Theodore Roosevelt often said that if it hadn’t been for his experiences in North Dakota, he would never have become president. He was not exaggerating. Overwhelmed by the loss of his wife and mother (both of whom died on the same day — Valentine’s Day), the feisty young man returned here in 1884 to renew his strength. His spirit was fired by the Badlands, where he triumphed over his grief by living the arduous life of a ranchman. The untamed grandeur he so admired — the “vast silent spaces” that later inspired him as president to expand our national parks system — still endures. From meandering rivers to craggy canyons, from the meadowlark’s song to the distant rumble of bison on the move as they graze endless grasslands, North Dakota’s riches remain gloriously unspoiled.
1. Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
Military and American Indian history are culturally entwined at Fort Abraham Lincoln State park, located seven miles south of Mandan on State Rte. 1806. American Indian and military history can be seen in the reconstructed home of Libbie and George Custer, the military barracks, the commissary, the stables, the medicine lodge, several earthlodges, and a museum. Take a trolley ride from Mandan through the cottonwood trees along the Heart River to the fort and back. In July, the park features living-history demonstrations at the American Legacy Exposition; the 7th Cavalry encampment features displays of military skills and drills, and you’ll follow delicious smells to the Nu’eta Corn and Buffalo Festival at On-A-Slant Village. In August, the Fur Traders’ Rendezvous provides reenactments, music, and demonstrations throughout the state park.
2. Missouri River Valley
The “Skyscraper on the Prairie” is the name given to North Dakota’s 19-story state capital building. Walking paths on the capital grounds lead past figurative and abstract metal sculptures, statues, flowering plants, and native trees. While traveling on State Rte. 1804 along the Missouri River, enjoy the serene beauty of cottonwood forests and the rolling high plains.
The Big Muddy, as the river is sometimes called, has been tamed by dams. But this free-flowing segment has changed little since explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed this way in 1804 on their way to the Pacific. Visit Double Ditch State Historic Site and view the landscape seen by expedition members, virtually unchanged today, as you camp, kayak, canoe, fish, and ski along the Missouri River and view soaring bald eagles and white-tailed deer. State Rte. 1804 joins Rte. 83 just a few miles outside the city of Washburn.