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.

History

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.

http://www.lundslanding.com/fishingboatrentals.htm

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.

http://0317f38.netsolhost.com/rentals.html

http://www.paddleonnd.com/rentals.html#kayak

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.

 

 

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.

two-deer-crop-vig-sig

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.

hawk-sig-small

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?”

blackbird-flock-in-tree-top-sig-small

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.

two-geese-take-off-from-gunnar-sig-small

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.

sunset-on-waterhole-with-ducks-sig-small

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.

two-big-horn-sheep-on-a-hill-nearby-sig-small

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?

Dang it’s wet.

Flooded farm

Spring 2011 is historic for its wetness, beyond anything every recorded in North Dakota.  In the prairie pothole region of North Dakota between Steel and Devils Lake, up through Hurdsfield, the saying is, “You can’t get there from here.”  Even if you’re in the farm house, you can’t get to the barn.  I’m standing on the road to the farm house, and I can’t get there either.

Hwy 36 flooded at Wing

It’s true everywhere.  In the morning I drove down this road and the water was lapping at the shoulders.  By evening, it was deep over the road and I couldn’t get the last 23 miles home.

Kids sandbagging

Of course what was an inconvenience for me was a disaster for many. That’s why sandbagging became the social event of Spring 2011 in Bismarck.  You can bet when these youngsters are grandparents, they’ll be telling their kids about the flood of 2011 when the Missouri River topped all historic levels.  The town of Bismarck and area residents turned out to shovel sandbags.  I borrowed a neighbor’s trailer and hauled sandbags to folks who were fighting the Muddy Mo.  But if it weren’t for the hundreds of volunteers at the sandbag sites, there’s be no way homeowners could protect their homes from the 500-year level flood.

From the northwest corner of the state at Williston through central North Dakota, down to South Dakota, the story was the same.  Too much water.  The Army Corps of Engineers held back as much water as it wanted at the Corps dams, Sakakawea, Fort Pierre and Chamberlain until the river threatened the dams.  Then came the big releases that flooded downstream cities such as Bismarck and Mandan.

Though the sign was in the perpetually flooded town of  Devils Lake when I drove through there it summed up the feelings of most people — just add a few more zeros to the capacity of the requested ark.

Now as you look back to the spring of 2011 — what word would you use to describe it?  I already used the word “wet.” Your turn.

October 10 Wilton’s pond at sunset

Sunset at Wilton Centennial Park

This is one of my favorite images in my year-long project of shooting North Dakota every day of 2010.  Some days my photos are so amateurish and bad that I don’t post them.

But on this day, just a short walk from my home I saw what might work for a good image. Of course it’s the Golden Hour, and it shows.  The color is radiant in the trees and along the horizon.

Most unusual (and if you’re from North Dakota, you know what I mean) there is no wind.  The reflective glass of the Wilton Centennial Park pond is perfect to bounce back the trees and light around it.

I could easily vote for this as my favorite photo of the year in North Dakota 365.  What do you think?

September 5

Wilton park bench

It’s become one of my favorite locales for seasonal photo shoots. I’ve returned often to the Wilton Centennial Park and on this evening caught the empty picnic table, the orange lights and the quiet environment.

Looking back in North Dakota 365, I surprise myself at how many different ways the park can be photographed.  It all started way back on January 4 this year.

August 2

Flooded Highway 83

Coming in to Bismarck from the north on Highway 83, the results of the night’s rain were evident.  Though drainage in North Bismarck is much better than in South Bismarck, this

intersection was plugged.  Though we get only about 14-16 inches of precipitation a year, including snow, this scene is evident that sometimes it can come in great abundance at one time.


Waiting for water

Bismarck City crews were on hand to open plugged storm sewer lines and open up the closed lanes of Highway 83.  By noon, the flooded intersection was only a damp spot on the highway.

March 17

What a find!  I didn’t even know this dam existed on the south edge of Washburn.  The snowpack is melting and rushing over the dam, about to carry with it a couple of chunks of wood.  Again, it’s the Golden Hour of the day. I walked out along the creek to the dam and laid on my stomach to get as close to the action as I could.

I like how the water is both clear and deep, but also rough and churning.  The reflections of the golden hour and the golden weeds along the shore add the right color contrast to the blue of the water.

I’m not sure if I could capture such deep and contrasting colors of the water if I were to go back there later in the spring or summer.  I’ll have to find out and make a comparison.

I am certain the farm on the hill overlooking the creek, further upstream would be different later in the year, more green.  But I wonder about the stability of the bank. Will the farm get swallowed up some day by the erosive creek?