Dakota Datebook

North Country Trail

Thursday, June 3, 2004

This Saturday, June 5th, Americans across the country will lace up their hiking boots and head out to enjoy the 12th Annual National Trails Day. The event has been organized by the American Hiking Society and is expected to draw more than a million participants to nearly 2,000 trail-related events across the country.

Here in North Dakota, most trail events will take place in our state parks. Many will also start exploring North Dakota’s first national scenic trail, the North Country Trail, which, when finished, will stretch from New Hampshire’s western border all the way to Lake Sacagawea.

The North Country Trail Association states that this “is a premier footpath that stretches more than 4,000 miles to link communities and wilderness areas across seven northern states. Already, more than 1,700 miles have been certified off-road. Additional miles follow shared footpaths, and some road walks yet remain… When completed, it will be the longest off-road hiking trail in the United States.”

The trailhead in North Dakota is about 7 miles southwest of Kindred. It follows the Sheyenne River southwest through the sand-hills, then crosses the Sheyenne National Grasslands, home to the threatened Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. From Lisbon, the trail meanders northward through Fort Ransom, the Little Yellowstone area and up into Valley City. A few miles north of there, the Baldhill Dam widens the Sheyenne into Lake Ashtabula, and the trail runs beside it up through the Devils Lake area, including historic Fort Totten. From Devils Lake, the trail will extend westward to the Sheyenne’s source west of Harvey. When it’s finished, the trail will terminate at Lake Sacagawea State Park.

As people become more aware of this magnificent trail, they’ll discover Lake Ashtabula is one of the state’s best-kept secrets. High grassy hills slope down to a pristine lake surrounded by 13 wildlife refuges. The area is positively teaming with ducks, geese, cormorants, herons, pelicans, pheasants, grouse, sandhill cranes and hosts of smaller birds.

You’ll also spot deer, raccoons, and even coyotes. Bridge overhangs provide shelter to thousands of cliff swallows, and the fish hatchery at Baldhill Dam has loaded the waters with walleye, northern pike, bluegills and sunnies.

The Sheyenne National Grasslands located in Ransom and Richland Counties are administered by the Custer National Forest and encompass more than 70,000 acres of federal land and almost 65,000 acres of private land. An ancient river once ran through this area, depositing huge mounds of sandy soil in a delta that now constitutes the “Dakota Sandhills.” Originally the grasslands supported tall prairie grasses, but much of the native grass was destroyed during the drought of the “dirty thirties.” Since the 1950s, however, much of the native grass has been coming back.

There is no established path across the grasslands yet; blue diamond markers are set on posts located from 200 to 500 feet apart, and people hike from one to the next. The blazes and markers are sometimes spotty and missing, but the trail becomes more established, and trail maps more complete, with each passing year.

The Association states: “…it’s growing and changing all the time, becoming more complete with each passing year. Yes, it’ll be some trail when it’s done – but it’s some trail today, too.”

For more information, go to www.northcountrytrail.org.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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