Carey J. Williams/Associated Press
For mountain bikers, North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey Trail is such a treasure that people come from all over to experience it.
I drove with friends more than 1,000 miles to ride 100-plus miles of the single-track trail, which is no wider than a bike. And we weren’t the only non-Dakotans traveling long distances to do it. We met folks from Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Denver, Montana and Wyoming.
The MDH is located where the Great Plains meet the Badlands. To use North Dakota’s state slogan, it’s legendary. It connects the northern and southern units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the western part of the state.
With elevation changes of more than 10,000 feet, only the fiercest of athletes complete the trail in one day, usually for the annual MDH 100 race, which was held Aug. 5 this year. We opted for a multi-day, self-supported trip. That’s the essence of bikepacking – or backpacking by bike.
Within the first hour of leaving the northern trailhead, we knew we’d be tested by the rugged landscape. The unrelenting climbs, sheer cliffs along the exposed layers of the Badlands, switchback descents and grassy plateaus with panoramic views were going to be our repeating scenery for three days.
After a two-hour opening night ride because of a late start, it took us three full days of 10 to 12 hours on the bikes to complete the trail. A fourth day would have made it a more relaxing experience with various side trips to the China Wall, Ice Caves and Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch.
Bikepackers carry the same gear as backpackers with the addition of tools and spare bicycle parts. Ideally, the gear (including a multi-tool, chain breaker, spare tubes, tire levers, patch kit, chain lube and pump) should be distributed equally around the bike because riding single-track trails demands your attention and balance.
When the narrow track zigzags, the bike needs to follow as riders become one with the trail. The ideal bike would be a hardtail (with or without suspension) mountain bike with 27.5 or 29-inch wheels and bags for the frame, fork, handlebar and seat post.
But we’re proof you don’t need top-of-the-line gear to complete the trail. Two of our three riders used panniers, meaning saddlebags on racks over rear tires, though they did face more mechanical issues on 15-year-old bikes than the gearhead of the group. Plus the width of the bikes with panniers tended to disrupt the tall western wheatgrass and dense brush along the trail, leading to stops for tick checks and broken bike parts.
Resting points were key to a successful trip, especially between the hottest times of day, 2 to 4 p.m. The cooler, north-facing slopes and pockets of wooded draws were natural pit stops – usually in a grove of leafy cottonwood trees.
The drier, south-facing buttes lent themselves to purple coneflowers, prairie roses, bright yellow blooming prickly pear cactus and the easily-recognizable yucca plant with its tall stalks. The wildflowers provided a contrast to the browns and greens dominating the landscape.
One note of caution for this season: The area is experiencing a drought. A wildfire recently closed part of the MDH trail along with two campgrounds, but at the end of July, all sections were open.
We each carried a total of 4 to 6 liters of water in daypacks, frame cages and luggage bags. Each campsite (CCC, Bennett, Magpie, Elkhorn, Wannagan, Buffalo Gap, Sully Creek), located at least 18 miles apart, had hand-pumped drinking water.
There are also water-cache sites that can be stocked before the trip by driving on dirt roads. The campsites can be accessed on those roads, making it possible for exhausted riders to catch a ride back to town or for sag wagons – support vehicles – to greet pampered riders at the end of the day with a cold beverage.
Finding the campsites was a breeze with wooden fence posts placed on the trail within sight of each one.
Roosevelt first came to the area to hunt buffalo but later returned to work as a rancher while working through grief for his late mother and wife, who died the same day in 1884.
“The farther one gets into the wilderness,” he said, “the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”