How Cyclist Nick Ybarra Helped Save the Maah Daah Hey Trail

Stretch­ing for over 144 miles, North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey Trail is not only the longest but also one of the most dif­fi­cult sin­gle-track bik­ing trails in the U.S. Famous for its majes­tic views, the trail has been named one of the sev­en most epic moun­tain bike trails in Amer­i­ca by Men’s Journal.

Despite all this, the trail suf­fered from ero­sion and over­grown veg­e­ta­tion and was at one time at risk of being swal­lowed by the sur­round­ing nature. Enter cyclist Nick Ybar­ra, who fell in love with moun­tain bik­ing right on the MDH—and who sin­gle­hand­ed­ly decid­ed the trail just need­ed to be saved.

Over the next five years, Ybar­ra led a mas­sive res­cue effort (as well as thou­sands of vol­un­teers) and even­tu­al­ly cre­at­ed the non­prof­it group “Save the Maah Daah Hey” to help bring the trail back to greatness.

We talked to Ybar­ra about his work on the trail, why he found­ed the Bad­lands race series (includ­ing the pop­u­lar MDH100, which cov­ers 107 miles of the Maah Daah Hey sin­gle­track trail), and how the trail is being main­tained today.

Photo Credit: North Dakota TourismTHE CLYMB: Have you always loved moun­tain bik­ing? When did this love start?

NICK YBARRA: I have loved bik­ing and explor­ing for as long as I can remem­ber. One of my ear­li­est child­hood mem­o­ries was get­ting my first bicy­cle for Christ­mas, at the age of four. Days lat­er, I vivid­ly remem­ber ped­al­ing my white and green bike with­out the train­ing wheels. After quite a few failed attempts, in the mid­day Texas heat, my mom brought my sib­lings and me inside for nap­time. I laid as still as pos­si­ble and wait­ed for my exhaust­ed mom to fall asleep. Then I qui­et­ly snuck out to the garage and in an act of sheer deter­mi­na­tion, I some­how man­aged to lift our, non-pow­ered, garage door open just enough to slide under­neath with my two-wheeled free­dom machine.

With an added boost of adren­a­line-induced con­fi­dence surg­ing through my body, I got a run­ning start down the dri­ve­way, jumped on my bike, start­ed ped­al­ing and just kept going. The feel­ing was euphor­ic, and I have loved bik­ing ever since. A year lat­er we moved to Bis­mar­ck, ND and my dad taught me how to moun­tain bike on the local trails.

THE CLYMB: What makes the Maah Daah Hey Trail so spe­cial and so unique?

YBARRA: The Maah Daah Hey Trail is unique because it is the longest and most remote non-motor­ized, con­tin­u­ous sin­gle-track trail in the coun­try, open to moun­tain bik­ers, hik­ers, and horse­back rid­ers. Start to fin­ish it runs 150 miles through the heart of the beau­ti­ful ND bad­lands with­out pass­ing a town, a gas sta­tion, or hard­ly a ranch house.

The rea­son the MDH is so spe­cial to me is because it is the first trail I rode that gave me that euphor­ic feel­ing of free­dom and explo­ration that I expe­ri­enced as a kid. My first ride on the MDH was in 2002. I came around a cor­ner of the trail on my $150 Schwinn moun­tain bike and was stopped dead in my tracks at Devil’s Pass. The view was spec­tac­u­lar, it looked like a minia­ture ver­sion of the Grand Canyon. I was awestruck and some­thing deep inside of me was awak­ened, the long­ing for real adven­ture. The beau­ty of the bad­lands cast its spell on me, and decades lat­er I have not bro­ken free, nor do I want to.

Theodore Roo­sevelt said it best when said, “it was here, in the bad­lands, where the romance of my life began.” In a metaphor­i­cal way, the Maah Daah Hey Trail was my first love, and your first love is always a very spe­cial thing.

Photo Credit: North Dakota TourismTHE CLYMB: Despite once being named as one of the most epic bike trails in Amer­i­ca, the trail became basi­cal­ly unus­able a few years ago. What hap­pened exactly?

YBARRA: Around 2010 the MDH trail just start­ed to slow­ly dis­ap­pear. It began with less trav­eled sec­tions of the trail, miles away from the trail­heads. I would be rid­ing along and all of a sud­den, the trail would fade away, cov­ered by grass and weeds. Soon, many miles of the MDH had been lost to a sea of waist-high grass, sage­brush and many oth­er types of vegetation.

I won­dered what was hap­pen­ing to my favorite trail, my only trail where I lived. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the USFS, who built the MDH, had lost the fund­ing and staffing nec­es­sary for trail main­te­nance. Because of the low vol­ume of trail users and the robust resilience of prairie veg­e­ta­tion, the MDH Trail began to van­ish. To make the exist­ing mat­ters on the MDH worse, west­ern North Dako­ta went through a very wet cycle over the next few years. This caused the veg­e­ta­tion to grow even thick­er and high­er. Also, due to the high­ly ero­sive nature of the bad­lands soil, many areas of the MDH Trail start­ed to slump, slide and devel­op deep ruts and washouts. It was the per­fect storm of events that near­ly made the MDH trail extinct.

THE CLYMB: What made you decide to get involved in fix­ing and main­tain­ing the trail? 

YBARRA: In 2011, the con­di­tion of the MDH was get­ting real­ly bad. I was start­ing to get lost, even on sec­tions of the trail that I was very famil­iar with. I was prepar­ing and hop­ing to host the first MDH100 as a group ride, but after scout­ing the trail and see­ing how over­grown it was, I knew I had to can­cel my plans. I turned the ride into an out and back trip on the south­ern­most 25 miles of the trail, near Medo­ra, where the trail gets more vis­i­tors and traffic.

As I watched the trail get worse and worse every year, I felt like I was los­ing a best friend. Many times I thought about giv­ing up on my dream to help peo­ple expe­ri­ence the Maah Daah Hey. It seemed like a hope­less and impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion. But I loved the trail too much to let it die with­out a fight. I knew that what the Maah Daah Hey need­ed most was more trail users. I believed the best way to get more peo­ple out on the trail was by con­tin­u­ing the MDH100. I real­ized that the only way to get the MDH in good enough con­di­tion to offer a qual­i­ty event for rac­ers was to roll up my sleeves and vol­un­teer to help bring it back from extinc­tion. I asked the USFS if they would allow me to help mow the trail. They hes­i­tant­ly agreed, and in 2013 a hand­ful of my friends and I set out to save the MDH.

Photo Credit: Jesse Veeder
Pho­to by Jesse Veeder

THE CLYMB: What did the project entail? And was it as mas­sive as you thought it would be?

YBARRA: My first day of trail work was a real eye-open­er. I announced my plans to vol­un­tar­i­ly mow the entire MDH while at the award cer­e­mo­ny of a pop­u­lar moun­tain bike race in Bis­mar­ck. I told the crowd that I believed we could cre­ate a world-class event on what was once one of the best trails in the world. My wife remem­bers being in the back row of the group and see­ing one lady turn to her friend and roll her eyes. But a few peo­ple caught the vision, and all three of them showed up in a pick­up truck a cou­ple weeks lat­er. They were the guys who helped main­tain some of the local trails in Bis­mar­ck. Unlike me, they knew exact­ly what I was up against and they knew that it was going to be a near­ly impos­si­ble feat.

Bri­an Fried brought his bil­ly goat brush mow­er that some moun­tain bik­ers had pooled their mon­ey togeth­er to buy. Chad Bergan bor­rowed a brush mow­er from our friends who built and main­tain the Har­mon Lake Trail. My bud­dy Ian Eas­t­on and I fol­lowed behind the two mow­ers with string trim­mers. We head­ed out to reclaim a 10-mile sec­tion of the MDH. It took us all day and I felt more beat down and whooped than any time I had ever biked the whole MDH in a day. It was gru­el­ing work… and we still had over 90 miles to go.

At that time I was a rough­neck on a drilling rig in the Bakken, work­ing a 14-days-on, 14-days-off sched­ule. I took full advan­tage of my time off, put my moun­tain bike in stor­age and just start­ed mow­ing like a man on a mis­sion. My friends and a few oth­ers came back out to help peri­od­i­cal­ly when they could and by some Maah Daah Hey mir­a­cle we mowed the entire 107-mile race­course before the 2nd annu­al MDH100.

Photo Credit: North Dakota TourismTHE CLYMB: You now lead the non­prof­it group “Save the Maah Daah Hey,” which main­tains the trail. Can you tell us about the work you do now with the group?

YBARRA: Over the years we have slow­ly gained the trust and sup­port of the USFS (Unit­ed States For­est Ser­vice) and built a very good rela­tion­ship with them. My wife and I decid­ed to found the 501c3 non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, SAVE THE MAAH DAAH HEY, in 2016. We oper­ate as part­ners with the USFS under a vol­un­teer agree­ment that allows us to per­form basic trail maintenance.

See­ing with my own eyes how the MDH was on the verge of extinc­tion, I know that the work we have done and will con­tin­ue to do has lit­er­al­ly saved one of the world’s best trails. Our mis­sion is to save the MDH from ero­sion, over­growth and ulti­mate­ly extinc­tion by annu­al­ly vol­un­teer­ing to mow, string trim, prune and shov­el the 180-miles of MDH and con­nect­ing sin­gle track trails into #find­able, #use­able and enjoy­able con­di­tion for all trail users.

The term “Maah Daah Hey” actu­al­ly means ‘some­thing that has been and will be around for a long time’. I want to see the MDH live up to its name and I want to help as many peo­ple expe­ri­ence the joy, heal­ing, love, and adven­ture that I have felt on the trail… it’s too good not to share.

Photo Credit: North Dakota TourismTHE CLYMB: What led to you cre­at­ing the Bad­lands race series? 

YBARRA: Race direct­ing is kind of slip­pery slope, and one thing just led to anoth­er. My wife and I real­ly enjoyed meet­ing the amaz­ing peo­ple who were com­ing out to ride the MDH100. Being sur­round­ed by that pos­i­tive ener­gy and hear­ing their inspir­ing sto­ries is addict­ing and we found our­selves want­i­ng more.

So despite each of us hav­ing full-time jobs and two young daugh­ters, we start­ed adding one new event at a time and the whole thing just snow­balled into what some would call the Amer­i­can dream. I even­tu­al­ly left the safe­ty and secu­ri­ty of my real job and took a huge leap of faith to work for myself and estab­lish L.A.N.D. The first event we added was the Bad­lands Grav­el Bat­tle. This race is held annu­al­ly on the Sun­day of Memo­r­i­al Day Week­end. It’s a nice way to get some miles in and get acquaint­ed with the area.

The race­course con­sists of all of the roads that SAG dri­vers trav­el for the MDH100 and the Maah Daah Hey Trail Run. We start­ed host­ing the MDHTR because so many run­ners were ask­ing if they could reg­is­ter for the MDH100 MTB Race and par­tic­i­pate as a run­ner. We decid­ed that since we already put in all the work and effort to get the whole trail ready for the bik­ers, we might as well host a qual­i­ty event for the run­ners too. So every year on the last Sat­ur­day of July we offer run­ners the chance to race 5k, 10k, 13, 26, 54, 79 or 107 miles point-to-point on the world-famous MDH Trail.

Our most recent addi­tion is the Bull Moose MudRun. I nev­er would have guessed that this race would be the most fun to host of all the races. I think it is because it is designed after what Ted­dy Roo­sevelt called the stren­u­ous life. When he ranched in the Bad­lands it was real­ly hard, stren­u­ous work—and he had to cross the Lit­tle Mis­souri Riv­er mul­ti­ple times, so do our rac­ers. He had to nav­i­gate the cot­ton­wood trees, climb buttes, car­ry heavy things and crawl in the mud… so do our rac­ers. When Ted­dy even­tu­al­ly moved to Wash­ing­ton DC he want­ed to keep him­self from get­ting soft, so he did what he called point-to-points and he would chal­lenge oth­ers to join him. The idea was to get from point A to point B as fast as pos­si­ble going over, under or through what­ev­er was in the way.

THE CLYMB: Your fam­i­ly is now involved in the work you do on the trails and in the races. Can you tell us more about it?

YBARRA: I have to be bru­tal­ly hon­est. With­out my wife, Lind­sey, and the love and sup­port of all my fam­i­ly and friends, the Bad­lands Race Series would be noth­ing but a real­ly good idea. I’m good at dream­ing up a race­course and push­ing a 400-pound brush mow­er, but that’s about it. My wife is the goril­la glue that holds all this together.

We feel blessed to do what we love and meet the amaz­ing peo­ple who come out for the races. We feel like the events are more like a fam­i­ly reunion than any­thing else. Lind­sey calls it her Maah Daah Hey Fam­i­ly… some­thing that has been and will be around for a long time.

Photo Credit: North Dakota Tourism*All pho­tos cour­tesy of North Dako­ta Tourism