North Dakota Sampler: A 400-Mile Road Trip

Route Details Length: About 400 miles plus side trips. When to go: Mid-May through mid-September. Words to the wise: Keep

The Lewis and Clark Riverboat
The Lewis and Clark riverboat plies the Missouri between Bismarck and Mandan.

Route Details

Length: About 400 miles plus side trips.

When to go: Mid-May through mid-September.

Words to the wise: Keep a safe distance from bison, which can run as fast as 35 m.p.h.

Not to be missed: Medora Musical, a Western-style revue (early June to early September), Medora. Jaycee Rodeo Days (early July), Mandan. Dam Regatta (late August), Garrison. United Tribes Powwow (early September), Bismarck.

Nearby attraction: North Dakota State Fair (late July), Minot.

Further information: North Dakota Dept. of Commerce, P.O. Box 2057, Bismarck, ND 58502; tel. 800-435-5663, www.ndtourism.com.

Print a map of this route.

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.

3. Cross Ranch State Park
The undeveloped stretches of the Missouri River and North Dakota’s Cross Ranch State Park have an extensive trail system to explore on foot in summer or on cross-country skis during the winter. The ranch offers 5,000 acres dedicated to the nature preserve with river-bottom and cottonwood forests, mixed-prairie grasslands, and woody draws. Visitors often see the buffalo herd roaming the park’s neighboring nature preserve. The park preserves the natural beauty of the land and creates a wildlife habitat for birding. Annual events include the High Plains Rendezvous and the Missouri River Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Festival.

4. Knife River Indian Villages
Continue on Rte. 83 to Washburn, site of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Focused on the complete expedition, it is filled with rare artifacts and interactive displays. It also houses the rare, complete collection of Karl Bodmer’s historic artwork, which dates from the 1830s. Authentically reconstructed Fort Mandan, just west of the interpretive center, brings history to life with demonstrations and reenactments during Lewis and Clark Days in June and the Heritage Outbound Summer Adventure in August.

From Washburn, follow Rte. 200 to the Knife River Indian Villages, a National Park Historical Site located just north of Stanton. This historically important settlement was established by the ancestors of the modern Hidatsa people. The women of this tribe once gardened in the rich soil, growing squash, pumpkins, beans, sunflowers, and a variety of corn. They traded abundant crops to nomadic tribes and fur traders, gaining staples, foodstuffs, and buffalo hides.

By the early 1800s, the village was a burgeoning marketplace. Here Lewis and Clark met and hired a French fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, and his wife, Sakakawea, as interpreters for their Corps of Discovery.

Today the village site offers a free tour of the museum, exhibits, and artifacts, including circular depressions in the ground that once were homes of the Hidatsa Indians. Visit in July to watch the Northern Plains Indian Culture Fest.

5. Sakakawea State Park
When Lewis and Clark added Charbonneau to their expedition, they could never have dreamed that Sakakawea would become a heroine of the American West. During the winter of 1805, while wintering at Fort Mandan, she gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Carrying her baby, she provided translation and guided the party on its arduous journey across the Rockies.

Sakakawea’s legacy lives on in the name of an expansive reservoir on the Missouri River, as well as a beautiful state park along the shoreline near Garrison Dam. The park’s main entrance offers visitors a new welcome center with information for the area and entire state. Enjoy its swimming beaches, campsites, and boat ramps; throughout summer the park hosts numerous regattas, with sailboats, catamarans, and sailboards skimming the blue waters of Lake Sakakawea like birds in slow, stately flight.

6. Garrison Dam
It would take 2 million freight cars to carry the material used to build the immense Garrison Dam, which holds back the waters of the mighty Missouri for nearly 200 miles upstream. At 382,000 acres, Lake Sakakawea is one of the largest man-made reservoirs in America. After crossing the two-mile-long dam, the drive rejoins Rte. 83 near the town of Coleharbor.

7. Audubon National Wildlife Refuge
Few sounds in the natural world are as evocative as the mellow, throaty honking of a flock of Canada geese — a true call of the wild that floats down from the skies as the big birds pass overhead. Geese gather at this lakeside refuge in the fall, along with thousands of other waterfowl, feeding in preparation for their flight south. Other winged wildlife that may be spotted along the refuge’s eight-mile auto-tour route include peregrine falcons, whooping cranes, piping plovers, and bald eagles — all rarities eagerly sought by birders.

Not so rare, but perhaps more fun to watch, is the sharp-tailed grouse, a chickenlike bird that spends most of the year hidden amid tall grasses. The birds’ movements inspired traditional Indian dances still performed at powwows across the West. Although the natural grassland has disappeared from much of the country, the Audubon refuge is one place where sharp-tails still gather for a ritual as old as the prairie.

8. Fort Stevenson State Park
If you have any doubts that fishing is the major draw at Lake Sakakawea, drop by the city park in Garrison, off Rte. 37. There, Wally Walleye, a 26-foot fish statue, underscores the town’s claim as the walleye capital of North Dakota. Fort Stevenson State Park, on Garrison Bay just south of town, is a popular launch point for anglers heading out for salmon, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and of course, walleye.

9. New Town
West of Garrison, State Rte. 1804 traverses farm and ranch country. Soon you are entering the million-acre Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home to Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras). New Town, the major city on the reservation, was a planned community built in the 1950s to replace villages flooded by Lake Sakakawea. Today it boasts a joint-tribal museum, a casino, and the intricately girdered Four Bears Bridge, just west of town on Rte. 23. Spanning Lake Sakakawea, this mile-long structure is best appreciated from the Crow Flies High Butte observation point on the western edge of town. Heading north and then west on State Rte. 1804, the drive crosses the Little Knife River.

10. Lewis and Clark State Park
As the drive heads toward the park, rocky buttes in the distance foreshadow the shift from rolling plains to rugged Badlands. Located on an upper bay of Lake Sakakawea, this site contains one of the largest tracts of native prairie in the state park system. In late spring, when the quiet landscape suddenly explodes with festive wildflowers, this is a fine place to enjoy prairie clovers, purple coneflowers, and other blooms that form part of nature’s multihued palette.

11. Fort Union Trading Post
The world of fashion may seem to have little in common with the Great Plains, but this settlement was founded in 1828 by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Beaver pelts — bought from trappers or taken in trade from Indians — found their way into hats worn by smart dressers around the globe.

Visiting Indians camped on the grassy plain 25 miles southwest of Williston, near Fort Union Trading Post. The partially reconstructed post, a national historic site, features a replica of the 1851 residence of the “bourgeois,” or postmaster. Fort Buford was one of several military posts that protected overland and river routes used by immigrants settling the West, but it is probably best remembered as the place where the famous Hunkpapa Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, surrendered in 1881.

Located a half-mile east of the fort, the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center tells the story of these two mighty rivers and provides the same magnificent view that Lewis and Clark’s team enjoyed in 1805-1806.

Backtracking on Rte. 1804, head south on Rte. 85 until you reach the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit.

12. Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Unit)
Over centuries, the Little Missouri River, its tributaries, and the relentless forces of wind and rain have carved deep, rugged canyons through western North Dakota’s plains. Dramatic pyramid-shaped buttes and steep bluffs with bands of red, orange, pink, yellow, gray, and black can be seen along a 14-mile scenic drive that winds from the North Unit’s visitor center to Oxbow Overlook.

Like its counterpart Unit to the south, the area is rich with all sorts of wildlife. Longhorn cattle can be seen drinking water at the bison corral. Golden eagles soar overhead, hunting unwary prairie dogs. Here and there, mule deer (named for their large ears) pause as they graze to watch cars pass by. But for most visitors the tour’s highlight comes when bison, the park’s proudest residents, are seen. Up to 60 million of these massive mammals, standing six feet tall and weighing more than a ton, once roamed the Great Plains. Today these icons of the Old West are scarce; only 100 are found in the park’s North Unit, with about 300 in the South Unit.

13. Little Missouri National Grassland
As Rte. 85 makes its way south, it skirts the eastern border of the Little Missouri National Grassland, one of the largest and most varied of the 20 grasslands found in the West. The region — embracing more than a million acres of open prairie, buttes, and badlands — was overgrazed and abandoned in the drought-stricken Dust Bowl 1930s, but it was later reclaimed for cattle ranching and recreation.

A number of scoria — red knobs — may be seen throughout the area. They are composed of sediment that was baked red by burning lignite coal. You’ll also note a number of petrified wood stumps. These are millions of years old, all that remains of North Dakota’s once-extensive forests of sequoias.

For the best views of the grasslands, follow the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a 96-mile-long horseback riding, hiking, and mountain biking route through the Badlands that joins the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

14. Theodore Roosevelt National Park (South Unit)
The savage artistry of the Badlands is well displayed at the Painted Canyon Overlook, just north of I-94, where wind and water have shaped rolling hills, undulating plains, and colorful cliffs. When Theodore Roosevelt came here in 1883 on a hunting trip, he was so captivated with the region that he became a principal partner in the Maltese Cross Ranch. Visitors can tour his restored cabin near the Medora visitor center at the park’s entrance.

Motorists on the South Unit’s 36-mile-loop drive will see many romantic reminders of a bygone era, including wild horses racing across the plains. Here, one can choose between the splendid isolation of a land little changed since cowboys rode herd or the Old West festivals and other attractions in nearby Medora. For all its scenic wonders, the park’s greatest gift to visitors may be its sense of endless free space.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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