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.