Surviving The Maah Daah Hey Trail

The Maah Daah Hey Trail schooled me. I went from “I’m going to own this ride” to “Okay, I’m gonna have fun” to “Sweet Jesus, let’s just try not to die” in 5.2 seconds. Riding a ridgeline will do that to a person, especially if you’re a flatlander like me.

But don’t late my thoughts of my own mortality deter you from exploring North Dakota’s most stunningly gorgeous trail. The Maah Daah Hey thrills you in the way a roller coaster does, with heart-stopping turns and elevation changes and close calls, capped up with that amazing “I survived” rush at the end. But on the Maah Daah Hey, you get the endorphin rush payoff using your own body’s power.

Seriously, you have to try it.

The Maah Daah Hey is actually a network of nine trails that run along far western edge of North Dakota. The northernmost trail starts south of Watford City, while others skirt Medora in the west before ending south of Belfield. The 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail is the longest among them. It’s billed as one of the best — and most difficult — single track mountain biking trails in the nation.

It’s a rustic, jaw-droopingly beautiful route that takes riders up badlands buttes, through prairie grasses and along tree-lined river bottoms. The trail gets its name from the Mandan word for “grandfather” a hint at the region’s long-standing resonance for tribes. This is a moody, sun-baked, mysterious place that, despite the occasional glimpse of a road or a dwelling built into a bluff, feels ancient, eternal, unchanging.

This much beauty can be downright distracting when you’re on a bike. Despite this fact, the majority of the Maah Daah Hey Trails users are mountain bikers. Riders on horseback make up the next largest group of trail users, follower by a smaller number of hikers and bird watchers. There are eleven campgrounds located along the way if you want to make a trip of it, traveling the trail by day and resting under a canopy of stars at night. (Light pollution is low all over North Dakota, but this is one of the darkest corner of the state.)

Or you can ride in or be dropped at twelve trailheads located along the way, like I did. My host Justin, of The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, dropped me off at the Bully Pulpit Trailhead, about three miles south of Medora near Bully Pulpit Golf Course in the Little Missouri National Grassland.

The plan, according to a map I picked up from the knowledgable folks at Dakota Cyclery, was to get dropped off there, take a short, quick, supremely scenic ride a little beyond the Sully Creek State Park a few short miles away and then ride the three miles back into town so I could make my 10 a.m. appointment and beat the already ridiculous heat. (My phone said 76 degrees and windy when I left that morning, the coolest it was going to get.)

Yeah, that didn’t exactly happen. For one thing, I stopped way too often to take photos. (You would too, when your ride looks like this.)

And the very first bluff climb was a doozy. I was cursing my way to the top of the very first hill (working on my pace on the super flat Fargo prairie suddenly seemed incredibly stupid and beside the point, as useless as practicing stair climbing in the middle of the kitchen floor), when my left shoe caught in some mysterious apparatus on the amazing Paramount Sports loaner bike I picked up in Fargo on my way west.

Annoyed, I yanked my foot out out. Or tried to. The bike bit back and I somehow flew across the frame of my bike, toppling over (hard) about halfway to the top.

I was fine. The bike was fine. The shoe? Yeah, not so much. The back part was still attached, at least, so it sort of functioned as a shoe, just with a floppy bill instead of a sole. I extricated myself and the weird rubbery remnant that was once the tip of my shoe and marched, chagrined, to the top of the hill.

There’s something vaguely humiliating about falling over your first attempted hill climb in memory, possibly your first hill climb, ever. It’s even more embarrassing to be walking before you’ve even really started. But at least the hills around Medora were quiet and there was nobody to witness my shame (or hear my by now uncontrollable giggles, because seriously, that must have looked hilarious) as I stood at the top of the bluff, humbled both by my own folly and by the beauty of this place. Thankfully, this was not a harbinger of things to come.

Okay, I lied. It was totally a harbinger of things to come, in that my other shoe did the exact same thing when I put my foot down to walk my bike up to the cattle gates that dot the trail, serving both their intended purpose as cow deterrents and doubling as landmarks.

So now I was stuck with not one but two annihilated shoes, newly liberated of their soles (which were flapping alarmingly in the breeze) and a strange, unprecedented worry about the status of my feet. I’ve been riding a since I was little and I don’t recall this ever happening to me before.

I decided to put what I couldn’t change out of my mind as I double checked my route on my phone, scrolling ahead to see where I needed to go and checking my pace to be sure I’d make it back on time. Thus reassured, I really started to have fun.

I’d gotten my fill of photos, since stopping kind of messes with the rush of riding. So now I was soaking up the landscape as I flew by, whizzing down embankments as prairie grasses tickled my ankles, pushing myself hard as I weaved my way up the bluffs at a slow and steady pace, squealing a little as my front tire turned a blind corner and an incredible vista opened up before me. I rode the ridgelines on a surge of adrenaline, kicking up chalky clay dust.

There was sweat dripping into my eyes. The fresh air ached in my lungs. I couldn’t stop grinning.

I can’t remember a ride when my lungs hurt before my muscles did, but those climbs required much more cardiovascular endurance than speeding around curves on flat land back home. And as the temperature climbed into the 80s, I knew I’d pushed myself harder than I ever had before. The time flew by. I was drenched and buzzing and incredibly, thrillingly proud of myself.

As I grabbed my water, I was stuck by the realization that I’d made two common Maah Daah Hey Trail mistakes. One, I didn’t bring enough water. True, I brought two water bottles — twice the amount that I usually bring. But the dry air and the climbing took more out of me than I expected. And there’s hardly any shade in the badlands, so you feel the heat sooner and the sun is unrelenting.

Terri Thiel, who works for Visit Dickinson, a frequent tourism partner of mine who often brings her horses out on the trail, said that almost everybody skimps on water their first time. She usually carries extra water in her saddle bags because somebody always seems to need it. I made a mental note to bring more next time. There are eight water caches located along the way, but it’s best to be proactive.

Second, I wasn’t precisely sure where I was. The Maah Daah Hey is marked with friendly little turtles on signposts every few hundred feet, but on the trail (like in life) the signs seemed to appear at the last possible moment. And there were many smaller trails (cattle trails, hiking trails and those worn down by the elements) to tempt you away from your path.

I’d (mostly) resisted these side trails (there might have been a false turn or two), but I’d made the rookie, city person mistake of trusting my GPS and cell phone signal. I really ought to know better, since I work and travel in this area often. Google Maps is finicky in western North Dakota and eastern Montana, sometimes working just fine to lull you into complacency, sometimes conspiring to lead you straight into a large body of water. (That actually happened to me in Mandan, when my GPS attempted to steer me into the Missouri River. Don’t worry, I called its bluff.)

Even worse, sometimes it seems to work just fine, only to stop and search for signal for an alarmingly long time. By the time it picks up again, the clueless human continuing on their course can end up somewhere quite different from their intended destination. (The time Google Maps told my brother and I we had entered Montana four miles too late is the stuff of family legend. I’m also pretty sure I’ve accidentally wandered into Canada before as well.)

This situation wasn’t quite that bad, but by the time I turned my phone off and turned it on again, the previous and actual dot on my on-screen map were pretty far apart. Whoops. I’d gone too far.

The crew at Dakota Cyclery had warned me this might happen, but I’d gotten cocky in the way you do when you’re flying around a mini-mountain on the sexiest bike you’ll probably ever ride and soaking in some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. I consulted the map they gave me, made another mental note to go old school and just use the paper map next time.

So I headed back the way I came, calling my friend Jo to pick me up not in town, as we’d previously discussed, but a little bit outside of town since I was running a little late. Amusingly, she had trouble with her GPS too. (I’ve since learned this isn’t unusual. Almost every cyclist I know that’s tackled the Maah Daah Hey has said the same thing happened to them or to their driver. So I don’t feel so bad.) I got a few more miles in by the time we finally met up.

The Maah Daah Hey Trail was a challenge from the very first moment. It took longer than expected. It was every bit as hard as I expected. But I’d ride it again in a second.

I might hike as well. That way I can look around a little more and really soak in the scenery.

But no matter what I do, I’m definitely bringing new shoes.

What about you?
What do you think about the Maah Daah Hey Trail?
Do you prefer cycling, hiking or horseback riding?
What’s your favorite place in western North Dakota?
What’s the hardest cycling trail you’ve ever tried?

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