Destination of the week: North Dakota
From the Badlands to the grasslands, this state has wide-open spaces and plenty of ways to see them.
Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 10:02 AM
Photo: Gene Kellogg/North Dakota Tourism
With 646,000 residents living in an area of more than 70,000 square miles, North Dakota is one of the least populated states in the U.S. Its remote location, sandwiched between South Dakota and Manitoba, and lack of a major urban center mean that it is not on many tourists' to-visit lists (Fargo, with 90,000 residents, is by far the largest city).
But perhaps it should be.
North Dakota is a land of vast natural spaces, from the Badlands to the Midwestern Plains. The menu of tourist attractions is dominated by national parks, state parks and opportunities for outdoor adventure. Though North Dakota's landscapes are not idyllic in the palm-tree-and-beach or pine-tree-and-snow-capped-mountains sense, eco-tourism attractions are numerous and surprisingly diverse. This is a place characterized by lengthy trails, long-haul paddles, daylong scenic drives and millions of acres of protected area.
One of the most unusual attractions in North Dakota is the International Peace Garden, which is on the border between Dunseith, N.D., and Manitoba. The 3½-square-mile garden stretches along the world's longest unfortified border between two nations. Even though this is a place of notoriously long winters, an on-site indoor conservatory and its tropical plant life means that visitors can see greenery year-round. The garden has a reflecting pool, 150,000-flower garden, and trails through Turtle Mountain Forest, a heavily forested area populated by wildlife.
North Dakota's showcase eco-attraction is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The park comprises three areas (North Unit, South Unit and Elkhorn Ranch Unit) in western North Dakota. Roosevelt's landscapes include the stark, rocky Badlands and grasslands that are typical of the Upper Midwest. For those who want to immerse themselves in the area's wildlife and nature, backcountry camping is possible with a free permit from one of the park's visitor’s centers. For those without the experience or equipment to go it alone, the park offers ranger-guided hikes along some of the less-used trails. For casual eco-tourists, all three units of the park have shorter trails, a half-mile to a mile-and-a-half long. Despite narrow roads (sometimes plagued by oversized RVs), visitors can bike throughout Roosevelt.
During the summer, there are options for canoe and kayak travel along North Dakota's rivers. Some of these waterways stretch for more than 250 miles and pass through a variety of landscapes. The Sheyenne River, Little Missouri River and Red River are ideal for long-haul paddles. The famous Missouri River (used by the Lewis and Clark expedition) has shorter paddles, with canoes for rent at Cross Ranch State Park.
Ambitious hikers can take on the section of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail that runs through North Dakota. Overall, the trail cuts through 11 states and in North Dakota, it passes through Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands and Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near the Missouri River. An interpretive center at Fort Mandan in Washburn (38 miles outside Bismarck) offers a glimpse of the history surrounding the expedition's achievements.
The Dakota Prairie National Grasslands has miles of hiking trails and also some paved roads for drivers who don't want to take to the trails. The state’s million-plus acres of protected grasslands are home to animals like elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and falcons. The Little Missouri National Grassland is in the Badlands area of Western South Dakota, while the Sheyenne River National Grassland is perfect for those who want to experience the grassy, rolling hills of Southeastern North Dakota.
The Sheyenne River Valley, where the southeastern grasslands are located, is also the setting for one of 10 major scenic byways in the state. Visitors who lack the time for a long-haul hike or bike can see the landscapes of North Dakota from their car.
North Dakota's state parks are a good alternative for those who are worried about running into crowds at the national parks. These areas include Lake Metigoshe State Park in the heavily forested Turtle Mountains on the Canadian border, Sully Creek State Park in the western prairielands, and the easily accessible Turtle River State Park in a valley in Eastern North Dakota near Grand Forks.
Major towns like Fargo have a few modestly green hotel choices. The Holiday Inn is one of the greener urban sleeping options, with energy efficient lighting and low-flow water fixtures. It also launched other Earth-friendly measures such as reusing sheets and towels and relying on nontoxic cleaners. Fargo's Country Inn and Suites has earned similar credibility for its energy efficiency and reusing/recycling programs.
For the most part, however, the greenest sleeping spots are at campgrounds in parks around the state. Campers can set up tents at North Dakota's state parks, or try rustic cabins at Louis and Clark, Lake Sakakawea and Beaver Lake state parks as well as several others. Cabins have heaters and bunk beds but no indoor cooking facilities or plumbing. Theodore Roosevelt National Park has a large campground for tents and RVs. Ambitious hikers can obtain a free permit at the park offices to camp in the backcountry.
Because of its sparse population, the best way to get around North Dakota is by car. There is no other viable way to get to many of the state's natural areas. However, once you reach these areas, you can rely on greener forms of transport such as hiking, biking or even saddling up a horse. As many of the roads in the state, especially in rural areas, do not see much automobile traffic, long-distance bike trips are a possibility in the warmer months of the year. Horse ranches can offer mounts and guides for rides around Roosevelt National Park and a handful of state parks.
Traveling between major towns by bus is an option. But again, once you reach a town, it is difficult to explore natural areas without a car. Both Greyhound and Jefferson Lines offer service in the state.
Organic restaurants and natural food stores are few and far between in North Dakota; however, larger towns have a few options. The HoDo Restaurant at Fargo's Hotel Donaldson is a standout when it comes to sustainably grown, organic ingredients. A majority of the restaurant’s ingredients, from produce to grains to cheese, come from farmers and producers in North Dakota, Minnesota or South Dakota. Grand Forks, like Fargo an eastern North Dakota town that borders Minnesota, is home to the Amazing Grains Food Co-op. This might be an attractive option for those looking to stock up on organic foods before heading into the state.
The best way to eat local is to get your food from one of the many farmers markets that run during the mid-summer and early autumn.
North Dakota's wide-open spaces do not attract as many tourists as perhaps they should. But nature lovers and eco-adventurers will undoubtedly appreciate the lack of people and the excess of nature-themed attractions. People seeking nothing but typical postcard-worthy sights might be better off elsewhere, but true green enthusiasts will wonder why this remote state isn't on the radar for most eco-tourists.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
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