“When I drive into the Badlands, I feel my blood pressure drop. I feel my stress disappear. I feel my worries just vanish."
Sometimes when Nick Ybarra is out clearing the Maah Daah Hey Trail, he just wants to drop his shovel and walk away.
At 144 miles, the Maah Daah Hey in North Dakota is one of the longest single-track trails in America, and it runs through incredible, undulating, wholly unspoiled terrain. It also covers much of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is home to the famously beautiful Painted Canyon.
However, despite its unique grandeur, the trail was in danger of disappearing forever — because no one really knew about it. Ybarra was determined to change that.
The manual labor involved in doing that, though, often proves incredibly challenging.
Ybarra preparing to clear trail. All photos via Nature Valley.
“There have been so many days where I’ve almost quit and given up on trying to save this trail," says Ybarra.
It's understandable why he might want to considering the conditions he works under. It can hover past 100 degrees for days at a time in the North Dakota Badlands. Pair that with running out of water, being miles away from your truck, and being the only one out there, and the frustration is palpable.
Sometimes the work pushes him so far past his limit he just breaks down crying.
However, despite those moments, he keeps at it because he fervently believes trails like these need to live on.
Ybarra talking about his love for the trail.
His mission seems more than apropos considering Maah Daah Hey literally means "a place that will be around a long time."
An avid adventurer himself, Ybarra was inspired to save the trail on his first bike ride through it.
He started at dawn and when he hit Devil's Pass, an uncommonly beautiful part of the Badlands, he was overcome by its majesty.
"Standing there, it just cast a spell on me. This was the outdoor experience I yearned for. That ride changed my life," recalls Ybarra.
From that moment on, he was hooked. He knew he had to do all he could to make sure others were able to have the same experience.
The trail at daybreak.
While Ybarra initially cleared much of the trail on his own, the yearly upkeep could not be done without the help of volunteers.
The first group was made up of fellow bikers Ybarra knew who appreciated the trail. More came around when he started Legendary Adventures New Discoveries (L.A.N.D.) — an organization dedicated to helping people experience the Badlands.
And, today, Nick's dedication has inspired people to give over 4,000 hours of their time to maintaining the Maah Daah Hey. Without their tireless efforts, it's likely the trail would've disappeared altogether.
Ybarra mowing the trail.
In the first year of literal trailblazing, Nick and three friends mowed 200 miles of trail — aka the trail forward and backward. When rains washed their work away, they came out and cleared it again.
Their goal was to get the trail established enough to host a 100-mile race, which Ybarra thought was their best shot keeping it around.
"More people need to experience [Maah Daah Hey], so that’s why I decided to host a race," says Ybarra.
One of the initial Maah Daah Hey 100s.
In its first year, the Maah Daah Hey 100 was a free event 40 people participated in. Now it's in its sixth year, and over 430 people signed up to ride. All the funds for the event go right back into the efforts to preserve it the trail.
The Maah Daah Hey 100 as it grew more established.
They've even been able to expand the race to include shorter distance trails so people of all riding levels can participate. There are also challenging options for the more experienced riders.
Ybarra's efforts have reinvigorated the trail in an astonishing way and helped people rediscover just how amazing the outdoors can be.
Not only has he helped bring visitors from all over the world to what was once a virtually unknown trail, he's reintroduced locals to the wonders of the Badlands.
Visitors on horseback forging a river in the Badlands.
Ybarra hopes this labor of love will continue to inspire new adventurers who might've forgotten about the healing power of nature.
“When I drive into the Badlands, I feel my blood pressure drop. I feel my stress disappear. I feel my worries just vanish. I think that’s so important for people today. To just get out and find peace out on a trail somewhere."
A visitor taking in the beauty of the Badlands.
Watch Ybarra's whole journey here: