February 2, 2023

Chicby Karina

Think exceptional travel

The Thrill of Cycling North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey Trail

Apparently, Brian was yelling for me to stop. But the wind rushing past my ears as I descended one of the trail’s endless buttes must have been too loud. Either that or I was willfully ignoring my traveling companion and photographer, as the thrill of the bombing down a hundred-foot descent proved too exciting.

I had sped past our prescribed turnaround point, the one our guide had told us would offer a heck of a vista (that was, before she dropped us off in the middle of nowhere North Dakota), with little more than our bikes, a lot of water, and a few tips). She had also promised that if we missed our turnaround and descended that hill, it would be a serious climb back up—one that would bring our thighs to a boil with each push of our mountain bikes’ pedals. She was right.

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The town of Medora, North Dakota, acts as a launching pad for Maah Daah Hey cyclists. 

Brian Hueske

Passing grazing cows while riding across North Dakota’s famous grasslands

Brian Hueske

That was just one of a series of mesas carved of painted rock and dirt that we climbed and descended that day, rolling bumps across the endless sea of grass in North Dakota’s high desert plains.

We flew out a few days prior to ride a portion of the Maah Daah Hey trail which, at 144 miles, is the longest contiguous single-track trail in America. Standing atop any plateau and looking out over the ceaseless grasslands juxtaposed against the yawning blue sky, the topography hardly seems challenging. But up close, the trails on this route are technical, full of difficult switchbacks and rutted dirt, and often very steeply pitched. With an average of one-hundred feet of elevation per mile (sometimes more, almost never less), the Maah Daah Hey offers a brutal yet rewarding ride. It is also one of the most scenic bicycle rides in the American West—and certainly one of the most beautiful I’ve ridden in my cycling life.

Riding the Maah Daah Hey trail not only honors the ground beneath your feet (or wheels or hooves, depending on your style of adventure), but also the history that is contained in the dirt, the grass, and the jagged edges of the region’s seemingly endless canyons. The name itself, “Maah Daah Hey,” comes from the language of the Mandan tribe, one of several that lived here for centuries before the introduction of smallpox and forced removal to reservations. Bestowed by Gerard Baker, who is Mandan-Hidatsa and a former employee of the National Park Service, the name means “an area that will be around for a long time,” or “grandfather.” It’s one of several reminders that this trail, which was once part of an intertribal trading and hunting route, sits on the ancestral lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Chippewa, Crow, and Oglala and Lakota Sioux tribes. Meanwhile, on the posts that mark every passing mile of the trail, a traditional image of a turtle stands as a sigil for the Maah Daah Hey. The image was adopted from the Lakota Sioux tribe and, according to the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association, symbolizes “patience, loyalty, determination, steadfastness, long life, and fortitude”—all attributes the trail requires in full. 

But while riding the Maah Daah Hey, as the pitch of the hills changes rapidly, so too does the scenery. One moment, you’re at the bottom of a valley tilting your neck up toward a jagged wall, steeply jutting up above. A few moments later, you’re peering down from the top of a craggy, bluff, towering several hundred feet over a painted canyon. Then, after a quick and often hair-raising descent, you’re back along the canyon floor or cruising over a lowland savannah, pumping your bike over berm after berm, as the trail cuts through the Dakotas’ famous grasslands. Rinse and repeat for mile after mile and you have most of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a natural rollercoaster carved out of the earth over millions upon millions of years.