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.
THE 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.
THE 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.
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.
THE 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.
THE 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.
*All photos courtesy of North Dakota Tourism