My cycling life: good times in the Badlands

In Cycling, Outdoor

In the first of a new series where we ask running, cycling and outdoor lovers to share a bit about their passion, we talk to US writer Colin Kapelovitz about biking in his beloved North Dakotan Badlands.

Good times for cyclists in the Badlands, North Dakota

Colin Kapelovitz and friends in cycling life

On discovering mountain biking…

I began riding mountain bikes in high school, and found I much preferred their relaxed positioning to the more rigid position that I held on a 10-speed. When I began riding off-road trails in the area, I became hooked. There’s a 150-mile mountain bike trail through the Badlands which starts 35 miles west of my town, but even when I cycle in town, I gravitate toward dirt roads or short sections of trail around the city.

My earliest memory on a bike…

I learned to ride in Arizona while staying with my grandparents. I can remember the adrenalin rush that I felt when I took off unaided for the first time.

My perfect bike…

I haven’t ridden one, but I really like the look and components of the Jamis Defcon 2. It seems to have everything I like about my bike, and better. And, it sounds space age and is really expensive…

Jamis Defcon 2 Bike

On the enduring appeal of the Badlands…

I love the mix of scenery and pounding riding. I like being able to get to places I wouldn’t have the time or patience to hike to, and getting an adrenalin-soaked workout along the way. The Badlands are beautiful and require a lot of endurance to ride in. Unlike mountains, they are large, closely spaced hills with continual ups and downs. American pioneers named them because they were a ‘bad place’ to cross by wagon. You never get to rest very long on a downhill before you head up again. The Maah Daah Hey trail I normally ride on is laid out quite cleverly, so you get to see some unique parts of a unique terrain.

Panorama of the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Medora, North Dakota, photo by Lynn BystromTheodore Roosevelt National Park, courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

Theodore Roosevelt National Park map courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

My best Badlands memory…

Tough one. I’ve seen lots of amazing things out there. I recall one time going up Hamburger Hill, a local leg-buster, and coyotes I couldn’t see started howling all around me. It was eerie and encouraging at the same time.

Watch out for the wildlife…

  • a wild turkey once jumped up in front of me and I hit it and went over my handlebars (turkey and human both unharmed).
  • I was riding behind my friend when a cow ran across the trail. He sped up, and she decided to run back across the trail again, and he crashed into her. For a second, all I could see was the imprint of my friend in her side. The cow was a bit shocked but ran off completely unharmed.
  • a rattlesnake struck at me once along the side of the trail. This was coming into town on an asphalt path. Someone was riding next to me, so I couldn’t get over. I just raised my snake-side leg and hoped for the best.
  • I came down a fast hill once with a bull bison at the bottom, and instead of murdering me, his predator instinct must have kicked in and he ran away from me. I felt powerful.
  • horned toads, bull snakes, blue racer snakes, hognose snakes, rattlesnakes, water snakes, scorpions, badgers, skunks, coyotes, turkeys, bison, beavers, muskrats, prairie dogs, antelope, deer, mountain lion tracks…


A Prairie Dog on guard, photo bt Thomas OlsonCyclists and hikers are warned of rattlesnakes in a portion of Badlands National Park, photo by Earl Walker

And the humans…

One time I was out biking in the spring, and came to some thick sand which I couldn't bike through down by the Little Missouri river. I started pushing my way through it and was exhausted when I heard ‘Hey!’ I looked all around and saw no one. Couldn't figure out if it was Jesus or my unhinging mind. Then there was a ‘Hey, up here!’ I looked up in a tree, and there was a guy in full camouflage with a giant rifle, who asked ‘Hey, buddy, you seen any turkeys back there?’ I said no and got out of there pronto before he decided that I was one...

Colin Kapelovitz and Friends Cycling in North Dakota

On why you should visit the Badlands if you’re a cycling fan…

Anyone with an interest in challenging, remote mountain biking would be rewarded coming to bike on the Maah Daah Hey trail. This is a rural section of a rural state, and the trail is sparsely ridden. I definitely see more animals than people on my rides, and long rides without seeing another human are common.

But it’s not for the faint-hearted…

I had a major accident at the end of the 2015 season. I lost my balance going along a narrow ridge, and rolled down the side of a butte. In the process, I tore my ACL and sustained a tibial plateau fracture on my upper shin. I didn’t realize how badly I was injured and walked the mile to a campground using my bike as a crutch. I was able to call someone to come and get me. The next day I went into the hospital and realized the severity of my injury. I didn’t walk for eight months and went through extensive rehab. Ten months after my accident, though, I rode my bike again – after much pep talking myself. It took another two months to get back to single track riding, but my love of it eventually overcame my fears. Last fall, I went back and rode over the section where I had my accident. That was a very fulfilling, if freaky, bike moment.

Advice for first-timers in the Badlands

  • I would advise a first timer to go out with someone who knows the trail, which can be arranged through the bike shop. If not, at least carry a map of the trail.
  • Be in good physical condition, and ride some off road previous to a Maah Daah Hey venture.
  • Carry plenty of water and equipment.
  • Be able to change your own tire tube, as there are lots of cactus. Slime tubes, which heal themselves after sustaining small punctures, are usually used out here.
  • Carry a camera because it’s gorgeous!
  • Dakota Cyclery would be able to help out newcomers with questions.


The sunny Badlands North Dakota image by Randall Runtsch

On staying safe…

  • Always carry a cell phone, but realize that they don’t work in a lot of places out here. You usually have to be on top of a hill to get any reception.
  • Tell somebody where you are at and what time you expect to be back.
  • Make sure you are back before dark, or that you have a reliable headlight.
  • I carry a snakebite kit, but there’s different schools of thought on that. Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it, and haven’t seen a rattlesnake in several years.
  • If you see horseback riders, dismount and let the horse walk past you.

Colin Kapelovitz

Colin’s pick of his local trails…

  • Any trails around Medora. Plumely Draw, just south of town, is a particularly gorgeous one, as well as Devil’s Pass and the Ice Caves route toward the north end of the trail. For more information check out
  • Although mountain bikes aren’t allowed off road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, doing the 36-mile park loop on road or mountain bike is a gorgeous, wildlife-laden experience.
  • If competition is your thing, then why not check out the Maah Daah Hey race with its 13, 25, 50, 75 and 100-mile events.


Colin Kapelovitz is a writer and proud North Dakotan. He is currently finishing up a horror novel set in and around the North Dakotan Badlands. You can follow him on Twitter @ColinKapelovitz

Image Copyright: Panorama North Dakota by Lynn Bystrom critterbiz / 123RF Stock Photo Badlands Randall Runtsch rruntsch / 123RF Stock Photo North Dakota Badlands rruntsch / 123RF Stock Photo Rattlesnakes image: wakr10 / 123RF Stock Photo Prairie Dog on Guard tomolson / 123RF Stock Photo