Bikepacking the Maah Daah Hey Trail – North Dakota

Bikepacking the Maah Daah Hey Trail has been on my radar for years since I very first discovered the sport of bikepacking back in the mid 2000’s. It’s a 150 mile long trail that runs through the Badlands of North Dakota..

Here is my bike leaning against the ruins of Theodore Roosevelt’s Cabin just outside of the national park.

Dakota Cyclery is the go to shop in Medora. I got lucky and was able to book a lower cost shuttle for the next day sharing a ride with another group doing a supported trip. The shuttle service is for the 100 mile route so that is what I ended up taking. There is another 50 miles of the MDH trail south of Medora that looks promising but was told its a bit more rocky and less traveled.

After about an hour drive in the shuttle van I was dropped of at the at the northern terminus of the MDH. It was hot and sticky!

The trail meanders up and down the bentonite clay buttes of the North Dakota Badlands. I was eager to ride the traill and really impressed with the scenery right of the bat.

This is my bike leaning up against a very large petrified tree stump. I guess this is my year for seeing petrified trees….

Lots of texture and color.

This land is heavily used for cattle grazing and the cows love to walk along the well laid out singletrack.  The trail was not as nice as I hoped since the cows had had their way with it. A rainy summer in western North Dakota led to the cows chopping up what could a be butter smooth trail. There was cow shit everywhere also.  All this made it hard to keep your speed up and get a good rhythm.

The MDH is well marked with these posts. The slant of the post indicates what side the trail is on. Route finding was still hard and there were lots of intersections and side trails from the cattle. 

I ended up making a couple wrong turns and missed the mountain bike detour around the national park wilderness area but eventually made my way following my GPS track on my phone.

It was getting late and I was tired. I felt like I had a good push for the day.

Along the MDH there are several developed campgrounds about every 15 miles along the trail. All have pit toilets and a spigot to get water. I did not filter water the entire trip. However the water tasted horrible and luckily I brought Crystal Lite the night before to make it drinkable.

When I arrived at Magpie Campground I ran into the group of mountain bikers that were riding the supported tour of the MDH that Dakota Cyclery offers. I cannot remember their names but some were from Boulder Colorado and a couple were from San Francisco. They offered for me to stay at their campsite. I got my tarp pitched and headed over for some socializing. I ended up drinking a beer and cooked up/ate my Mountain House Chicken and Rice meal. They were all acting pretty mellow and quiet when one of them explained to me they had taken edibles and were a bit stoned. Lol…. They offered me one of their gummies and was thrilled to have some company for the night. I told them the stories of my travels and they were all impressed I was doing the route self supported. I left them a note on the windshield on their car when I got back to Medora to connect on Facebook or Instagram but they never did.

I woke up at the crack of dawn and packed up my things without being able to say goodby. I did not sleep well. The campground was really busy and it seemed like I could hear everybody rustling around. I remember there was a thunderstorm in the middle of the night that was lighting up the sky in such an incredible way. Almost like there were aliens in the clouds. I got water from the spigot which makes a ton of noise at 5am in the campground. After getting water I snapped this pretty picture just before leaving the campground.

I found a cool spot to myself just a couple miles outside of the Wannagan Campground. Normally I eat breakfast at camp but this time I set up my cookstove trailside! I enjoyed this early morning breakfast and views of the clay buttes very much. 
On the second day there was a rather large stretch of land that was packed with fracking and drilling sights every few miles. It seemed like a mining boom was happening out here. I was saddened to see all the mining activity along with all the mass cattle grazing. Mankind is a bitch…….

Don’t get me wrong there was still plenty of beauty to be had. The name Maah Daah Hay translates to “The place that will stand time”.

I love this shot of my bike in the tall grass. It really captures the mood of this trail for me. There were ticks out here so I was being careful and checked myself every now and then. 

Here I am dorking around with more self timer shots. This one turned out good.

The trail would consistently drop and rise about 400 to 500 feet of elevation. It was tiring and made for a lot of elevation for the day.

Eventually I came to the Little Missouri River. I have heard stories of this being impassable in the spring or summer but it was late season and only up to my calves. I lifted up my bike and hiked across. No biggie other than the wet feet.

A rare shaded and lush section of trail right after crossing the river.

I was covering a lot of ground this day. The elevation was taking its toll and I was ready to get to camp for food and rest.

Beautiful section of rolling singletrack.

So for some reason not to far from the Wannagan Campground I wanted to stop and take a picture of me doing a wheelie in front of this clay butte. Cool picture but that decision ended up being a mistake. I took too much time goofing around wanting to get this shot and then I got rained on for about 10 minutes before camp even though I could see the thunderstorm building prior. It was just enough to get me soaked and make the trail and my bike really muddy.

When I got to camp I took a moment to relax and rest. The campground was 10 dollars for the night and I only had a $20 dollar bill. I went around and asked the hunters if they could make change. The hunters were able to break the bill for me. I got rained on one more time as I was setting up my tarp.

Here you can see the mud on my tires from the last 5 minutes of the ride and a dam near perfect pitch on my tarp despite being rained on while setting it up. This was a big day with 43 miles and over 6000 feel of elevation gain. I was excited to get a good nights rest after not sleeping well the previous night.   Nope… My neighbors were a young couple hiking the trail with a baby. Yeah that’s right a baby. I had just planned on putting in my headphones and blocking out any noise through the night. Well just as I lay my head down to sleep my headphones break and no longer put out any sound.

Fool proof gates. I must have lifted dozens of these

I had less than 30 miles on the last day and was looking forward to finishing this 100 mile route. Unfortunately I ran into trouble and hit mud right away. This was bentonite clay mud, just about the worst possible scenario for a mountain biker. 

It made for slow going and was really taking a toll on my bike performance and parts.

I stopped here for about 2 hours to let the sun come out and dry up some of the trail. I remember calling my friend Mike while I was waiting and told him about the ride. 

Things did slowly improve but it was still muddy for most of the day.

Here is one of the prettiest cow ponds I have ever laid eyes on!

The tunnel crossing under Highway 94.

After crossing the highway there was actually a section of trail that did not have any cattle grazing. It was very smooth, flowy, and incredibly fun to ride. This section of the MDH going southeast from Highway 94 to Medora was the best out of the 100 miles of trail I rode. .

My bike was trashed. The clay mud caused my front fork to only have about an inch of travel. My rear shock was leaking air and my seatpost was having issues. I ended up selling the bike as soon as I got home then bought a brand new 2019 Stumpjumper!

Enjoying the last few miles of the MDH before getting back into town. It was very scenic.

The MDH was tough for only being 100 miles. The whole trail is rough singletrack that undulates up and down over the clay buttes. I would definitely recommend other bikepacking routes over the MDH.

I stayed for a few days at the Buffalo Gap Campground. It is right of Highway 94 right before you get into Medora. It was very nice and very free. I needed to rest up after back to back days of riding a loaded bike. I aired out my gear and ate tons of food to replenish some lost calories. I would highly recommend this free campground right out of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Got Bacon?

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