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Run the Grasslands in Theodore Roosevelt

For long-distance trail runners looking to play like antelope, it is heaven with a hydration vest

Tim Neville rests in the Grasslands of North Dakota during his 4-day adventure through Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Maah Daah Hey Trail. (Chad Ziemendorf)

It’s the grass, man. On and on it goes. Little blue stem. Big blue stem. Green needle, needle-and-thread. Come to me, it says. Lie down. Curl up like an egg in a nest. 

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Not now, though. There’s a buffalo at one o’clock. I’m running, trying hard to juke my way around the ankle-busting holes of a prairie dog town so sprawling it’s a megalopolis. The prairie dogs have all run off, but the fatso buffalo stands his ground. I give him room and cruise by.

Time doesn’t mean much on the open prairie. Weather does. It was chilly but clear a few hours ago at the Cottonwood Campground, where I’d hoisted a small pack loaded with ultralight camping gear and started my run. Ahead of me stretched the Little Missouri River, and beyond that the shaggy grasses of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Today is day one of a plan to run 60 miles along one of our country’s most underappreciated trails, in an overlooked state, across one of the least protected biomes on earth. I’m talking about the 96-mile-long Maah Daah Hey Trail and the creamy grasslands of western North Dakota. The trail, named after a Mandan expression for “something that will be around for a long time,” links all three units of the 110-square-mile park: a southern section, a northern section, and a ranch site in between that President Roosevelt himself once owned. Nearly all of the MDH is wheaten singletrack—a buffed-out ribbon of compacted clay and sand that climbs and swoops across some of the nation’s most spectacular prairie. 

I used to think the grass was boring. You can’t conquer the plains like you can a mountain. The awesome nature here is more maternal, a swaddling embrace with a billion spindly arms. 

More than 1,700 square miles of wild rye, fuzzy pussytoes, and other grasses grace the park and the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands, the largest swath of protected prairie in the U.S. You can find black-footed ferrets, bighorn sheep, and longhorn steers. Mountain bikers zoom along the Maah Daah Hey, and hikers have about 100 miles of lonely trails in the park. None of it is boring. Here the badlands form misshapen, multihued buttes that look like giant pottery accidents. To one frontier soldier, the area was “hell with the fires put out.” For long-distance trail runners looking to play like antelope, it is heaven with a hydration vest.

Though it wasn’t until 1978 that the park officially became a national park, Roosevelt knew this area was special. In 1884, he sought solace among the grass after his wife and mother died on the same day. “I have always said I would not have been president had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he wrote later.

I dodge a half-dozen more buffalo and skirt the edges of the Big Stick Oil Field, occasionally running past some of the nearly 13,000 wells that now perforate the state. In the next three days, I’ll pad over an exposed old road called Devils Pass and let my mind wander across a landscape without a tree to hang a thought on. Eventually, I’ll spend a few hours getting lost in Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness, where the grass grows thick. All in all, I’ll run into 11 people.

For now, though, with 12 miles nearly done, I spy a rowdy patch of foxtail barley on a flat spot overlooking a gorgeous valley of reds, yellows, and grays. This time I heed the call. The sky is clear. The wind is calm. I curl up and let the quiet carry me off to sleep.

Access + Resources

When: Spring or fall, to avoid summer’s heat. 

How: Dickinson airport has direct flights from Denver and is 40 miles east of the park. 

Play: The MDH passes through rugged country where potable water is a concern. The Maah Daah Hey Trail Association and other groups have installed eight metal caches along the trail for water and other supplies. Nick Ybarra (nick@experienceland.org), founder of Save the MDH, is a great source for info. Dakota Cyclery in Medora organizes bike tours along the trail. Register for the August 6 Maah Daah Hey mountain-bike race series here

Stay: The Roosevelt Inn in Watford City, near the northern unit of the park, has memorabilia-filled rooms (from $90). There are also a number of campsites, including the southern unit’s Cottonwood, CCC near the northern unit, and Elkhorn in between. 

Eat: Find the cheapest bacon cheeseburger ($4.50) at the Long X Saloon in Grassy Butte.

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