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Outdoor Adventures in North Dakota
The Peace Garden State has a lifetime’s worth of adventure. Home to just 10.5 people per square mile – the fourth lowest density in the nation – there is more than enough room to roam in North Dakota. Pick your passion and follow it.
America’s greatest explorers have made tracks across the state – Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, and President Theodore Roosevelt have all praised the state’s beauty and clear skies. Come see why!
Likely the state’s top outdoor attraction is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This 70,000-acre expanse of painted canyons, sharp-cut badlands, and grassy hillsides is in the western part of the state and easily accessible from Interstate 94.
The park is separated into two units which are about an hour apart, and there is a small parcel in between which protects Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. Start your tour of the south unit at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, which is where you can learn about the area’s natural and human history and get your first glimpse of the badlands. See the Maltese Cross Ranch Cabin, which was built at the behest of Roosevelt in 1883, then stop at one of the prairie dog towns and listen for their barks. A 36-mile scenic loop drive is packed with pullouts and interpretive signs, and along the way you’ll see tons of wildlife. Headed to the north unit? This quieter stretch of park has a 14-mile scenic byway and a fantastic overlook of an oxbow of the Little Missouri River.
Ready to hike? Top trails include the 1.5-mile Caprock Coulee Nature Trail, the half-mile Ridgeline Trail, the 10-mile Petrified Forest Loop, and the 18-mile Achenbach Trail, which features two river crossings and butte-top views.
One of the other popular trails through Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the Maah Daah Hey Trail. Though just 7 miles long in the park, the trail stretches a total of 96 miles across western North Dakota, connecting all three units of the park. The single-track trail crosses meadows, plains, canyons, and buttes – each year major endurance races take place here, and mountain biking the parts of the trail outside of the national park is a bucket-list goal for many bikers – it’s been called one of the best bike rides in the nation.
There’s a lot more to North Dakota than Roosevelt National Park and Maah Daah Hey, though. Near Killdeer, Little Missouri State Park has endless rolling hillsides crossed by 25 miles of trails. Savvy visitors time their hikes for early morning or late afternoon – not just to take advantage of the prairie sunrises and sunsets, but for the chance to see bobcats, mule deer, golden eagles, and more.
Strung along the shore of Lake Metigoshe, Lake Metigoshe State Park has several miles of hiking and biking trails. Nearby, Turtle Mountain State Forest has miles of winding and heavily wooded trails – when you are done, relax with a drive on the Turtle Mountain Scenic Byway. Hikers, cross-country skiers, and equestrians love Tetrault Woods State Forest, which fills a forested valley and is home to elk and more than 75 species of birds.
Mountain bikers will find plenty of miles to ride in North Dakota. Bismarck is home to much of the action, with great trails in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, Pioneer Park, and the Missouri River Natural Area. Fort Ransom State Park has great riding for beginners and intermediates on bluffs overlooking a wide river valley. Another great spot for both hiking and mountain biking is Turtle River State Park, where trails duck in and out of forest bordering the river – make sure to stop in at the wildlife viewing blinds.
North Dakota’s winters are famous, but it’s not always as cold as you think, and all that snow makes for unique skiing opportunities. Huff Hills near Bismarck has a 450-foot vertical drop and 16 runs overlooking the Missouri River served by four lifts. Bottineau Winter Park has eight runs and six lifts staking out the high ground of the Turtle Mountains. Frost Fire near Walhalla is hidden in the Pembina Gorge not far from the Canadian border.
Prefer your winter recreation on skinny skis? The state is dotted with cross-country ski trails, many of which are groomed and free. Fargo has five skiing areas spread throughout the city, and there are also free cross-country trails in Mandan and at General Sibley Park and Riverwood Golf Course in Bismarck. You’ll find groomed trails at Fort Ransom, Turtle River, Fort Stevenson, Cross Ranch, Grahams Island, Icelandic, and Lake Metigoshe state parks, plus there are ungroomed trails at Beaver Lake, Fort Abraham Lincoln, Lake Sakakawea, Lewis and Clark, and Missouri River state parks.
The state’s mellow rivers provide an incredible vehicle for paddling trips – bring your canoe or rent a kayak or standup paddleboard and jump in. The 107-mile course of the Little Missouri River through Theodore Roosevelt National Park can be done in a relaxing five-day trip, while you can embark on easy half-day trips or extended multi-day trips on the Missouri. Other boating spots include Beaver Lake State Park, Chain of Lakes Recreation Area, Doyle Memorial Recreation Area, Fort Ransom State Park, and Grahams Island State Park.
Anglers are treated well here – troll or cast for pike, perch, sunfish, bass, drum, catfish, trout, sturgeon, gar, goldeye, or paddlefish. Fly fishers cast into spots like the Missouri, Turtle, and Apple rivers, as well as Cross Ranch State Park. Lake anglers will want to bring their rods to Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake, Lake Oahe, and Jamestown Reservoir.
North Dakota calls itself “Legendary” – and when it comes to outdoor recreation, that moniker is certainly true. Come see for yourself!