In August, there is a challenge for people that like to push their physical and mental limits. It’s called the Maah Daah Hey 100. One hundred plus miles of back country mountain biking in the Badlands of North Dakota with temps that can be in the triple digits (and this year they were) and a trail that has more climbs than anyone would think possible for the “Flat Lands” that are said to be North Dakota. My hat’s off to everyone that participates in the Maah Daah Hey 100.
Then there are the people like my cohort and myself. We are looking for the adventure and challenge of the trail but we want to take our time and immerse ourselves in the experience of the back country. So we set out to make a five day bikepack trip on the Maah Daah Hey trail. This trip was special for us in more ways than one. We get to go on adventures together like this once every year or so. We have been friends for nearly 30 years but life has a way of taking us to places that we never planned or thought we would ever go.
We started preparing for the trip months before our scheduled start date. There was the physical conditioning that, for me included cardio resistance training for 3 months and then weight training and riding miles, both trail and road, for three months. Then we had to make sure that had the gear that we would need. Tent/bivy sack, sleeping bags, necessary items for cooking and eating, a change of clothes, food, water, more water, first aid kit, emergency bike repair tools, etc.. All of the equipment was picked with the criteria of usefulness, packed size and weight in mind. In all we had 40-45 pounds of gear and food each. Then there was our bikes. A Stump Jumper was my bike of choice, and a Cannondale hard tail for my partner.
Conditioning complete and gear packed and loaded on our bikes, and backs, we set off from Medora on Labor Day Sunday. We had an afternoon start planned figuring that we would reach the end of the Maah Daah Hey Thursday evening. The first couple of miles had us crossing a creek several times. We were able to cross without getting too wet, so we counted that as our first small victory for the week. Within 2 miles of the last crossing, I had a minor equipment failure that I was able to fix in a few minutes. All was good again with the world and we were in high spirits.
A few miles later, we came upon a group of horseback riders on a hill crest and spent a few minutes chatting and carried on. Little did we know we missed the turn for the Buffalo Gap Trail, the bypass for the national park, due to one of the riders using the sign as a place to rest his elbow completely covering it from our view. We also didn’t think to ask if the junction was close by so we really couldn’t complain. We continued down the trail until we realized that something was not quite right. Our suspicions were confirmed when we saw the Missouri River. Neither of us was too upset by this though. We got to see a part of the trail that we had never seen before and we could take gravel roads to reconnect with the Buffalo Gap Trail and make up for lost time. About half way back to the right trail, my partner had the sudden realization that he had put his keys, the ones we would need for the ride back to Medora after we reach the end, in his duffel bag. In my truck. Parked in Medora. Fortunately this was only a 2 mile detour and we decided to make the best of it by having a good meal and fresh start in the morning. When we got back to the truck I decided to repack and minimize my gear a bit more so I could leave the gear (panniers) that had failed behind.
The next morning, after making sure that the keys were in my partner’s possession, we had a good breakfast and hit the trail again. We backtracked on our detour so we could pick up where we left off. On our previous attempt the year before, the temps were in the 90’s and we received about ½ inch of rain on our first night on the trail turning the trail into a sticky slippery mess during the first half of the day. This time, we had temps in the mid 70’s, sunshine and the trails were still in great shape due to the work put in by the volunteers who worked hard to get ready for the 100. A big thank you goes out to everyone that worked on the trail.
The trail still had some challenges waiting for us. There ample climbs and creeks for us to navigate but in all it was a near perfect day for a ride in Badlands. Our first night was highlighted by an unexpected show put on by the Northern Lights. The sky was alive with the pulsing of green light that stretched out wave after wave across the night sky and went on for several hours. We didn’t get as much sleep as we should have as a result, but it was worth it.
The second day was a bit harder than our first due to our lack of sleep and the seemingly endless climbs and switchbacks that make up the South half of the trail. We ended up walking and pushing up hill more often than we wanted to but is was faster than trying to ride with the added weight. Since we were in no hurry we also stopped and took photos in several locations along the way. Since it wasn’t as hot as the year before, water wasn’t a problem and as there are ample water tanks along the way to filter water from, we didn’t have to worry about running short. Our second night was capped off by a sunset that set the night sky on fire in a way that in unique to the Badlands.
On the third morning, we set off knowing that we would be crossing the Little Missouri River later in the day marking the halfway point of our trip and the point where we were forced to abandon our attempt last time. As we approached the river we saw another biker, the first that we encountered on the trail, and after he crossed to the South side of the river, where we were taking a break before crossing ourselves, we sat as chatted about the kinds of things that mountain bikers chat about, the trail so far, are there any areas that we need to take extra care on, and does it get easier or harder from here. We spent almost an hour talking and snacking before we parted ways, us to the North and he to the South and we made our river crossing. There was an easy mile or so in the valley and then the climb to the plateaus above the river. From this point we thought that we would have it easy, or at least easier, but there were still a few climbs ahead of us that would challenge us and make us work to reach our goal for the evening. This night would be a bit cooler than we had experienced so far, but we had the gear and layers that we needed to be comfortable. Another Badlands sunset to add to our memories and it was lights out.
Day four and we were feeling the miles. As we used our food supplies, our packs got lighter, but we couldn’t tell the difference other than we had more room in them. The trail mellowed out for us and we made good time and miles. There was still the occasional climb but there was more grassland and the going was a lot easier. We spent more time looking at the scenery and taking photos than we expected but still made it to our next predetermined camping spot with an hour or so of light to spare. What we didn’t expect were he temps that night. I had decided to warm a medium size rock by the fire, wrap it in a heavy t-shirt and put it in the bottom of my sleeping bag to keep my feet warm. I was glad that I did. We had packed for temps as low as 35 but the Badlands surprised us, as they are known to do, with an overnight temp down to the mid 20’s.
There was no hanging the rain fly to dry on day five. I just shook it and made snow in September. Everything was covered in a heavy layer of frost but we were in no way going to let that stop us from completing our journey. The ride on this day was going to be much easier than any of the previous days. We would have to take gravel roads for 18 miles in order to detour around the North unit of the National park. This was kind of a bummer but we took advantage of the easy going and made really good time. At about mile 17 for the day, we stopped and talked to a super nice guy in a pickup that was coming from the trail head. He confirmed that we were indeed on the right road and that we only had a mile or less to go to get back on the trail. He was there supporting a group of riders from out of state that retained his services as an outfitter for mountain bikers. Not a bad gig if you ask me.
After the required photos at the campground sign, we had our last meal from our backpacks and loaded up for the drive back to Medora to pick up my truck. We had a celebration espresso shake at the ice cream parlor, said our goodbyes, and we were on the road back to the real world. We wouldn’t be sharing a fire for another year or more but we weren’t too disheartened. We had new memories (and a few scars) that would be with us for a lifetime and questions that we still have yet to answer. Where will our next adventure take us and what new memories will we make.
Authors note: I set way points for many of the water supplies on the trail. I am including the GPS coordinates with this story so when you decide to make the trip yourself, you will know in advance where you can get water if you are running low between campgrounds. You will need to filter or purify any water that you get from any source other than the wells in the campgrounds.
Water sources and 1 campsite
1. N 47°26.889’ W 103°21.666’ Stock Tank
2. N 47°25.581’ W 103°21.866’ Beaver Dam
3. N 47°24.547’ W 103°23.633’ Stock Dam
4. N 47°22.656’ W 103°24.283’ Spring
5. N 47°22.654’ W 103°24.282’ Stock Dam
6. N 47°21.910’ W 103°24.375’ Spring
7. N 47°17.498’ W 103°31.341’ Stock Tank
8. N 47°17.499’ W 103°31.345’ Stock Pond
9. N 47°13.794’ W 103°38.434’ Stock Pond
10. N 47°13.788’ W 103°38.440’ Flowing Water
11. N 47°12.629’ W 103°39.999’ Stock Pond
12. N 47°10.660’ W 103°40.068’ Water Tank
13. N 47°09.778’ W 103°39.243’ Stock Tank ( in case water in cache at marker 29 is empty)
14. N 47°03.321’ W 103°35.272’ Camp Site This is a nice place in case you don’t want to use the state campground
15. N 47°01.748’ W 103°35.285’ Flowing Tank
16. N. 47°00.409’ W 103°36.925’ Stock Pond
There are additional tanks and ponds along the way but these were the better sources that we found.