The everchanging Maah Daah Hey Trail winds its way through North Dakota’s picturesque Badlands, affording outdoor enthusiasts a thrilling, visceral experience of some of the most spectacular terrain in America. In a region beset by a struggling ranch economy, out-migration, and the booms and busts of the oil and gas industry, the 97-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail capitalizes on western North Dakota’s strengths—scenic landscapes, a rich variety of flora and fauna, and a living western heritage.
Increasingly recognized in the region and even worldwide as a premier destination for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and birding, the trail has come to symbolize the economic opportunity that tourism holds for western North Dakota .
Maah daah hey means “grandfather” in the Native American Mandan language. This term of
respect aptly applies to a trail that navigates stretches of the most rugged and remote public and private lands east of the Rocky Mountains and harkens back to an earlier era. Interrupted only by primitive campsites every fifteen miles or so and the occasional Badlands ranch nearby, the U.S. Forest Service-managed Maah Daah Hey provides what Trail aficionados consider to be a near wilderness experience. In just one day, a visitor on foot, horseback, or bicycle can easily traverse narrow wind- and water-sculpted ridgelines and buttes, wander through expansive native grasslands, descend wooded green ash gullies, or ford the clay-colored waters of the Little Missouri River. Those who quietly respect the beauty and solitude of the Trail’s surroundings are often rewarded with close-up encounters with bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, coyotes, golden eagles, and many other native Badlands inhabitants.
Since its opening in 1998, the Maah Daah Hey has earned “top ten” rankings and prominent
billings in publications such as National Geographic and Mountain Biking Magazine and designation as a once-in-a-lifetime “epic ride” by the International Mountain Biking Association. Media attention and word-of-mouth advertising has generated an increasing flow of visitors and prompted the emergence of locally owned guiding, outfitting, and lodging enterprises in rural areas and remote communities. These businesses are several steps away from more conventional tourism centered around Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Badlands tourist town of Medora.
One such entrepreneur is Bill Freitag, who, along with his wife Betty, is proprietor of Maah Daah Hey Lodge. Located south of the Maah Daah Hey’s northern end at the North Unit of the National Park, the Lodge offers accommodations, guiding services, and equipment rental. The Freitags also operate a shuttle service, picking up bikers and riders upon completion of the trail or ferrying those who complete a different trail segment each day and stay at the Lodge each night. Bill often stays on the trail with groups during the day to provide water, supplies, and assistance if needed.
Prior to the completion of the Maah Daah Hey, the Freitags offered fall and winter hunting as a supplement to their agricultural operation. “Farming and ranching just got tough,” Bill remembers. “Getting started in recreation was no more risk.” By expanding their season and client base, the Maah Daah Hey has increased Bill and Betty’s recreation business beyond a sideline: it is now their major focus. Bill reports that most of his customers, especially mountain bikers, hail from states outside the region and, increasingly, worldwide. “I’m just wired,” Bill exclaims. “We are pushing ahead full bore.”
Swede Nelson, owner of Little Knife Outfitters, has also seen his recreation business boosted by the Maah Daah Hey. Swede once offered one- and two-day trail rides in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Now, he markets four- to five-day Maah Daah Hey packages that are, in Swede’s words, “a little bit on the edge.” His clients tend to bring their own horses and look to him to provide local knowledge
and guiding services. With the Maah Daah Hey just a day’s drive from Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, most of Swede’s trail riding visitors are regional. His birding clients often come from further afield to observe particular grasslands birds associated with the Badlands region — Swede mentions that a recent East Coast couple added five bird species to their “life lists” on their first day in the field.
The multipurpose Maah Daah Hey Trail helps rural entrepreneurs like Bill, Betty, and Swede by spreading economic opportunities across a sparsely populated region with few income alternatives, rather than concentrating them in a single location. While Maah Daah Hey tourism remains small compared to traditional National Park-based Badlands tourism in and around Medora, a significant portion of the income generated by trail use flows directly to rural enterprises. “The Trail has helped a number of ranch families start a second business,” observes Mark Zimmerman, who handles non-traditional tourism such as birding and mountain-biking for the North Dakota Department of Tourism. “More and more people are choosing to go right to one of the local lodges, not necessarily
just to Medora,” he adds.
A jewel that benefits the whole region, the Maah Daah Hey has fostered cooperation in planning and promotion among local communities and chambers of commerce rather than competition over tourism dollars. “We need to grow everybody to help Dickinson grow,” emphasizes Terri Thiel, Executive Director of the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau. Terri represents the largest community in western North Dakota in tourism promotion activities and epitomizes this spirit of regional collaboration. “The Maah Daah Hey is becoming more and more important for the regional tourist economy,” she stresses. Despite the fact that Dickinson is over 40 miles from the Trail, Terri
notes a visible increase in horse trailers and vehicles with mountain bikes pausing to do business in Dickinson en route to the Maah Daah Hey.
Growing interest in the Maah Daah Hey is not without peril. Increased tourism use and associated development risks diminishing the experience of open spaces, wild nature, and authentic local culture that attracts tourism in the first place. Entrepreneurs like Bill Freitag and Swede Nelson recognize that they market the kind of experience that has become increasingly rare in the industrialized world, a fact that explains why a traveler from Japan or the Netherlands will spend thousands of dollars to make a global trek to the Maah Daah Hey. “It’s not as glorious as the mountains, but many people prefer the Badlands experience,” Swede explains. “We’re off the beaten path and people want that.” Bill agrees. “We’ve got here what other states no longer have,” he states matter-of-factly.
In a hopeful sign for the future of the Maah Daah Hey and its surrounding Badlands region, local businesspeople and government officials express a growing awareness that tourists such as trail riders, hikers, bikers, and birders value the simplicity of the trail and its natural surroundings over more conventional, highly developed tourist destinations. As a southern extension of the Trail and additional Badlands loops are contemplated, it will be important to understand these preferences and honor the spirit of this tourist destination. Fortunately, notes Mark Zimmerman of North Dakota Tourism, local tourism interests and federal and state agencies are working together in this regard to develop a common vision for what the trail should become.