For the past decade or so, it seems, each time I’ve mentioned my home state of North Dakota, I’ve gotten the same response, “Ah, oilfield country.”

An improvement, perhaps, over the previous “Oh, don’t you just love that movie, ‘Fargo?’” but still. It made me wonder if oil activity is what truly characterizes western North Dakota these days.

So, as I was planning my recent road trip to North Dakota, I decided to find out for myself. I hadn’t been back to the western half of the state in years, and I was curious about whether the oil industry had taken a toll on the spectacular scenery I remembered.

In a nutshell: Sure, there is still plenty of oilfield activity – big rigs barreling down the roads; construction everywhere; and a mind-boggling number of oil wells pumping away.



But look beyond that, and it’s easy to spot the beauty as well: The rugged bluffs of the Little Missouri River valley; the remote badland terrain of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’ North Unit; and a triangle of fascinating historic sites depicting the state’s fur-trade culture of the 1800s and the conflict between the U.S. Army and Lakota Sioux Tribe.

As I set out to explore northwest North Dakota’s Bakken region, I was struck over and over by the sheer vastness. Mileage between towns and attractions is measured in the 50-, 75-, 100-mile range. And except for truck traffic, it seemed at times that I was the only traveler around.

Little Missouri River country

First on my mission was Little Missouri State Park. Even though I had lived nearby years ago, I had never visited the park. I remembered the long, steep descent into the valley along Highway 22, and I was eager to check out some of the area’s hiking trails.

Located 17 miles north of the small town of Killdeer, the state park was virtually deserted on the July day I visited. At the park entrance, I tracked down the friendly ranger, who invited me into the log-cabin office/living quarters and provided a map and directions to the nearest hiking trail.



From the trailhead, the route began dropping almost immediately toward the riverbed. Bordered in places by tangles of thistles, chokecherry bushes, and wildflowers, the trail also wound through stark, sandy land formations rutted with water tracks. Dragon flies flitted by, and the sun beat down – all making for a unique hiking experience.




The park features nicely developed camping areas and horseback riding, and I found myself wishing I had allotted more time to explore deeper into the river valley.

Theodore Roosevelt’s stomping ground

The next day, I was bound for the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park – reputedly one of the loveliest sections of North Dakota’s badlands. Located about 50 miles north of Interstate 94 (from Belfield on Highway 85), the park is fairly remote. Still, there were plenty of other visitors – motorcyclists, out-of-state tourists, and family groups.

No sooner had I entered the park than I spotted a buffalo, calming grazing alongside the park road – seemingly oblivious to the cars creeping slowly by and people snapping photos.


I loved the ease and accessibility of the 14-mile loop road. There were plenty of scenic stops along the way, including the Riverbend Overlook – among the most photographed spots in the state, according to the park ranger at the entrance. I headed off the beaten track to get a slightly different perspective of the 1930s-era stone overlook shelter. From every vantage point, the views of the river were sweeping and spectacular.



At the Oxbow Overlook a few miles down the road, I ventured out on the trail, and ended up at Sperati Point, about a mile in. The route offered classic badland scenery – sprawling grasslands giving way to abrupt drop-offs – and the point was directly above the oxbox in the river.



Trading post shenanigans

Next on my itinerary were the three historic sites in the Williston area: Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site; Fort Buford State Historic Site; and the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center. The three sites are within a few miles of one another, and all feature fascinating history.

Fort Union, which served as a bustling trading post for furs and other goods throughout the mid-1800s, consists of a beautifully restored fort and museum. The ranger at the museum told me the 1998 restoration built upon the foundation remains of the original trading post. Enclosed in a large wooden fort, the site houses re-enactors and facsimiles of original buildings.




Fort Buford, on the other hand, boasts an actual building that housed officers in the U.S. Army’s frontier battle with native Indian tribes. The fort’s most notable historic event: The surrender of Sioux leader Sitting Bull in 1881.



The fort sits just a half-mile from the confluence of two great rivers – the Missouri and the Yellowstone. A full-service interpretive center offers a wealth of information about the evolution of the area, including the 1805 and 1806 visits by explorers Lewis and Clark.

The confluence provides plenty of spots to view the two rivers coming together. Bordered by lushly green foliage, the two rivers make quite a sight as they converge to continue on to the east as the Missouri.



For anyone with time to spare after taking in those significant sites, I suggest a bonus detour: The Fairview Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel located along the Yellowstone River near the North Dakota/Montana border. The short section of rails-to-trail route takes you over the old lift bridge, which has the distinction of having been used just once – during its test run – before it became obsolete.



Tucked away as they are in the midst of oilfield country, the region’s natural and historic gems could easily be overlooked. But for me they confirmed: Western North Dakota is still a lot more than just oilfields.



Growing up in North Dakota, I can’t say that I truly appreciated the beauty of the prairie.

Oh, I loved being outdoors, and I regularly explored the acreage of my family’s farm. But to say it was beautiful? I’m afraid I didn’t go there. “So flat.” “No forests.” “Hardly any rivers.” “How far is the nearest beach?” – These were among the laments of my growing-up years.

As I matured, of course, I came to realize the truth of that old adage: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when it comes to the prairie, I can now say that I – the beholder – find a wealth of things to appreciate.

It’s been 30 years since I have lived in North Dakota, and although I’ve visited from time to time, those trips were usually more about seeing family than exploring the countryside.

So, as my 40th high school reunion was approaching this summer, I decided to make my return a road trip, with plenty of time to revel in the things I so blithely overlooked as a child and young adult.

And what I found was as legendary as the state motto claims. Here are a few of my (re)discoveries:

The farm landscapes

Grain fields were just starting to ripen at the time of my mid-July visit. The prairie grasses were a rolling sea of green-gold. Even the thistles – the nemesis of my childhood – were blooming a vibrant lavender.




A jaunt through time

Once a thriving little village with a grocery store, a post office, a bar, an elementary school, and a couple of churches, my old hometown of Alfred is now mostly deserted streets with a church, a scattering of homes, and a handful of residents. Even so, it’s pure pleasure to visit. Even the cemetery at the edge of town appeared more peaceful than ominous.




The skyscraper of the prairie

As I headed west, I made a quick stop at the state capitol in Bismarck – my place of employment one especially frigid winter in the 1980s. On this warm July day, though, the site was in its summer glory, with the massive green lawn and colorful petunias framing the 21-story tower. Impressive!

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The back roads

Everywhere I went in the state, my eyes gravitated to the country roads – some gravely and straight, some red and twisty. I loved them all.



The bridges

This one took me by surprise. I don’t remember being particularly fascinated by old bridges before. But I crossed some great ones in North Dakota, and I couldn’t help but stop and marvel.



The berries

Regardless of where I went, it seemed, I found chokecherry bushes bearing fruit. I found out later that the chokecherry is North Dakota’s state fruit, and I can see why. In all stages of ripeness, the berries are gorgeous. I never did acquire a taste for the tart fruit as a kid – even dressed up as jelly – but I can now appreciate the pretty clusters of glossy berries.




The German food

When my son agreed to join me on my trip to North Dakota, it was on one condition: That we would do a veritable dough tour – sampling as much of the food common among the Germans from Russia of southcentral North Dakota as humanly possible. That meant knoephla and sauerkraut, cheese buttons, fleischkueckle, and knoephla soup. Luckily, we arrived in the Bismarck/Mandan area at dinnertime, and we were able to get to both Kroll’s Diner and Frieds Family Restaurant – both of which served up some pretty epic North Dakota comfort food. (Photos courtesy of my son, @cwbarks:) )

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And of course, the people

Even though the sights were important, this trip was once again about the people. I was able to reconnect with dozens of cousins, old friends, former coworkers, my mom, sister, son, and of course, my classmates from Gackle High School, class of 1976. Even though I had pledged to view the state with new eyes, some things don’t change.



With an evening hike in my sights, I surveyed the sky. Arizona’s monsoon thunderstorms had been wreaking havoc on my plans to get outdoors recently, and I was hoping for a small window of sunshine to hit the trail.

What I saw was encouraging: An afternoon of intermittent thunder and lighting had given way to mostly sunny skies. And not a lighting strike in sight. A perfect evening to chase some clouds, I thought.


I quickly considered my options, and decided to head for Prescott’s northern Peavine Trail, where I knew I would have unobstructed views of the puffy clouds to the north.



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I’ve road-tripped all over the left side of U.S. map. Any state west of the Mississippi? Yep, I’ve put rubber to the road there.

But until recently, Montana sadly was not on the list. For some reason, I had missed the Big Sky state on my trips up the West Coast, through the Southwest, and down the Midwest.

That all changed this summer, when I took the ultimate American road trip – heading straight north from Arizona to Glacier Country in Montana.

And as it turns out, it seems that I saved the best for last. Yes, I’ll say it: Montana is tops for road-tripping in the western U.S, and here’s why:


It really is a big sky

Virtually from the moment I crossed the Idaho/Montana border, and up through Butte, Helena, and little Choteau, the skies were achingly huge. That continued as I reveled in Glacier National Park, and then headed east through the vast emptiness of Highway 200.


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My trip by the numbers


Days on the road: 15

Total miles: 5,275

Traveled through: 9 U.S. states, 1 Canadian province

Temperature range: 46° F (East Glacier, Montana) to 101° F (Cheyenne, Wyoming; Williston, North Dakota; Pueblo, Colorado)

Thunderstorms: 3 (Spiritwood, North Dakota; La Junta, Colorado; Santa Fe, New Mexico)


Driving into an intense thunderstorm on I-94 east of Jamestown, ND

Speeding tickets: 1 (Glendive, Montana, Highway 16)

Construction zones: 1 billion:)


One of dozens of similar stops along the way – the most annoying aspect of road-tripping in the summer

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Think of a flamboyantly colorful landscape.

What just came to mind? The Caribbean? The Greek Islands? Hawaii’s North Shore? The California coast?

Well, prepare yourself to add a new landscape to that colorful image – the Arizona desert!

I know, hearing “colorful” and “desert” in the same sentence is probably an oxymoron for most people. But trust me, visiting the Arizona desert in the springtime is sure to expand your horizons and open your mind.


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Having a playground of the world in your own backyard is pretty epic.

I’m sure anyone who lives within an hour or two of places like Yosemite National Park, Oahu’s North Shore, or the Swiss Alps can relate: People flock to these attractions from the world over. If you’re one of the lucky ones who live nearby, though, a short drive will have you hiking the trails, snowboarding the slopes, or surfing the waves.

For me, that local treasure is the Grand Canyon. Less than a two-hour drive away from my home in northern Arizona is one of the premier tourist attractions of the U.S., if not the world. Millions have crossed oceans and continents to gaze into the canyon’s dreamy depths.

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I’ve spent my entire life land-locked – first on the Great Plains, and later in the mountains of Northern Arizona. While I’ve loved them both, I have a secret confession: I’m an ocean girl at heart.


In my opinion, there is nothing more refreshing and rejuvenating than a visit to the coast. I get giddy just thinking about the foamy surf, the salty breeze, and the screeching gulls.


So when I planned a recent trip from my Arizona home to Irvine, California for a conference, there was no way I was going to pass up a visit to the Southern California coast.

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It’s not exactly a well-kept secret. Hundreds of thousands of baseball spring-training fans already know it. Winter-weary residents of Northern Arizona know it. And sun-seeking spring-breakers from throughout the Midwest know it: Phoenix, Arizona in the springtime is hard to beat.


Unlike other parts of the country, where March and April can be a slushy, windy slog, Phoenix is at its best in the spring (in my opinion), with its warm breezes, sunny skies, and blooming wildflowers.


So, it was with anticipation that I looked ahead to a Saturday trip to the Valley of the Sun in early March. To take full advantage of the season, I decided to put together a little itinerary of some of my favorite activities – hiking, sightseeing, eating, and shopping. In my mind, the perfect Phoenix day!

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