Bikes are not allowed inside the National Parks, so the 19-mile long Buffalo Gap Trail was constructed to circumvent the southern unit of the Park.  The unique thing (rather, ONE of the unique things) about this trail is that there are sign posts along the entire trail embossed with a turtle.  Theoretically, from any sign post, you should be able to see the next one marking the way.  If you can’t see one, it’s likely you have gotten off on a cow trail instead of the real trail.  Much of the trail crosses free-range cattle prairie so there are lots of cows and lots of trails.

                We contracted with Dakota Cycles in Medora to shuttle our camping gear from campground to campground each night (3 nights), after taking us to the starting point. Since sharing the trailer with five others, this came out to just a mere $140 per person, well worth it!   The people at Dakota Cycle (Jennifer and her husband) know the trail well and know when it’s ridable and when it’s not.  As it had rained so hard there on Monday, it was recommended that we skip the first half of our ride on Tuesday and give the trail a few hours to dry out.  So instead of starting at Bennett Campground and riding 25 miles, we were dropped off on a forest road out in the middle of nowhere and told ‘Okay, there’s your trail – have fun!’   Off we went following the sign posts…           

The first day ended up being about 15 miles, including a side trip to the acclaimed ice caves, where we could find no ice but did find some small caves.  The trail still had not entirely dried out that first day so there were many muddy spots to cross.  The mud there is not anything like Helena mud.  There it is actually ‘muck’.  Water does not soak into the ground like it does here.  It takes sun and wind and time to dry it out.  The ‘muck’ sticks to everything and just becomes thicker.  So, whenever we got to a muddy section, we could choose to try to ride through it and hence get our bikes all mucky and about 5 pounds heavier, or we could try to tippy-toe through or around the spot and get our shoes and cleats caked with mud.  It became a challenge at times to keep our cleats and pedals cleaned out enough to clip in.  And then there were the creek crossings.  They were only a few feet wide and not very deep but had 3 – 5 feet high embankments on either side, which were nothing but muck.  The creeks looked like flowing mud, disguising just how deep they really were.  At each crossing was the choice of what’s the best option to cross and then just how do you get your bike back up that steep gooey embankment?  

                The second day proved to be drier with fewer muddy spots but lots of wind.  First we had to cross Devil’s Pass, a narrow path across the ridge between two badlands, with an incredible side wind threatening to blow us over the edge.  Then there was… “The River”.  Just after successfully getting across what we thought was the river we came to the real river:   a very, very, wide river, with no indication whatsoever as to the best place to cross or where the trail picked up on the other side.  So, after removing our shoes and socks and safely tucking them away, we pick up our bikes and set off, Debra leading the way.  Where we crossed, the water came almost to our waist, and there was still no sign of the trail on the other side – only grass and bushes as tall as or taller than us that we had to bushwack through until we finally discovered the trail once again.  From here the trail wound through a beautiful Aspen forest and up a steep hill where we had an awesome overlook of the mighty Little Missouri River we had just crossed.

                It rained again that night and the following morning so for the third day we opted to ride forest service roads for the morning and pick up the trail further down, only riding about the last 8 miles or so of trail.  The main challenge this day was the fact that horses had been on it that morning when it was wet and left big holes in the trail, making it incredibly rough and completely unridable in places.  But we finally made it to the petrified forest which is truly amazing – entire petrified stumps along the trail and petrified logs laying around.  Then a nice downill to camp, where we were warned of tornado warnings and high winds for the night.  Our tents felt like they were going to blow away – it’s amazing they didn’t.  But luckily, no tornados that we’re aware of.

                The fourth and final day began with sunshine but started to cloud over as we left camp.  The wind never stopped.   After about two miles, we turned onto the Buffalo Gap Trail and rode miles and miles across the prairie and up and down badlands all in the wind.  As the morning continued, the temp continued to drop and slowly became mixed with a light rain, turning eventually to a continual rain.  As we discovered, this is one area you do not want to be in the rain or just after the rain.  The dirt gets wet and turns to gum.  You can’t ride through it as it just clogs up the bike and our wheels would no longer turn.  Eventually, we were all walking and having to carry our bikes across the muddy trail while our shoes just got heavier and heavier with caked mud.  Finally we see a way out – the old highway which we expected to be dirt but thankfully was pavement.  We rode for a mile or so on this road until we got to a junction.  While we were trying to figure out which way to go, our knight in shining armor showed up – Jennifer’s husband in the Dakota Cycle van out to rescue us.  We were so elated, we could have kissed his feet!  We looked like three drowned cats covered with mud.  He quickly loaded up our bikes, took us back to where our car and trailer were parked and pointed us towards the shower.  Then he took our bikes to the bike shop and cleaned them up.  By the time we arrived, they looked like new bikes, which he then proceeded to load back onto our car!  Yes, the $140 was well worth it!

Post notes about the Maah Daah Hey Trail:  This is an incredible trail and truly remarkable how they ever created it to cross the prairies and meander up and down and through the badlands.  However, the trail is now eleven years old and does not appear to get any maintenance.  Therefore, the trail is severely rutted throughout, a rut usually about 12 to 18” wide and up to 3 feet or more deep.  In many places, there has been another trail worn in alongside but even it has become deeply rutted in places.  Also, the earth there seems very susceptible to erosion so some of the passages up and down the badland hills are so eroded that they are completely unridable.  In places, the trail is in desperate need of re-routing.  Bikers have to be wary of riding off the trail because there are cacti everywhere!  Jennifer from Dakota Cycles is hoping to pull together a 50-mile enduro for next Sept, beginning just after the river crossing.  It could be an incredible, yet challenging race.

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3 Comments

  1. Congrats on this epic odyssey through the Dakotas. Multiple challenges were faced and, ultimately, conquered. Similar to Athena (Goddess of Strategy), Hecate (Goddess of the Crossroads) & Despoina (Poseidon’s soggy daughter!), classic heroine resolve and determination was displayed on the journey. As a result, you have each ascended to the status of Mountain Biking Goddess!

    • Is there a goddess of abrasions and contusions?

  2. The trail is maintained every summer by volunteers, mainly college students.

    Rain on the trail sucks…literally 😉

    I hope you had a good time in the end!


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