Far and away in southwestern North Dakota is perhaps the state's most characteristic town.
Marmarth, population 137, is set against the Little Missouri Badlands, five miles east of Montana and hours away from anything you could call a city. Its ambiance and landscape are unique, with century-old structures (largely abandoned), the romantic Little Missouri River and a few unexpected gems.
U.S. Highway 12 is the main route for Marmarth; however, Old Highway 16 (aka Old Marmarth Road) and Camp Crook Road to the north and south, respectively, are other paths into town.
Old Marmarth Road is a dusty 35-mile trail running south from Golva. Twisted cottonwoods, a tabletop of grass and crumbling badlands greet you on this lonely ride.
Though it's the scenic route into town, beware. No services exist along this road, and aside from the occasional ranch, you're out there by yourself. Old Marmarth Road is no place for breakdowns or emergencies (and you can count on no mobile phone service).
But if you and your vehicle are up to the task, Old Marmarth Road eventually spits you out on Highway 12 just west of town. Once in Marmarth, the adventure begins.
Landmarks of Old Marmarth grace the downtown, including the Barber Auditorium, Mystic Theatre and silvery jail cells. Across the way is the Marmarth Bunkhouse, an inn popular with badlands archaeologists, and the highlight of Main Street: the Pastime Club & Steakhouse, a watering hole with a wide menu (more on that in an upcoming review).
Marmarth's massive old train depot rests just east of downtown near the bridges over the Little Missouri River. Golden hour light colors the bluffs yellow, orange and red as the river courses north from town. East of town, a metal Tyrannosaurus rex greets Highway 12 travelers. This is dinosaur territory, after all.
There's a sense of escape here knowing you're far away from the big city, but there's a feeling of home as well. The friendly steakhouse service. The colors of downtown. The occasional car motoring through on the highway, not knowing what they're missing.
Marmarth is somewhat of a shadow of its glory days when 1,300 people called the community home a century ago with such luxuries as a jewelry shop, newspaper (Marmarth Mail), hospital and auto dealership. At one point, it was the largest North Dakota town on the Milwaukee Railroad and the fifth largest North Dakota town west of the Missouri River. A confluence of factors led to the town's decline, like drought and World War I, but Marmarth remains a mainstay of Slope County. After all, the only gas station in the county is located here.
The adventure continues outside of Marmarth. Take Camp Crook Road south to Big Gumbo and the state line. Go north on Old Marmarth Road to Golva, Beach and Medora. Take Highway 12 east and you'll find a series of other small towns. North from Bowman is Amidon and White Butte, North Dakota's smallest county seat and highest natural point, respectively.
If only for a little while, bask in the charms of Marmarth. You'll be enchanted.