If you thought that North Dakota comprises a dustbowl in the badlands – think again! With its majestic mountains, free-roaming wild horses, glistening lakes, and exquisite prairies dotted with riotous wildflowers, North Dakoda is a hiker’s paradise that you simply have to explore.
Hiking in North Dakota is a unique experience due to the diverse hiking terrains steeped in history. Great hiking destinations include the Maah Daah Hey, Turtle Mountain, Pipestem Creek, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Beaver Lake, Cross Ranch, and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park trails.
North Dakota bears testament to our illustrious past and the sublime legacy of a breathtaking rugged wilderness we wish to pass on to future generations. So, if you want to explore this majestic landscape – read on!
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Hiking In North Dakota: What You Need To Know
North Dakota is a prime hiking destination as it offers spectacular landscapes that change dramatically as you travel across these rugged badlands.
Before you strap on those hiking boots:
Robust hiking boots: invest in durable, water-resistant hiking boots with proper support to avoid the dreaded blisters or other nasty injuries.
Hiking attire: wear sweat-wicking layered clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat or cap on challenging hikes during the summer months, and several layers of thermal clothing, puffer jackets, and water-resistant lightweight jackets during winter.
Trekking poles: while certain North Dakota trails might entail a sedate stroll around a lake, others are rather strenuous, so always carry foldable trekking poles with you for some additional support.
Water and snacks: some of the trails do not have fresh drinking water readily available, so take as much water as you can carry in a thermal water bottle. Moreover, pack healthy snacks like nuts and breakfast bars that you can enjoy on the move.
Day pack essentials: pack the following in your water-proof daypack: a map, camera, binoculars, raincoat, a headlight, sun and bug spray, dry clothing, emergency blanket, and a first aid kit. Include biodegradable wipes and a paper bag for your trash.
10 The Best Hiking Trails In North Dakota
Maah Daah Hey Hiking Trail: The Cream Of The Crop!
The 144-mile Maah Daah Hey trail is probably one of the top hiking destinations in North Dakota and the Midwest – trust me on that!
This sterling hiking destination offers nine trails that cater to novice and seasoned hikers alike. These trails meander through vast prairies, idyllic riversides, and incredible wildlife with breathtaking views of serene valleys and majestic alpine peaks.
The Maah Daah trail is situated approximately 20 miles from Watford City, in a southerly direction, and it concludes roughly 49 miles from Medora towards the south.
Before attempting one of these strenuous trails, ensure that you are well stocked up on water and other essential hiking supplies.
If you are relatively new to the hiking world, you can complete only a section of one of the numerous trails. However, if you are a seasoned hiker, you will earn plenty of bragging rights to complete one of these strenuous trails that demand above-average fitness levels!
Moreover, you will have magical encounters with local wildlife, including elk, sheep, prairie dogs, antelope, turkeys, spectacular red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, wild horses, and bison at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Ideally, schedule your visit for June as the weather will be less unpredictable during that time, and dress comfortably in layers to truly enjoy your day in the great outdoors.
Most importantly, pack a handy pair of binoculars – you can thank me later!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Trails: North & South Units
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park covers a staggering 70 446 acres of land, comprised of three separate units that include the South, North, and the Elkhorn Ranch units.
The previously mentioned “Maah Daah Hey Trail meanders through all the Theodore Roosevelt National Park units, so it’s a great trail to explore the entire region.
The southern and northern park units feature roughly 100 miles of scenic backcountry hiking trails with breathtaking wildlife. Let’s have an in-depth look at the North and South units.
North Unit Hiking Trails
The North Unit is approximately 80 miles north of its larger southern counterpart. While the unit may be smaller – it packs a scenic punch with its spectacular wildlife and beautiful landscapes in a secluded region of the park.
Although the unit is a seasoned hiker’s haven, various trails also cater to inexperienced hikers. However, all hikers should be mindful that bison roam freely in this part of the land.
Keep an eye out for any warning signage concerning these intimidating wild beasts, as they are highly unpredictable and potentially dangerous to humans!
A carefully calculated risk is certainly worth taking as seeing the kaleidoscope of vividly-hued wildflowers triumphing over the rugged land is a sight for sore eyes.
If you plan to extend your stay overnight in this stunning park, collect a backcountry park permit at the ranger’s office.
Scenic South Unit Hiking Trails
The Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit, nestled in the heart of Medora, offers two main trails with spectacular views of the rugged badland cliffs and incredible wildlife.
The Coal Vein and the Ridgeline Nature Trail may be short, but they offer breathtaking vistas of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park with magnificent wild horses and bison that need to be seen to be believed.
Although you would need to wear durable hiking boots to navigate the rugged terrain, including layered clothing as the weather is highly unpredictable.
Turtle Mountain State Forest Trails: Visit Two Countries!
The western Turtle Mountain State Park, situated near Bottineau, offers a myriad of scenic trails through the county’s magnificent wilderness.
This doggy-friendly trail meanders through fragrant forests to the picturesque Strawberry Lake Recreation Area, which offers 18-mile trails. Campers also favor this area, including licensed anglers, and it is reputed to have some of the best rainbow trout in the county.
The most unique aspect of the Turtle Mountain State Park is its International Peace Garden which offers visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the US and Canada simultaneously.
The International Peace Garden is at its best during summer when it boasts a kaleidoscope of rainbow-colored flowers. It’s a true feast for the eye!
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park: Historic Hiking Trails
Founded in 1907, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park has the distinction of being the oldest North Dakotan state park. It offers visitors unique hiking experiences in the heart of Mandan, which is steeped in history.
Most of the magnificent trails in this ancient landscape are relatively easy to navigate, with spectacular views of the majestic hills, vibrant wildflowers, and the idyllic Missouri and Heart rivers.
While there are several great trails, the less than a mile long Bob Tailed Pass Trail is a firm favorite as it offers picturesque views of the surrounding prairie and adjacent forests.
Bob Tailed Pass Trail also joins other loop trails like the historic Bloody Knife Trail, which provides excellent birdwatching opportunities. The Little Soldier Trail meanders through On-A-Slant Village, a former Mandan Native American homestead.
On that note – the park offers fascinating restored earth lodges and exhibits at the Visitor Center Museum in honor of the Native Americans who once inhabited the area.
There are also various sites to explore, like Fort McKeen and Fort Abraham Lincoln, including tours through the frontier soldier’s recreated barracks and blockhouses.
It affords visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in their rich cultural history and to step back in time.
If you would like to spend some more time in this one-of-a-kind park, book a cozy cabin, or pitch up your riverside tent at one of the 100 campsites that are scattered around the park.
Pipestem Creek Hiking Trail: In Jamestown
If you’re up for taking on a strenuous hike, then head over to the Pipestem Creek Trail, as it offers a rustic 8-mile trail alongside an idyllic forested riverbank in the heart of Jamestown. That will certainly give you a great workout!
This gravel and dirt trail is incredibly busy, so keep a watchful eye for mountain bikers and deer along the way.
If you prefer a shorter, less arduous hike, follow the 3-mile picturesque trail along the creek’s perimeter at a leisurely pace, or explore the numerous spectacular trails in the Jamestown area.
Beaver Lake State Park: Wishek North Dakota Hiking Trails
The Beaver Lake State Park, situated in Wishek, offers visitors an opportunity to immerse their senses in an idyllic prairie with a tranquil lake – far removed from the maddening crowds.
The park has a rich history dating back to the first settlers who established counties in Emmons, McIntosh, and Logan, respectively, commemorated by a memorial cairn to honor their efforts to establish the park.
Moreover, it also offers a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from rustic or modern camping sites to cozy cabins where you can get away from all the hustle and bustle of urban daily life.
While the park’s trail network is only 5.14 miles, the following loop or connecting trails cater to all levels of fitness:
- Beaver Lake Nature Trail (0.32-mile): this is the most popular scenic route as it meanders through a spectacular forest, past the peaceful lake, and through the picturesque savannah. The trailhead is situated in the swimming area.
- Old Settlers Trail (0.49 miles): starts near the amphitheater, weaves past the tranquil lake, the picnic area, the memorial cairn, and a rustic old cabin that the park’s first caretaker inhabited in the early twentieth century.
- Woodland Trail (0.67 miles): birdwatchers will be in their element! This trail offers a great way to see a variety of summertime bird species ranging from woodpeckers, yellow warblers, chickadees, and kingbirds. The trailhead is accessible at the west campground.
- Rolling Prairie Loop trail (1.02 miles): this root is perfect for botanists as it features a wide array of wildflowers like Missouri goldenrod and yellow coneflowers, including green needles and big bluestem grass species in a secluded location.
- The Lake View Loop Trail (0.36 miles): which is between the Rolling Prairie Loop and the Moraine Loop, offers a wide array of wildlife, including beavers, deer, rabbits, birds, squirrels, beavers, and little raccoons.
Little Missouri State Park: Solitary Hiking Trails
The Little Missouri State Park, commonly known as “the Quiet Oasis”, situated in Western North Dakota, approximately 10-miles from Killdeer, offers breathtaking views of the rugged terrain without attracting a throng of visitors.
The surreal rugged landscape that is only accessible on horseback or on foot inspired the Sioux to aptly name it “Makro Shika,” which means: “where the ground breaks.”
It’s a hiker’s sanctuary, as you will most probably not encounter any other hikers on one of the park’s trails that spans 45 miles in total.
The two most popular hiking roots comprise the highly-rated strenuous 7- mile “Little Missouri Loop trail”, including the moderate 5- mile “Little Missouri State Park Loop” trails dotted with riotously colored wildflowers spectacular wild horses.
However, before you strap on your boots, check in with one of the park’s staff members as the trail and weather conditions are highly unpredictable in that region.
The park’s trails are relatively easy to navigate as they run alongside streams that provide spectacular views of the surrounding rugged landscape.
The park is only open between May and October each year, so plan your trip accordingly.
Cross Ranch State Park: Rugged Hiking Trails
The Cross Ranch State Park adjacent to the Missouri River’s west bank is the only conserved area in that region that has not been developed.
Hiking in this pristine, untouched wilderness offers visitors the rare opportunity to imagine what it was like when Native Americans inhabited the land centuries ago or when the Lewis and Clark Expedition traveled along the Missouri River to the Pacific coast.
The Cross Ranch offers about 17 trails accessible throughout the year, with an amazing trail network that grants visitors access to roughly 5000 acres of breathtaking grasslands, riverside woodlands, and incredible wildlife.
For a magical evening gazing at the stars, book one of the park’s authentic yurts, cozy cabins, or a rustic camping spot where you can immerse your senses in this untouched wilderness.
While North Dakota is not a usual hiking destination, this hidden gem with its rugged backcountry landscapes, tranquil lakes, roaming wildlife, proud alpine peaks, and sublime prairies deserves to be recognized as a bucket-list-hiking destination.