Here’s how to enjoy Lake Sakakawea for free at McKenzie County

This North Dakota county gives you nearly unlimited access to outdoor recreation — free!

Sunset over Lake Sakakawea at McKenzie County.

You don’t need a boat to enjoy Lake Sakakawea.  The magnificent lake is 180 miles long with 1,530 miles of PUBLIC shoreline.

Plenty of opportunities to wade in the water to cool off on a hot day hike.

As we found out, that means you can explore, hike, bike for days on end.  Find a bay or inlet and you can camp next to the water, or if it’s a hot day, dive in and cool off. It’s what we did, and here’s all you need to know to enjoy the Lake.

Hiking the shoreline north of Charlson along Lake Sakakawea






First, a little background:

The Army Corps of Engineers created and maintains the lake; it owns the immediate shoreline. It says the lake covers 382,000 surface acres making it the largest manmade lake in North America where the entire shoreline is open to the public. It is world-famous for its recreation, walleye fishing and its paddlefish snagging.


Without a ferry system, McKenzie County farmers struggled to get grain to a nearby rail line across the Missouri River.

Lake Sakakawea was formed in the 1950’s by damming the Missouri River. Even before it was a lake, the River was a transportation barrier. The river challenged McKenzie County farmers to get their crops to market, going north across the river to Williston.

Ferries such as those at the ghost town Banks on the Tobacco Garden Creek helped farmers move their grain.  Eventually, a bridge across the river at Williston helped ease transportation.

After WWII, the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams on the Missouri River, each one backing up on to historic tribal land and Indian Reservations. In 1956, the Garrison Dam swallowed up the largest amount of historic land in the new dam system.

Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea and flooded hundreds of thousands of farmland, and homes. Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota (B8081).

The lake became a recreation attraction. It flooded some 150,000 acres, three towns, and several villages. It divided the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation so that two districts are south of the lake and three are north of the lake.  Lake crossings are about 70-miles apart at the dam itself or at the Mountrail County/McKenzie County crossing, Four Bears Bridge.

Some of the towns and villages flooded by the creation of Lake Sakakawea.


What to do

If life before the dam intrigues you. The Three Affiliated Tribes Museum on the eastern edge of McKenzie County has a full display of pre-lake years.   It’s that large A-Frame building inside a wrought-iron fence north of the Casino.  We discovered you will need to check ahead to see if it is open.  You can call 701-627-4477.  Generally, it is said to be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  That’s not always the case, though.  The last two times we attempted to visit were during those hours, but it was closed.

Admission isn’t free but close.  The last time we were there it was $3.00.

If you are successful, head to the second floor. That’s where we found the most interesting displays.  It’s an eye-opener to learn the history of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nation.  It will shape your views on the region.

If you are in to land-based activities, you’ve got hundreds of miles of opportunity.  Many locations are easily accessed by following two-track trails or no-maintenance roads.  The public access shoreline provides landlubbers the opportunity to hike and explore, swim, camp, view waterfowl and other birds. We like to drive north from Highway 23 on what is designated to be Highway 1806.  It’s a good idea to be in a pickup truck, or a high-clearance vehicle to access the lake. Turn off 1806 to the north and explore the two-track trails.  We’ve done it several times, but only when it’s dry enough that we won’t get stuck.  The dog gets excited about this time because we slow down to about 5 mph and weave our way through the hills and valleys to the shoreline.

In the winter, when the lake’s many bays and inlets freeze over, cross-country skiing is possible.  Snowmobilers often ride the ice and snow.

Pontoon and fishing boats are the most popular boats on the water. Up until about 1970, hydroplane boats raced on the lake, but floating trees and other debris made it too dangerous.

On the water, pleasure boats are commonly seen with passengers enjoying the vast expanse of water. In addition to swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, and scuba diving are just some of the favorite activities.

Fishermen travel from across the world to catch walleye, northern pike, and salmon. The waters also yield a good harvest of smallmouth bass, catfish, yellow perch, and trout.

For a few days in the spring, on the upper reaches of the lake, paddlefish snagging attracts thousands of people to the upper reaches of the lake on the northern edge of McKenzie County. The prehistoric fish lay on the bottom of the river where anglers snag them and harvest their eggs as caviar.

Click: The Williston Herald has a great story about paddlefish snagging.

 How to get there:

East of Watford City on Hwy 23, you access Lake Sakakawea at Four Bears. The mile-long Four Bears Bridge spans the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea

Drive north or east of Watford City in McKenzie County. State Highway 1806 north or State Highway 23 east will take you to the shores of Lake Sakakawea.

If you use Google Maps, you’ll get something like this (the complete round trip with an extension to Four Bears is almost 3 hours.  But if you are just going to one spot, the drive is less than one hour):

Easy access from Watford City to Lake Sakakawea.

Our Recommendation

We were not boating when we explored the region.  We went northeast of Watford City and then north past the ghost town of Charlson.  We always take with us a U.S. Forest Service Map ($13) to see all the back roads and trails that got us down to the lake for a good day of hiking, sightseeing, and swimming.  Another useful tool is Google Earth that gives you a precise location and a view of what’s ahead on the trail.

Imagine the steep valley that drops down below this tributary to Lake Sakakawea. You can hike along the top, or take a canoe to explore the shoreline.

If you own a kayak or canoe, just about any road that goes up to the lake from McKenzie County will give you access. Again, a U.S. Forest Service Map is most helpful to find those access roads.

We have accessed the waterscape on canoe.  This summer we’ll do it with a kayak.  It allowed us to get up in to some of the tributaries.  Exploring the upper reaches scratches the curiosity itch.

A canoe or other smaller fishing boats gets up in to some of the tributaries of Lake Sakakawea so you can explore hidden riches.


If you want to get out on the water for little money (not free)– consider renting a canoe or kayak.  You can follow the shoreline, investigate bays and inlets, and get a sense of what it must have been like for the Thomas Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery.



Admittedly, it’s hard to find a canoe or kayak to rent.  Are there any in Williston or Minot? I don’t know any rentals. Do you?

East of Williston in Williams County (directly across the lake from Tobacco Gardens in McKenzie County)  is Lund’s Landing. You can rent a kayak or canoe there for the day.

People who drive up from Bismarck have a couple of places where they can pick up a canoe or kayak in Mandan. They have multi-day rates so you can rent one day and return the next.

If you have a boat, here are a couple of good points to consider: the first access point is the Four Bears Peninsula, on the far eastern edge of McKenzie County, is a popular access to the water. A boat ramp, bait shop and large parking area will let you get out on the water. It will introduce you to Native American history of the region. Go in August to take in the Little Shell Powwow.  The peninsula extends south of the Four Bears Casino where people camp, fish and picnic.

Others recommend

(The goal this summer is to check out this highly recommended McKenzie County location.)

The second access point is Tobacco Garden Creek Bay — 2 miles east of Watford City on ND Highway 23, then 25 miles north and east on ND Highway 1806. The resort is open year round and is pet-friendly. A full-service restaurant serving: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner – with Prime rib every Saturday Night.  A convenience store providing Groceries, camping supplies, off sale beer, bait and tackle shop, gas on the water, and everything in between.  There are over 100 camp sites, two log cabins, family picnic shelters, two playgrounds, wireless Internet and hiking on the Birnt Hills Trail – a certified Lewis and Clark site.

We’re always looking for other free or low-cost opportunities to explore Lake Sakakawea.  What do you recommend?

Here’s another free spot in McKenzie County to explore

Subscribe to this blog to get more ideas to explore in this great state of North Dakota

To get a free 22 page travelogue to plan your trip in McKenzie County, just type in the word “McKenzie” in the subject field and send.



Iconic architecture for you to tour in McKenzie County — FREE!

Bridging cultures, counties and communities – the Four Bears Bridge

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge in to the piers

Each arched span directs the weight of the bridge into the piers

This mile-long bridge is the latest effort to overcome the continental division of the Missouri River. The Missouri River has been a transportation corridor and a barrier since before Thomas Jefferson.  That’s why he commissioned the Corps of Discovery to learn more about the river.


From the North Dakota State Historical Society, the first Four Bears Bridge built near the now flooded town of Elbowoods.

From the North Dakota State Historical Society, the first Four Bears Bridge built near the now-flooded town of Elbowoods.

From the U.S. Geological Survey

1940 Four Bears Bridge at Elbowoods, 13 years before the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the valley and moved the bridge. (From the U.S. Geological Survey)

Until about 1925 there was no way to cross the river in this part of the United States.

America had fought a World War and had become a powerhouse in world politics, but travelers still couldn’t cross the Missouri River, except by unreliable and unsafe ferries.

A national lobbying effort prompted Washington to pay for a bridge across the Missouri River on Highway 8 south of Stanley in Mountrail County and north of Halliday in Dunn County.

In 1950, after the Second World War, the Army Corps of Engineers built a series of dams on the Missouri including one in Garrison, North Dakota. The water would have covered the original Four Bears Bridge on old Highway 8.

So, the government paid to have the original bridge dismantled and moved about 70 miles upstream.

Dismatntled at it's first site, the Four Bears Bridge was rebuilt at McKenzie County to reach the opposite side of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County.

Dismantled at its first site, the Four Bears Bridge was rebuilt at McKenzie County to reach the opposite side of Lake Sakakawea and Mountrail County.

The bridge was built to 1925 standards – two eight foot driving lanes, no shoulders, no walkways. By modern standards, it was functionally obsolete.  It was too narrow and too low of clearance  Two large farm trucks could not meet on the bridge.

A construction barge under the old Four Bears Bridge while the new bridge was built.

Two construction barges under the old Four Bears Bridge move two precast concrete bridge segments in to place to be lifted and attached to the growing structure.

During four construction seasons, 2003-2007, a new $54 million dollar bridge was built using context sensitive design.  It has won several international design contests and been recognized as a model for designing a modern structure that seamlessly fits in to the cultural, natural, social and economic environment of the area.

The arches between piers mimic the hills along the river.

The arches between piers mimic the hills along the river.

The sweeping curves of the bridge are designed to visually replicate the curves of the nearby hills in the Badlands.



Our Recommendations

Tribal symbols on the bridge wall.

Tribal symbols on the bridge wall.

Walk the bridge to see the history in artwork of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, the MHA Nation.  The stories of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations are on storyboards on both ends of the bridge with tributes to their ancestors along the railing of the walkway. The pedestrian walkway includes medallions of the cultural history of the Three Affiliated Tribes and tributes to leaders, sacred animals, and historical events. The railing also includes silhouettes of sacred animals.

There are benches on which you can sit and absorb the sights and sounds. The concrete trail at the park will lead you down the riverbank to observation points below and alongside the bridge.  From here you can clearly see the medicine wheel on the opposite hillside. This ancient sacred place accurately points the four cardinal directions.

Looking over McKenzie County from Crow Flies High, on the east end of the bridge, it's apparent Highway 23 wanders and snakes across the hills toward the Four Bears Casino and Lodge

Looking over McKenzie County from Crow Flies High, on the east end of the bridge, it’s apparent Highway 23 wanders and snakes across the hills toward the Four  Bears Bridge.


On the east side of the bridge, the Mountrail County side, drive to the maintained historical site on the south side of the road above the medicine wheel. The point is called Crows High or Crow Flies High and includes storyboards of Native American history.  Over the edge of the parking area to the north, straight down is what remains of the flooded town of Sanish.  When the lake level is low, many of the foundations are visible.

Click here to read how the new bridge was built

Click here to read John Weeks excellent description of the bridge and the parks

How to get therearrows-from-wc-to-four-bears-bridge

 From Watford City drive east on Highway 23 about 40 miles to the far eastern border of McKenzie County.  There can be a fair amount of truck traffic on the road, but don’t get in a hurry.  Many passing lanes are built into the route between Watford City and New Town.

The Four Bears Bridge is one of McKenzie County’s 5 affordable (low cost or free) landmarks visitors and travelers tour year-round. For a free 20-page ebook on all five of the McKenzie County landmarks, enter the word “McKenzie” in the subject line of this email form.

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Golden Valley – the town that met the rail company halfway

Incredible marketing and entrepreneurship in 1900 started the happy little town of Golden Valley. Out of nothing, the town started and grew – and to this day Golden Valley gives you a reason to pull off Highway 200 between Hazen and Killdeer.

The disappearing tribute to North Dakota's indigenous people -- the Indian Head State Highway Sign. Just one or two remain along Highway 200 near Golden Valley.

The disappearing tribute to North Dakota’s indigenous people — the Indian Head State Highway Sign. Just one or two remain along Highway 200 near Golden Valley.


We like stopping there because it has a peaceful and protected feel to it. Nestled in a valley, noise, weather and outside traffic is minimal.  Plus, it has a couple of interesting shops for browsing and a great little place for food and libations.

snowy hilllside at Golden Valley North Dakota

Sunrise at Golden Valley, North Dakota

The town is a tribute to perseverance and entrepreneurship.

George V. Bratzel took lemons a corporation served him and turned them into proverbial lemonade.  He was a rail agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad in Hebron, North Dakota. The company shipped him to the far end of the state, to Beach.  Then, yanked him back to Hazen a couple of years later and fired him.  It turns out his supervisor at the railroad wanted his son to have a job, so Danielson was fired to make room for the son.

“Ha!” Bratzel said. “I’m just gonna make my own town!”

Northern Pacific told him, “Go right ahead, and we’ll build a rail line to your town.”

(I suspect NP didn’t think Bratzel would succeed – but he did.)

Bratzel searched for a location for his town; he traveled and surveyed the prairie north of Hebron, North Dakota. One late summer day, he spotted a valley about 40 miles north of his home. The colors of the valley were – you guessed it, golden.  And since the initials of his first and last name were GV, he named the town Golden Valley.

The First Golden Valley before it was moved next to the Northern Pacific Rail Line. (from the ND Historical Society collection.)

The First Golden Valley before it was moved next to the Northern Pacific Rail Line. (from the ND Historical Society collection.)

He called the Northern Pacific on its bluff, and it responded.  It built the line along the best route engineers could find.  It was about one-and-a-half miles from where George had set up his town. So again, turning those lemons into lemonade, he picked up the town and moved it to the railroad.

From NDSU library: paul-weiracuk (left) and james-opsahl (right) at the weiracuk homestead near golden valley-

From NDSU library: paul-weiracuk (left) and james-opsahl (right) at the weiracuk homestead near golden valley- Permission of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, Fargo, ND –

He promoted the town heavily, even sponsoring a free dance for all the region’s ranchers and farmers.  Isolated across the rolling prairie, families, as well as single men, looked for any chance they could find to socialize. A community dance, in 1914 was a rare event. That’s why all the neighbors from across the rolling prairie and distant towns came to see what he had built — Golden Valley. Some even moved to the new town.

Golden Valley about 30 years after it was moved to be near the RR tracks.

Golden Valley about 30 years after it was moved to be near the RR tracks. Permission from the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, Fargo, ND –

Once the town was set up along the tracks, farmers brought their grain to town where they could make more money than if they hauled it many miles down the road.  They were willing to work for it even without a grain elevator.  They loaded rail cars one shovel at a time, pitching their grain from their wagon into rail cars.golden-valley-grain-elevator-at-sunrise

Later, the grain elevator was built and the town became a commercial and transportation center.  One of the more successful businesses was an earth-moving company that did much of the work on the Garrison Diversion projects.

One of the success stories of the region is marked with an antique truc.

One of the success stories of the region is marked with an antique truck.

Now the town’s main draw is the Saddle Sore Saloon where festivities are hosted, even outdoor street dances and wedding parties.

The Saddle Sore Saloon in Golden Valley is the central gathering point. The Saloon’s Facebook Page includes this photo and other like it.

For example, on Valentine’s Day, the dining room serves Prime Rib with baked potato, salad bar, and a desert for $24.00.


From the Saddle Sore’s Facebook page, a summer evening collection of motorcycles and vintage cars.






Across the street from the Saddle Sore is a curio store, a flea market of antiques and collectibles.

Across the street from the Saddle Sore is a curio store, a flea market of antiques and collectibles.

golden-valley-gas-pumps-nov-2016-copyAround the corner, one of the most brilliant Gems in the United States – a Harley-Davidson museum, with a motorcycle from each year – all of them in running order and operational.  The museum is bright, clean, and more impressive than most small town museums of any sort.  Ya gotta know the guy, to see it. It’s his private collection, but he’s willing to open it to let you in.

The private collection of Harley-Davidson motorcyles is a worthy attraction to the community.

The private collection of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is a worthy attraction to the community.

That’s why motorcyclists who like to explore the 2-lane highways of the prairie can put this on their destination list.  Anyone who likes photographic road trips, any time of the year will be rewarded with a trip to Golden Valley.  They may give a tip of the hat to tribal elder, historian and businessman August Little Soldier who did much to provide industry to the Three Affiliated Tribes.

And give a tip of the hat to the famous roadside bronc of Wayne Herman world bareback rider who will greet you.



Enjoy the cold that keeps out riff raff — healthy people do

It’s not easy keeping up your spirits when winter and polar vortexes catapult the thermometer in to a region well below zero.  What do you do to keep out the invading winter blues?  Some people fall prey to the knighthood of long dark nights when the kingdom of cold invades.

It is possible not to fall to the avenging onslaught of relentless waves of killer cold fronts, but you have to work at it. You have to look for it.  You have to venture out to see the beauty of the season.  That may mean adjusting your schedule a bit. The Golden Hour is mid-afternoon, that last hour when the landscape turns gold.  On a holiday, such as New Years Day, the first sunset of the year is mid-afternoon, about 4:30.  That is when I forced myself to break free from the clutches of the cold to get out with my camera to capture the day.

The first sunset of 2014

The first sunset of 2014

One of the things I’ve come to discover about North Dakotans is they accept the things they cannot change and change the things they can.  So, when record-breaking cold weather sets in, they know they can do nothing about the weather, but they can do something about their own comfort or their own activity.  Of course it’s easier to do nothing and fall prey to the demons of darkness.  Taking a step to fight back is what many healthy people of the cold north such as North Dakotans do every winter.

965859_719882948021983_1441034643_oskis point to the clearing other side of woods wtrmrk     Some will go cross-country skiing.  Cross Ranch, a quiet state park where groomed cross-country ski trails weave through a cottonwood forest that stood here when Lewis and Clark tugged their boats up the Missouri River.

For some of us, it means layering up.  I’ve spent the coldest days of the winter working in my anti-starvation work. Outside.  Attempting to stay warm while keeping the bills paid.I wear as many as 7 layers of clothing when I know I’ll be working outside. I caught this image of myself in the mirror of the tractor I was driving.

The John Deere way to view the winter.

The John Deere way to view the winter.

  • Short underwear
  • Long underwear
  • Jeans
  • sleeveless T-shirt
  • Long Sleeve T-shirt
  • Flannel shirt
  • Bib overalls
  • Hooded sweatshirt
  • Coveralls
  • Parka and
  • Hoodie face and neck protection

Camera and me in tractor cab

Not everyone has to work outside. And not everyone can resign themselves to the fact there are some things (like cold weather) that you just can’t do much about.  Sure, North Dakotans could sit at home and complain, and wait for spring, or they could get out and do something about it.  The North Dakotans I know choose to enjoy it.  For some, that means racing up a hill in to town.02-24-10 snowmobiles

Or for some who know they can’t change the weather, but they can change their activities, it means diving in to those winter hobbies.  I’m fortunate to have a wood shop where I teach myself how to build wood frames for my prints.

open door to wood burning stove logs inside

Wood burning stove keeps things warm and friendly on a cold winter night.

wood and the table saw  The wood stove sits quiet, unused and neglected much of the year.  However, this time of the year, it’s actually a rewarding way to get out of the cold.  I love burning wood to stay warm.

It’s all about attitude, isn’t it.  I think that’s one of the healthiest things about North Dakotans.  They work at keeping up their spirits when the cold keeps out the riff raff.  What’s a good way to enjoy winter and beat the winter blues?

Five reasons to use the Long X to break free of dreaded cabin fever

Explore the Badlands – hike, cross country ski or fat tire bike.

No, it’s not 75 degrees and sunny.

Yes, the air is fresh and the snow is deep, but that does not mean North Dakota tourism season over.   Here’s what we do.

We travel toward Watford City knowing we’d stop at the CCC Campground1.  That’s where adventurers see an unbelievably beautiful, pristine wilderness that few people ever see; and that’s the attraction right there, pristine wilderness that few people see.

There are several reasons The CCC Campground and the Long X trail are the best place to get a little winter outdoor time.

  1. It’s an easy travel distance and route
  2. It’s along the Little Missouri.
  3. The campground and parking area is well maintained.
  4. The trail is well-marked
  5. It’s an easy trail.
1. Easy travel distance.

Highway 85 from Belfield to Williston is a major federal highway, so we have good luck headed up that highway. Alternatively, we’ll head east across the state on Highway 200.

long x bridge spans the Little Missouri River

One of the few remaining through truss bridges in the state, The Long X Bridge marks the end of the Long X trail that begins in Texas. It spans the Little Missouri River which begins in Wyoming.

Up Highway 85, we always like to check out the historic Long X Bridge2 over the Little Missouri River. It’s south of Watford City, north of Grassy Butte.  The closer we get to the Long X bridge the more we perk up.  It’s an impressive landscape, colorful, striated, and beckoning.   That’s just a hint of what’s to come.

The entrance to the CCC Campground (CCC is Civilian Conservation Corps, a 100-year old government works program)  is at the very end of the bridge, just a few feet south.  We head west through a rancher’s rangeland pasture.  So, take it easy on those first couple of bends in the road. That’s where cattle are often milling about.

A herd of Charolais awaits drivers headed to the CCC campground and the Long X Trail. Just drive slowly through the herd an all will be well.

A herd of Charolais awaits drivers headed to the CCC campground and the Long X Trail. Just drive slowly through the herd and all will be well.

2. Along the Little Missouri River

At this section of the river through the Badlands, wildlife officials have stocked and increased the population of big horn sheep.  They’re not easy to see. The river you drive along started near Devils Tower in Wyoming. It snakes across Montana and North Dakota and empties in to the Missouri River about 65 miles east of the CCC Campground.

Mule deer are plentiful in the Little Missouri River valley.

Mule deer are plentiful in the Little Missouri River valley.

Most of the state's big horn sheep population thrives along the Long X Trail

Most of the state’s big horn sheep population thrives along the Long X Trail

The drive west is about a mile on a good gravel road, right along the Little Missouri River. At the Campground, we park on the west end at the literal start of the Maah Daah Hey trail and the Long X Trail.  On the south is the Little Missouri River. Beyond that, across the river is the north Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The area is fairly undisturbed, since ranching blends in well with the environment.

That’s why it’s easy to see a sample of the wildest of North Dakota’s wildlife — deer and big horn sheep.

Winter-ready dogs love the chance to get out for some winter exercise

Winter-ready dogs love the chance to get out for some winter exercise

3. The area is well-maintained

There is plenty of room to park.  After we step out of the truck, we pull on our gloves and hoodies.  It’s cold at first, but once we get going, we warm up so that a lot of winter packing isn’t needed.  Here’s where people unload skis, bike or strap on their day pack.  Vehicles are safe, but we lock it anyway, and make sure we have the key secured in our inside coat pocket so we don’t lose it in the snow.

The parking lot and campground is well maintained for easy access.

The parking lot and campground is well maintained for easy access.

4. The trail is well-marked

If  you decide to hike this trail, you won’t get lost; just follow the tall posts with the angular cut top. Each post is marked with a turtle, the sign of the Maah Daah Hey3 trail. This portion is also the Long X trail, and the posts are marked with a Teddy Roosevelt brand.  At each post you can see the next post.


5. It’s an easy trail.

At first, the slopes rise gradually along the base of the hills.  People who hike or ski, can cut across valley floors between hills and ridges.  It cuts off quite a bit of distance on the trail since it switches back and forth to maintain a relatively easy grade for bikes. Hikers and skiers can cut straight across, at least until you come to a deep ravine.

The slope is easy to navigate even in the snow or on cross country skis.

The slope is easy to navigate even in the snow or on cross country skis.


Here’s the cautionary note:

Don’t go too far. It’s easy to start the jaunt feeling fresh and invigorated by the air, the scenery, the activity. So, it’s easy to think all that initial energy will last. For every step you take along the trail, you have to repeat that step going back.  Turn around or circle back early to save your energy for the return trip.  It’s easy to overextend yourself. ______________________________________________________________

We like these winter hikes because when we get done for the day we are exhilarated by the fresh air, the and exercise.  A hot meal at nearby Watford City is just 15 minutes away – and they know how to feed you there!

Oh yeah…the footnotes:

1In 1934, men from Civilian Conservation Corps companies 2771 and 2772 established camps adjacent to each other on the north bank of the Little Missouri River, not far from the old U.S. 85 bridge in the area that is now part of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt Park.  The CCC Campground at the head of the trail is a third campsite they built. There are other sites in the Badlands built by the CCC. Company 2771 moved out after a year, but 2772 remained here until the fall of 1939 when it transferred to a site in the South Unit, and that’s why it’s called the CCC Campground.

2The trail name, “Maah Daah Hey”, comes from the Mandan Indians. In the Mandan language, one word or phrase can describe a picture, feeling, or situation. In this case, the phrase means “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” The trail uses a turtle as the trail marker. The turtle was honored because of its firm determination, steadfastness, patience, long life, and fortitude. Here’s where to find more about the CCC Campground and the trail head to the Long X Trail and the Maah Daah Hey trail.

Click here to read more about the new extension to the Maah Daah Hey

The Long X Trail represents stereotypical historical, ranch life, that of driving large herds of cattle across the country from Texas to North Dakota. This achievement was first accomplished in 1884, when, under the leadership of A. N. Jeffries, the manager of the company, a daring band of Texan cowboys piloted a monster herd of cattle from the Rio Grande to the Little Missouri. The herd was guided by means of a compass, and reached North Dakota in September, having left Texas early in the spring. This process was repeated each year until 1897, and in this way the grazing lands of McKenzie county were replenished by new cattle

Click here to read more about the Long X Trail 

                   and here is more, too.

The tale of a doggone rescue

Ever get to a place that wasn’t what you expected and you can’t get out? You can’t go forward? You can’t go back?

That happened to my dog Gunnar on our last hike of the year.

Blue sky over the autumn landscape of the Badlands

Looking up at a distant hill, we start plotting our course. The public lands of the Badlands provide good hiking territory for dogs and their owners — with a few dangers such as porcupines, skunks rattlesnakes and coyotes

Thanksgiving is generally my last day-hike of the year. This year, the destination was the Little Missouri River Valley near where it empties in to Lake Sakakawea between Killdeer and Mandaree.  The bluffs, buttes and hills are fairly rugged, so we picked our route carefully through the valley.

Badlands riparian ridges provide good viewing of the landscape

Typically, we follow hogbacks, or ridges along the tops of valleys to see the landscape and pick our course. Since hunting season was underway, Gunnar wears a hunter’s blaze orange vest.

We found fascinating rock formations, including a wall of rivulet erosions down the hillside.

rivulets, erosion, rocks, hillside make for difficult hiking

Looking down the steep hillside, we pick a course to follow to the bottom


That’s when the dog decided he’d find his own way down.

The dog stops on a ledge looking down

Gunnar picked his own route to the bottom, but discovered it didn’t get him where he wanted to go.

Happily he scampered down…part way. Only part way.  He stopped.


With only a dozen feet to go, he came to an “Oops” moment.


Now what do I do?


He looked left, right, down and above.  He decided to just sit until the photographers did their things. He looked perplexed. He waited for the rescue squad to come in and help.

Dog sits in the rocks.

Recognizing his route to the bottom did not work, and that he could not climb back up, Gunnar stopped to look around


So, I did.


It really didn’t take much. I grabbed his shoulders, firmly, securely so he knew I had him.


The dog sits in his perch waiting for me to climb up and get him.

I climbed up to give him the physical security and guidance he needed to climb down from his perch.

I lowered him a bit down and he was saved!

Once he was coaxed off the rock ledge, he continued to make his own way down

Once he was coaxed off the rock ledge, he continued to make his own way down


You know, I think there’s a sermon illustration in there somewhere.

When Gunnar got to the bottom of the rock wall, he decided he'd had enough exercise and just wanted to rest.

When Gunnar got to the bottom of the rock wall, he decided he’d had enough exercise and just wanted to rest.

How to silence the noise of the day.

I’m tired of the noise. Aren’t you? The noise of the election. The noise of culture clashes. The noise in my own head.

So, when an assignment to shoot landscape out west, came along, I jumped at it immediately.

hay field, grasslands and in the distance, the Badlands

The Badlands in the distance interrupt the hay fields of the National Grasslands

The assignment was to photograph 20,000 acres of land along the ND/MT border that hadn’t changed much since Theodore Roosevelt ranched and hunted there in the late 1800s.  20,000 acres is about 30 square miles of rugged ranch land; the Beaver Creek Ranch. It was a warmer than normal November day, and weather conditions promised good light and good temperatures for exploring.

The further west we went, the more noise I left behind.

On the North Dakota/Montana border we turned north off of Interstate 94 on to a state highway, (we = Mary, Gunnar the foster dog and me).  Instantly, traffic disappeared; as far as we could see, the two-lane highway was ours.  Our mission was to find the rancher who owned the land designated as PLOTS land – Private Land Open To Sportsmen.

Triangle PLOTS signs mark areas where hunters and others can enter even though it is privately owned.

The sign marks land set aside under a cooperative agreement with the rancher. It is Private Land Open To Sportsmen, or PLOTS.

We saw the triangle signs marking PLOTS land, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

Oh-oh! The noise in my head started coming back as I searched fruitlessly for the region I was assigned to photography.  I was frustrated, and so was the dog.  He wanted to get out to explore, so did Mary and I.  We kept driving. The old saying about finding your destination in North Dakota is true: If you think you’ve gone too far, you’re halfway there.

We checked out one gravel road to the east.  A herd of antelope grazed in a hay field.  That’s not what we were looking for, but it was a promise of things to come. Things were getting quieter.

Antelope or prarie goats were often spotted by Lewis and Clark when they came through here.

Antelope – or prairie goats as some people call them are wary critters who keep a long distance from people.


Back on the highway, a bit farther north and we found it. The Beaver Creek Ranch.  And wouldn’t ya know it, there it was, right on Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek Ranch sign, PLOTS sign and map

The Beaver Creek Ranch PLOTS acreage is well-marked and includes a map that designates three parking areas. The area is for foot traffic only.

Earlier, I had called the rancher a couple of times and left voice mails, but got no reply.  I did get hold of one of the sponsors of the PLOTS program who told me to go on in.  He said I’d find at least three parking areas and recommended the one further in, back by the corrals.

The road starts out like a gravel road, and later it becomes a two-track trail. We rumbled and rocked across the basin where Beaver Creek meandered.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The beginning of the road in to the Beaver Creek Ranch is an easy gravel road until it turns in to a two-track trail that leads to a parking area.

The bottom ground is the bottom of a basin that is sliced by Beaver Creek.  The rancher has one bridge but most of the time, he has to cross the creek by fords.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.

The bridge over Beaver Creek.


By the time we got to the corrals, the day was ending, the sun was setting and the moon was rising.  Now that may sound like a bad time to arrive, but it was a good time. It’s called The Golden Hour when shadows show contrast and the landscape is golden. There was no noise, not in my head, not in the surroundings.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

While the sun was still illuminating the golden rocks, a nearly-full moon rose.

As Mary explored the hills and ridges to the south, I went north.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it's foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

A two-track trail gives the rancher access to the southern part of his ranch, but it’s foot-traffic only at this point. A parking area is at the start of this trail.

It wasn’t exactly silent, there is always a bit of a breeze rustling the grass and sweeping around the rocks.  But that’s not noise.  That’s a lullaby.  It’s soothing enough to make a fella breathe easy.   When I got to the top of the ridge and looked below me, the entire basin of Beaver Creek Ranch wandered northward from my perch.  The longer I gazed, the more I could see.  And none of it was noisy.

To the north, the rancher's access road snakes through the hills.

To the north, the rancher’s access road snakes through the hills.

I sat down and traced the distant trails where deer and cattle crossed the basin.  I scouted the hills to the north to trace where water flowed down to the creek, and where the rancher could access further pastures and hills to the north.

The sun was setting, the colors were turning gold and the contrast of shadows on the bluffs slowly covered the landscape.  And there was no noise.corral-rising-moon-sig-small

Once the sun disappeared, wildlife appeared.  Mule deer abound in the region.  mule-deer-pauses-inlight-sig-small young-mule-deer-on-ridge-toward-sun-sig-small mule-deer-doe-with-burrs-sig-smallThe area also includes turkeys, coyotes and elk.  There is evidence that an occasional mountain lion crosses the region.

It’s the absolute contrast to the noise of civilization, a part of North Dakota that many people don’t know about. Does that sound like something you could use in your world? Glad to give you directions if you want.



Just like 1885 –Building Teddy Roosevelt’s cabin

It’s 2016 and we are excited to see if we can romanticize and fantasize 1885. After a 30 mile gravel road drive from Interstate 94, we parked at a campsite and walked. We followed the slowly degrading road, from blacktop to gravel to a two-track trail. The grass was not mowed, the site was not lit with powerful overhead street lights.  There were no pop machines,  no shaded picnic benches.


The two-track trail that leads to the Elkhorn Ranch site.  This entire valley was once considered the Elkhorn Ranch.

We had heard Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch site was undeveloped, and that was fine with us.

Teddy Roosevelt in his buckskins as a Badlands rancher

About 20 years before he became the 26th U.S. President, Roosevelt lived the life of a wilderness rancher.

It meant we had a greater chance of seeing  his formative Badlands estate much like the way it was for him.  What was the magic here that took a broken man and transformed him in to a “man’s man,” a bold combat vet, a corruption-fighting politician and a U.S. President?

It takes a bit of imagination to get out of the digital noisy world of the 21st Century to feel, smell, hear and burrow in to the 19th Century.  You can do it at TR’s Elkhorn Ranch site.


“The whole country seems to be one tangle chaos of canyon-like valleys, winding gullies and washouts with abrupt, unbroken sides, isolated peaks of sandstone, marl, or ‘gumbo’ clay, which rain turns in to slippery glue, and hill chains the ridges of which always end in sheer cliffs.” — Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes.

Contrasts and contours are hidden most of the day. Once the sun begins to lower the shadows present a great view of the bluffs and buttes that Roosevelt was very familiar with.

Roosevelt wrote of the region as having a “melancholy beauty.” “The lives of men in such places are strangely cut off from the outside world,” he wrote in Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. That is what healed him after losing his wife and his mother in the same day.  Its healing was so thorough and so strengthening he credited his Elkhorn Ranch days as giving him the fortitude to run for President of the United States.

“Nebraska and Dakota, east of the Missouri River, resemble Minnesota and Iowa and the states farther east, but Montana and the Dakota cow country show more kinship with Texas”Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

ranch elkhorn foundation blocks looking west

What?! No cabin?! Nope. It was here a century ago. Now the same quiet and separated country greeted us as we strolled through the healing slopes of Roosevelt’s ranch. The blocks mark the foundation of his Elkhorn Ranch cabin.


It’s that untamed spirit that prompted us to find our way from our primitive campsite, a mile up the road to the site of where Roosevelt wrote extensively.


“By mid-October Sewall and Dow had moved onto the site of the Elkhorn Ranch and were cutting and collecting cottonwood logs for the ranch house. Working through the winter, they completed the building by the spring of 1885. The house was 30 feet by 60 feet, with seven foot high walls, and contained eight rooms and a piazza (porch) along the east wall. Several other buildings were constructed on the site: a barn consisting of two 16 x 20 stables with a 12 foot roofed space connecting them; a cattle shed; chicken house; and a blacksmith shop.”

National Park Service details on TR's move to ND


In the October friends and family event, hosted by Dickinson State University and the Library/Museum staff, locals got to try their hands at using 1885 tools.

That’s the same sense of rawness that organizers of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library at Dickinson State University (DSU) are duplicating.  They are rebuilding the Elkhorn Ranch cabin exactly as it was — and in exactly the same methods of 1887 – by hand, not power tools.

In October, this year, organizers invited everyone to come in and try their hand at using 19th Century tools on the cottonwood logs that will become the Elkhorn Ranch cabin.   It’s not an easy task to find and handle the tools of 100 years ago.


On hand at the public demonstration, a blacksmith forged hand tools to be used on the building of the Elkhorn Ranch cabin replica.

Thanks to Roosevelt’s diary, work crews know exactly the step-by-step procedure he used to build his 1887 cabin.  dick-bickel
Not just any carpenter can do it, though. That’s why organizers are fortunate to find Dick Bickel. The South Dakota man and his work crew will cut and shape the logs for the walls.

They’ve gone so far as to use cottonwood trees that were cut from along the river and hauled to the work site — and they’re looking for more.  (Excuse their departure from original techniques as they used a modern semi-truck to haul in the logs.)tr-elkhorn-ranch-two-kids-sawing-logs-small

It’s a mighty humble start for what is expected to be a $100 million facility.

Architects propose a building that carries the sweeping curves and lines of the Badlands with the colors and appearance of the natural earth.


The architect’s vision of the Badlands-inspired design of the  presidential library and museum


Constructing the Elkhorn Ranch cabin is the first step in bringing the $100 million Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library closer to reality on the northwest side of the DSU campus. You don’t need to wait for the site to be completed. Even though it is 2016, and the completion date is years away, it is still possible to experience 1885 without the museum.

If you were given the choice, would you rather go to the original site, the planned museum, or both?

See more photos from the region here


learn more here:

TR’s Elkhorn Ranch is easy, but not always.

5 FREE things to do in North Dakota’s Badlands

Free! An amazing history tour #3 is memorable!



7 wild reasons to see North Dakota in the fall — A photo safari (Part 2)

You’ve been busy all summer, and now winter is closing in. We’ve been blessed with a mild October..only a few snowflakes when some Octobers we’ve already had two blizzards.  So, here’s motivation to get out and see North Dakota wild before it get’s unbearable — check the wild open spaces of North Dakota.

Later in the day, especially along the river, you can see some of the state’s largest wildlife — mule deer and white tail deer. They’re not easy to see because they blend in so well. Deer in the brush, down in a slough will only pause a moment before they take off.


Deer in the brush, down in a slough will only pause a moment before they take off.

Pheasants are more easily spotted if you’re in central or southwestern North Dakota. They like the cover provided by wetland grasses, tall pastures and stubble fields. Often they’re along the side of the road and can get up just as you pass by, which can mean a broken grill.geese-pheasant-doesnt-fit-in-sig-smallIf you have a dog with you,  he can help you see them because they’ll huddle down in the tall grass until the last moment.bird-gets-up-2-sig-desat

Hungry hawks will be lingering on perches such as fence posts, telephone poles and trees. Click here to get the ND Game and Fish guide to identifying ND Hawks.


A group of blackbirds is most correctly called either a cloud, a cluster, murmeration or a merle of blackbirds.  blackbirds-cu-vigDid you know a similar group of larger birds, such as crows is called “a murder?”


Central North Dakota, through the prairie pothole region east of the Missouri River, is under the Central or Midway flyway where waterfowl migrate across the region. That’s why through much of October, depending on weather, Great Canadian Geese are in fields and waterholes.   A stroll along an unused road with my dog kicks up geese from their hiding places.


As long as you’re in the wetlands region of North America, stick around until about 6:00 p.m. — sunset.  The hour before, the golden hour with long shadows and a golden filter on the sun is great photo time.  Immediately after sunset, sunsets in the sky are repeated in waterholes where geese and ducks are floating.


Finally, the most rewarding and hardest to spot wildlife is south of Watford City along the Little Missouri River. Big Horn Sheep populate the area.  I’ve never worked too hard at trying to spot them, which may be why I’ve only seen them once or twice.  If you’re careful not to spook them, they’ll pose for you.


Other rare-to-spot animals in the state that run free are moose and mountain lions.  Moose sometimes wander in to towns or farmsteads.  Have you seen one in town?  Or mountain lions — have you spotted one?  What is the predominant wildlife you spot in the fall where you live?

Reasons to see North Dakota in the fall, photo safari — Evening gold Pt 1.


Domesticated sunflowers never rotate with the sun unlike their natural cousins that follow the sun. That’s why this mature field of sunflowers face east with the sun at their back. (One reason I like this photo, besides the leading lines is the hot/cold contrast of ground color and sky color.)

This fall, I’ve taken to exploring the last hour of the day with camera and dog.  That’s  easy to do because the golden hour is actually pretty early these autumn days; the colors are warm and the contrasting light is illuminating.  The golden hour, the golden sunset and the golden colors are striking.


Gunnar the foster dog leaps through tall prairie grasses on our walks. The golden grass, yellow skies and his yellow fur compliment each other

About 4:00 or so, the dog gets pretty alert and by 5:00, he’s ready to go.   He’ll pace back and forth or stand by the back door until I am ready.  Then he gets to the truck to wait for me, and off we go to find an abandoned section line road to explore.


Even just eight wind turbines disrupt the horizon. Imagine what 105 turbines do to the landscape.

Up until about 8 years ago, there were more opportunities, but more than 100 wind turbines were set up south and east of me.  There’s not much enjoyment in shooting miles and miles of wind turbines.  I find them to be intrusive. So to avoid the wind turbines, now I explore west and north of Wilton, mostly north.  There are not too many golden hour opportunities to the west. The Missouri River is about 8 miles from me, the hills and valleys separate section line roads. I stick to roads and section line paths, staying off private property, so there are not many chances to get out and photograph the area without trespassing on a farmer’s property.  I’ve been heading north of Wilton where there are more gravel roads and abandoned section line roads.golden-sunset-north-of-wilton-corn-and-gravel-road-sig-small

Our routine is similar each night. We drive until we find a good place to stop, then walk, looking for patterns, images to capture. Well, I look for them. The dog, he’s just off running.  It’s his free time.


I couldn’t see any approach roads. It’s just a house in the middle of the stubble field.

Sometimes we come across a surprising revelation. In this case (photo below),  we parked the truck, hiked up over the hill and caught the lower valley beyond the hill. An abandoned house with no noticeable roads or lanes nearby, just sitting in the middle of a small grain stubble field.


No longer yellow and green, but still attractive with the nubbly texture of a raw sunflower head.

Other times we walk along a yet-to-be harvested field. As I noted above, sunflowers are some of the last to come off, weeks after small grains and beans.


Hauling roughly a half-semi trailer of grain, a powerful John Deere on tracks not wheels heads to the working combine to unload the combine hopper as it keeps moving down the rows.

Sometimes we’ll be headed down a trail, and can hear the sound of million-dollars of machinery working.  Fields are so large that farmers need a grain cart pulled by a high-powered tractor to collect the grain from the working combine out in the field, and then haul it to the end of the field and a waiting truck.

Drive or walk to the other end of the section and you’ll come up on the combine doing it’s season-ending work. .


Sunset behind, the farmer keeps working to finish his cornfield.

It’s not too profound of a statement to say that this is an agricultural area, but that does not mean there are not opportunities to get in to wildlife regions.  I’ll see what I can do to show you that, next time.  Do you have fall hiking areas in North Dakota that you can recommend?  What are section line roads like in your area?


Between the rancher's fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.

Between the rancher’s fence lines is what used to be an active road, a section line road laid out on every section on one-mile grids. Most are no longer accessible or visible.