By Mark Bradley
First in Four Part Series
You have to go out of your way to visit North Dakota from Illinois and frankly half the fun is not getting there. With that being said, once you arrive in North Dakota, your long journey will be rewarded with the pleasant surprises I found in this the least visited state in the US.
As you may recall my reason for entering North Dakota was to check it off the list of the final four states I had NOT visited. It held some interest as a significant part of the Lewis and Clark Trail but other than that I knew little except it was brutally cold in the winter and one of the least populated states with endless grasslands and wheat fields.
Spending the night in Fargo (the largest city at just over 90,000 on the border with Minnesota), I took a pleasant stroll on Roger Maris Drive (the famous baseball player was born here) in a city park along the Red River.
Tomorrow I’d drive to Bismarck (the state capital) and see the beginning of the historic Dakota Trail (www.DakotaTrail.com). Besides Lewis & Clark hooking up with Sakakawea there, General Custer, Sitting Bull, and Teddy Roosevelt all left their footprints on the western side of this state.
The Missouri River flows through the heart of North Dakota and it was at the Mandan Indian villages just north of present day Bismarck where Lewis & Clark spent the winter of 1804-05. At the time, the large Indian villages outside their humble little fort had a greater population than St Louis and just across the river Sakakawea lived at the Knife River Indian Villages.
Today you can visit the On-A-Slant Indian Village near the Custer Home at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park and step inside replicas of the rounded earthen homes where the Mandan lived and at the same time tour the opulent home of General George Armstrong Custer and his wife Libby on the former grounds of the 7th Calvary headquarters circa 1876.
After a pleasant lunch of a bison burger and fries (North Dakota leads the nation in the production of both) it was time for a canoe ride down the Missouri near Washburn with Bird Woman Canoe Adventures. Sakakawea (preferred spelling in ND) means Bird Woman in the native language and we floated downstream along the shallow, peaceful river on a picture perfect summer day with our friendly, informative guides (www.birdwoman.com).
Our room for the night was at the Missouri River Lodge B&B where hosts, Orville and Diane Oster, treated us to a taste of a working North Dakota farm and ranch along with some interesting local history (www.moriverlodge.com).
Orville has posted signs on his farm with excerpts from Lewis & Clark journals indicating it was on this ground that events occurred shortly after their departure from the Mandan villages. It was here that the party first sighted a “Gravelly Bar” or Grizzly Bear. Immediately overlooking the Lodge is a Buffalo Jump- a cliff over which Indians would stampede herds of bison, falling to their deaths, for easy slaughter.
The next day was spent touring Theodore Roosevelt National Park where today large herds of buffalo roam freely along with wild mustangs.
The colorful badlands are also home to massive Prairie Dog Towns where hundreds of the curious little creatures poke their heads up from burrows to view the passing line of tourist vehicles.
The entrance to the 36 mile loop drive to the South Unit of the Park is just off I-94 adjacent to the old cow town of Medora where a modern day musical has been entertaining folks for forty years. The show is a cross between Branson and Broadway with a tribute to Teddy Roosevelt as its underlying theme. Roosevelt lived and hunted in Medora in the 1880’s and his love for the area comes across admirably in the performance.
Prior to the program, don’t miss the Pitchfork Fondue- ribeye steaks skewered on a pitchfork, plunged into a boiling pot of oil, emerging deep fried with their natural juices sealed in. They’re served up with ranch beans, slaw, soft drinks, and a brownie for dessert with a million dollar view of the badlands.
Other activities in the area are the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a great hiking, mountain biking and scenic horseback riding trail and for the less adventurous, the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, a new championship course with spectacular vistas. For more information on the Medora area go to www.medora.com.
All that remained for my visit in North Dakota was a hearty breakfast at the Rough Riders Hotel and quick walk around this delightful little town before slipping across the border to my next objective- The Big Sky state of Montana.
For more information on North Dakota call 1-800-HELLO-ND (435-5663) or their website at www.ndtourism.com.