North Dakota: Fifty was Nifty

Two things:

Thing 1. As of this writing and certainly your reading of this blog, I have now officially visited every state in the good ole U.S. of A, with North Dakota being the last. Mind you, this was over a lifetime and mostly accomplished for work purposes versus play. Our drive from Fort Peck Lake to the state line was uneventful, required a couple of fuel stops and a grocery stop in the town of Sidney, MT, before making the border crossing into North Dakota. We pulled off just before the Welcome to North Dakota sign so we could stage photos. Lysette has been gracious about letting this happen as she only had two states remaining, North Dakota, and now only Mississippi, of which we will cross through later in the year on our return west to the southwest for winter. But for the moment, I win.

Thing 2: I always despised biology in high school, probably because I never did that well, actually I did poorly, much to do with the lack of effort which was all of school. So as you would likely expect, I procrastinated taking biology in college until my last two quarters. At that point, I aced them both, enjoying biology immensely, giving proof to the theory that effort can lead to enjoyment.

This could be said about my experience with North Dakota. Whenever I have asked anyone about the state while planning my first venture there, I would get the, meh, response. Not really anything to see there kind of feedback. I would even get this from those from the state. So my effort and expectations have been meh, on the state. But as we provided effort, we found lots of beauty. Not huge magnificent mountains, large cascading waterfalls, or coastal bliss, but there is something beautiful about the plains, the openness, the lack of crowds, the small towns, and the simplicity. The farms, those not stained by industrial oil and gas, are quite beautiful with flowing fields of sunflowers and older farm structures remaining, yet slightly leaning. The large lakes, created by the damn dams provide lots of recreation opportunities and are coastal cute. There are ample small roads to explore without a chance in hell of getting lost as they mostly run in straight lines, 90 degree angles forming a checkerboard of squares and rectangles. And if that isn’t enough, they have one of the most colorful license plates of any state. So yes, the last state for me, like biology, given some effort, is by far not the worst state, and in fact, quite interesting, worthy of a visit and enjoyable, as hopefully you’ll see in the following blog entry. 

North Dakota Travel Journal

Our entry into the state was quintessential North Dakota, exactly what you’d imagine it to be: rolling grasslands, a few trees, and some rocky mounds. We passed through the Little Missouri National Grasslands sign to see lots of large farms and some open grasslands. We tried one camp area at a small lake at the corner of Highway 68 and 16 but it wasn’t that nice and a good distance from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which we both want to see. So we motored on.

We proceeded south on Highway 16 towards Beach, ND making the decision to avoid Beach, ND and a section of Interstate 94 by taking 28th Street NW to 161 NW. This turned out to be a great move on a small narrow red gravel road. One of the obvious lessons learned is the smaller the road, the slower the speeds, the closer you get to the area you’re traveling, the better the experience you are likely to have. This proved true with this decision as with red dust flying off the rear of the rig, we motored along slowly passing interesting landscapes, healthy colorful farmlands, and wildlife to include antelope, deer, and hawks. One hawk perched proudly on a fence post just outside my car window. It, skeptical of our approach as I slowed the Tacoma, leaned my head back in my seat, said quietly and out of the corner of my mouth, Lysette look! She whirled her camera lens in the general direction, pulling the trigger as if she were a cowboy sharpshooter ending a bar fight and with one swoop of her revolver, nailed it. Overall, just a way more scenic and relaxing direction for few miles before we hooked back up with I-94. 

One of the obvious lessons learned is the smaller the road, the slower the speeds, the closer you get to the area you’re traveling, the better the experience you are likely to have.”

We returned to I-94 for a short connection of 8 miles to the Buffalo Gap exit where we found the Buffalo Gap Campground, site No. 34. This campsite is located in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, only a few miles west of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which was our destination the next day. The campground wasn’t near full, a first come first serve facility, had community water, free showers, and each site had a picnic table and fire ring. There were RV designated sites and all had flat asphalt surfaces to set up your rig. Our little slice of heaven was well treed with lots of grass for Toohey to roll in and shade for comfort. Across the small camp road was a grassy hill and on all other sides were thick shrubs and trees providing privacy. Just down from us were two unisex flush toilets and a sink with running water. All this for $20. All in, a good find from the Travels With Toohey R&D Department. 

We’d use this as home for two nights. The lone full day here was an early rise for a sunrise trip inside the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. With coffee and tea in hand, we entered the park with no others and started our personalized tour as the sun creeped over the gnarly badlands hills. We quickly found a deer, a gaggle of turkeys, and then the big prize, a large herd of Bison all around and over the road. As Lysette fired off photos from the car, we noticed a coyote walking behind the herd which made for some added fun and great photos.

The park drive, normally a loop but recent road damage has 4 miles closed, turning this into an out and back and more miles, albeit, different views. The drive rolls over and through the badlands which can best be described as a series of soft rock or clay mounds, seriously eroded over time to make fur trappers, Indians, and others working it miserable enough to call it badlands in at least three different languages. In today’s language of National Parks and easy travel, we’d simply call it interesting. 

As we progressed through literature of the park, we read that the park has wildlife to include bison, deer, wild horses (actually free roaming horses is more correct as they were introduced to the area by early ranchers to breed so they could then capture and train them as farm horses), coyotes, and antelopes. We saw them all with ease, enjoyed them, in this relaxing national park moment.

This park was one of our favorite National Parks visited based on the fact that you can slowly enjoy it all without the big crowds felt at other parks we’ve visited. It doesn’t have the awesome rock features that seem to reach out to the sky like other parks, but it does offer upclose wildlife and a landscape that stumped many of the hardiest humans occupying it before cars. It is a rugged and ever changing land that even swayed the environmental politics of the Rough Riding President who adored the land and who’s namesake it carries. I highly recommend a stop here.

After leaving the park, we drove through the small cattle town turned national park t-shirt shop of Medora, got gas at a gas pump that was so old school you had to walk inside and say, we’re filling her up, before they’d start the pump. The only thing older would have been if Goober and Gomer would have greeted us, checked the oil, cleaned the windshield, and had us sign a carbon copy of the credit card receipt after taking an imprint of the credit card. Fun stuff.

We left there and drove another exit east to a rest area where you can take a seriously short walk around to see the painted hills. After seeing the park, these painted hills underwhelmed, but the light of midmorning was also washing out the colors, so to be fair, a return trip at the right time of day would likely be worth it. 

The rest of the day was a slow down, a bike ride from camp on several single track trails leading from the campsite, forest service roads, a shower and lots of conversation about where in the hell we are going tomorrow. 

That answer started to develop as we left our camp at Buffalo Gap and headed east still not sure where exactly we were going, but somewhere east. We followed I-94 for 20 miles which was pretty easy travel and solicited us to stay there to make time, but we countered the urge, falling back to our slowverlanding pace and backroads journey. We exited and turned north on Highway 85 taking us up the eastern flank of the national park, grasslands and into industrial oil and gas country. Our decision was whether to burn the day going into the northern unit of the park or moving further east. Our turn on Highway 200 was the decision point, south of the northern unit of the park, so east it was.

The drive was through an area that started as a mix of rolling farm lands that appeared to have sold out to the industrial oil production business. Huge trucks dominated the roads. The roads and infrastructure, to include nice roundabouts on farm roads, have been improved by the need for these trucks to profitably move supplies along similar to automating a production line to improve manufacturing efficiency. We passed a large, seemingly empty man-camp which was set up to house employees working here during the boom. All this with the backdrop of oil rigs, tanks and production facilities positioned on what were once likely family farms.

About the time we passed through the small town of Dunn Center, the roads got smaller, roundabout gave way to old school stop signs, and the area, obviously not providing much oil and gas revenue, became farmland again. Life slowed. Large rolling fields of sunflowers and corn appeared planted and healthy, mixed in with old farm structures, all making for a pleasing area to drive. We made several turns off busy roads and found ourselves at the town of Pick City, sitting on the shore of the Sakakawea Lake slash reservoir. Pick City has no traffic light, one small food store, Teresa’s, and one convenience store with gas and more fishing gear than beef jerky, Funions, and fried pork skins combined. My conversations with those attending were warm and friendly. The one comment by the attendant at the c-store that I found interesting was, “if I can go to Walmart then I damn sure can go to church.” Great point, but there was neither a Walmart or church in this sleepy area just off the Lake Sakakawea State Park.

The damn dam holds massive amounts of water for this recreation area from the Missouri River. We first tried the Downstream Campground which sits beneath the damn dam and along the Missouri River but decided to turn back, drove up the damn dam to Lake Sakakawea State Park. 

For $25 and a $7 park fee, you get a large, actually, huge site along the lake with full water and electric. If the park were a golf course it would be defined as a links course. The place is cut into tall grasses with an open view of the large body of water, has breezes to match, and if you add in the slightly overcast and cool temperatures while there, you could be teeing it up somewhere in Scotland. 

Each site is well maintained. The loop we stayed in, Elbow Woods, had a new bathroom and shower facility, giving the impression of a country club more than a State Park. There is a marina, a marina store, closed on the days of the week we were there, and shoreline trails, our favorite. These were basically mowed grass trails, that flowed along the shore line giving great views of the place. 

Behind our camp, No. 105, was a short walk to the beach where we swam on the day we arrived. It was hot so we quickly donned our swim attire, and headed down. The water was perfect and the beach, empty. Toohey loved this as did we.

We returned to the camp to finish setting up, eat dinner, and work on the blog. Basically, do the night thing. 

The next morning we woke to cloudy skies, breezy winds, and the prospect for an easy day. We did our run along the shoreline trail, stopping in at the ranger office for information and to pay for another night. We spent time getting caught up on things requiring electricity and internet. 

That afternoon, the three of us walked the beach and played. The beach is rocky, with loads of petrified tree pieces and black burned looking material that turned out to be coal. Our conversation as we strolled was wondering the age of the wood, where did all the back coal come from as it lay on the beach in sizes from large stumps to dust, the variety of colors of small rocks and such. Was the wood there before the dam was created or has the eroding shoreline exposed the wood?

As the day warmed from cool to hot, we swam, built benches out of the petrified wood and just existed on the beach for a time. The occasional small fishing boat buzzed by from time to time, shore birds, mostly gulls flew by and we speculated about the distant shorelines and what was there, likely not much. 

Our day here, two nights has been a needed reprieve to get caught up on all things relaxing with great facilities (again, the bathrooms were amazing) of which we did. But today we move farther east, not quite getting to the Minnesota line but within a few hours of it. As we look at the 10-day forecast, we are definitely seeing fall temps with highs barely reaching 70’s and lows in the 40’s, all adding the pressure to advance our journey. That, and the looming holiday weekend, where campgrounds will surely get busy, requiring us to do some planning.

We rushed a bit to break camp as a line of thunderstorms was approaching from the west that could have made closing up the trailer a nasty wet exercise and driving not much fun. We did and pulled out as the first drops of precipitation struck the windshield of the Tacoma. The destination for the day was Icelandic Lake State Park about a 3-day horseback ride and an hour west of the Minnesota line. The drive was long but with flatter roads and seemingly a tailwind moving us along quite nicely. We would make good time and elevated the MPG’s.

The first stop was in the town of Minot for groceries, gas, beer and wine. We then headed back east on a four lane highway quickly deciding to ditch it for smaller roads that actually go through small town centers. This was a good choice and much better way to see the state. The farmlands, consisting of sunflower fields and other crops continued to provide interesting views. The old farm structures sitting in the middle of fields added character to the already interesting area. The combines were actively harvesting the fields and the topography got flat.

We pulled into Icelandic State Park around Toohey’s dinner time, drove the 3 loops of the park deciding on the South Loop, site 69. The place was pretty empty with only two other RV’s in distant camps. We drove back to settle up then returned to set up camp. We decided to not unhitch from the truck as we would only stay the one night before heading into Minnesota.

We sat, scheduled a camp site for the next two nights, scarfed down some chips and dip, a few beers and a wine. We walked the park public beach area where Toohey dipped his paws into the lake, sat which used to be his swim, then returned to camp for the night. With rain expected in the morning, we prepared everything for that and slept soundly.

The campground was nice, well treed and maintained. Our site was large, lots of grass and healthy trees with many other campsites in view but not occupied. There was a camp host we met and was quite nice, along with typical state park ranger types. The lake, of which we only saw a little, was surrounded with tall grasses except for the swimming beach and boat ramps. There were really nice trails where we did a morning run before leaving, grabbing some photos along the way. The trails were grassy foot path, wide as they are used for cross country skiing in the winter and heavily treed. We were the only humans out there but I am sure some foot and ski traffic occurs at other times as this place is nice.

We returned to camp to fold down the home and hitch the rig. We grabbed quick showers in nice bathrooms before setting sail.

We leave North Dakota, my 50th state, feeling glad to have experienced it. It was interesting and has lots to offer. Our appreciation for the openness of the place, the beauty presented by growing crops, and the large areas of beautiful grasses flowing with the wind, much like the surface of the water does when the wind blows across it. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a must do while in the area and we found great pleasure in being there early while all the wild animals were starting their day. But with the tailwind we now have, the fall temperature approaching, and the need to see what is next, we motor to Minnesota.

2 thoughts on “North Dakota: Fifty was Nifty

  1. While you are traveling in you own private movie, I will present to you a contemplative side track to ponder on your wayward journey.
    Watch Peanut Butter Falcon
    It describes what is shielded from the over protected, institutionalized, sanitized, state controlled health prisoners, incarcerated in a mind bending unloving, bureaucratic maze. A machine that holds both the patient and health workers as frustrated and unknowing wheels in this Orwellian nightmare. Reminiscent of the powerful movie One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and in many ways the movie with Robert Duval, Tomorrow.

  2. I like hearing about the rhythms of travel and layovers, and activity and stillness. Is this driven by natural rhythms, a sense of a trip agenda, or just the toilet aesthetics? The hawk pictures are particularly spectacular. Well done, Lysette.

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