North Dakota is made up of three distinct areas: the eastern Red River Valley, the central plateau, and in the far west, the notorious badlands. To drive across the state from east to west is to ride through a painter's palette, from multiple shades of green prairie grasses, through pale gold wheat fields tinged in amber, past bold yellow sunflower farms, to the big, beige buttes of the badlands, laced in light blue bentonite and scorched with fiery red scoria. The changing colors and subtlety of shades provides constant entertainment for the roving eye.
STATE TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 435-5663
STATEHOUSE, Bismarck (701) 224-2480
We had been forewarned by several travelers that North Dakota's Statehouse is just a tall, gray office building that has as its only claim to fame: Efficiency. So we prepared ourselves for something humdrum. Wrong. Turns out, this is one of our favorites, because it's a Capitol that dares to be different. No dome for this 19-story statehouse. No Corinthian columns, no curlicues, no flourish. Instead are the cool, clean lines, the shiny, mirror-like surfaces and the sleek bronze fixtures of elegant Art Deco design. Built in the early 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, this statehouse brings beauty without being a financial burden. How wise of the leaders at that time to defy the dome-capped customs and consider practicality instead -- without compromising beauty. Riding on the crest of the Art Deco wave, it is a tribute to that period's many magnificent features, like the 40-foot bronze pillars against shiny black marble walls; elongated smoky glass windows, and tall, bronze elevator doors with carvings of North Dakota emblems. North Dakota's Capitol is not only efficient, it's pure elegance.
Tip: Have lunch at the statehouse cafeteria. The decor is like a 1930s diner. It even has two Art Deco lunch counters with swivel stools.
Check it out . . . The grounds of the statehouse are beautiful with a meandering arboretum trail of 75 species of trees and flowers. The trail, incidentally, leads directly to the back door of the Governor's Residence, an 18-room ranch house made of North Dakota brick.
Tip: Down the road from the current Governor's Residence is the "Former Governor's Mansion," the charming Victorian style home to North Dakota's first families from 1884-1963. Free, self-guided tours are offered. Call the Historical Society at (701) 328-2666 for more information.
Check it out . . . Also on the grounds is a statue of Sakakawea carrying her baby. The statue stands in front of the Heritage Center which has an extensive "touch and feel" exhibit of North Dakota's history.
FORT ABRAHAM LINCOLN STATE PARK, Mandan (701) 663-9571
This area of land, where the Missouri River and the Heart River meet, was quite a popular site. Mandan Indians, which means "People on the Bank," lived here long before the first fur trading post was established in 1780. In 1804 the famous Lewis & Clark expedition camped here and discovered five abandoned earth lodges. And lastly, a fort was built on this shore. This fort was the launching point for Colonel Armstrong Custer and his 7th Calvary as they headed west to meet Sitting Bull at the fateful Battle of Little Bighorn.
Custer House and Calvary Square -- See what fort life was like for both the officers and the enlisted men under the command of Colonel Armstrong Custer from 1873-1876. A reconstruction of the Custer home is open to the public with guided tours from costumed guides. Hosting parties, dances and concerts, quite regularly, Custer and his wife, Libby, tried to make this house a centerpiece of culture for the rough hewn fort where they were stationed. Be careful of the chickens that strut across the walkway, the stairs and the front porch at the entrance.
Tip: Across from the Custer House are the quarters for the enlisted men. Along the walls of this long, narrow, vacant room containing rows of neatly made soldiers' beds are photos of some of the men who served under Custer. Each photo has a brief biography of the man and how he died. Very sad. The stillness of the room is haunting as one goes from bed to bed, looking at the photo and reading the brief bio of the person who slept there.
On-a-Slant Indian Village -- Farther up the road is a reconstruction of the Mandan Indian earth lodges Lewis and Clark may have found when they camped here in 1804. Go inside, sit in the cool darkness and imagine the life of the Mandan Indian in a village of dwellings like these.
Infantry Post -- Up the road farther still is the Infantry Post where you can climb the lookout towers all the way to the top (if you have the stomach for it) and gain a fantastic view of this vast landscape of hills, rivers and prairie grasses blowing in the breeze. We were here as the sun was setting, the park was closing and the wind was picking up. It was exhilarating. Yet, descending from the tower and walking just beyond the post we found an old cemetery on a hill that quieted us. A sadness gripped us as we approached the small graveyard with its simple white crosses standing starkly against a darkening sky. The final rays of sunlight fall on the black inscriptions marking the final day of each life. "Died 1876. Gunshot." Reads one. "Died 1874. Intoxication." Says another. Some are due to illness. Some due to battles. And some are mysterious, like the many that read "Died. Civilian Gunshot." What civilian shot this soldier? And why?
A young French nobleman, the Marquis de Mores, was "weary with civilization" and decided to go into the cattle business out west. He founded a town on the shores of the Little Missouri River in the Dakota Badlands, naming it after his lovely American bride, Medora von Hoffman, the daughter of one of the wealthiest men in New York City. "The crazy Frenchman" was what the local frontiersmen called the 26-year old Marquis when he came to town in 1883 with dreams of building a meatpacking plant on the range, thus improving the quality of beef while cutting the cost. In less than a year, the Marquis accomplished his goal. In addition to his meatpacking plant the town rose to a population of 251, and had a brickyard, several stores, a saloon, a hotel, a newspaper, and even a Catholic church. He also acquired 26,000 acres of land and built a 26-room mansion, "The Chateau de Mores."
DeMores Historic Site, Medora (701) 623-4355
"The Chateau de Mores" sits high up on a hill overlooking the town of Medora. The exterior of the house was built in the simple design of local customs, but the interior was furnished in the high style typical of wealthy Americans of the Victorian era. Nevertheless, to the Marquis and Marquise this was "roughing it." The Dakota territory at that time was becoming a hot hunting spot for easterners and the couple hosted many grand hunting parties for their curious eastern friends. When the Marquis and his wife lived here, this 26-room house was not referred to as a mansion (that would have been laughable), nor as a "Chateau," (the French term normally used for baronial estates of the French countryside), it was more like a summer cottage. The term "Chateau" was coined many years later, long after its inhabitants departed. The mansion still stands today. The new owner, the State Historical Society, allows visitors to tour 25 of the 26 rooms.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora (701) 623-4466
The 70,416-acre Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into North and South Units. The North Unit offers a 14-mile scenic drive with turnouts and interpretive signs along the way to the Oxbow Overlook, a vista of the narrowest gateway in the badlands. The South Unit also has a scenic drive. It's a 36-mile loop road that passes several overlooks: 1) the Scoria Point Overlook with vistas of the fiery red stone of natural brick; 2) the Badlands Overlook with a view of the maze of buttes and canyons; and 3) Boicourt Overlook which offers the best views of the badlands. Throughout the park are trails leading off the scenic drives to give the tourist a closer view of the landscape and its wildlife. Particularly beautiful is the Wind Canyon trail overlooking the Little Missouri River.
Tip: Just outside the park is the Painted Canyon Visitor's Center,which provides a great introduction to the Badlands before heading off to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It's lookout in the rear offers a sweeping preview of what you'll get to see "up close and personal" once inside the park.
Check it out . . . Don't miss the Petrified Forest, one of the third largest in the nation. It can only be reached by foot or by horseback, and is quite difficult to find. A long, windy road through private property leads to the trailhead, marked only by a small brown and white sign bearing the negative image of Teddy Roosevelt. The image looks more like Little Orphan Annie, and it takes a while to realize that it's the trail indicator. To get to the trail, you must climb through a 2' by 3' hole in the fence. But it's well worth the trouble. The site is stunning. The petrified wood is amazing. And the landscape and trail itself is soul enriching.
OUR CAMPSITES FOR THE WEEK:
Hillcrest Acres Campground, Bismarck (701) 225-4334
This campground squeezes RVs in so close you can read your neighbor's crossword puzzle on the table. But the hosts are very kind, the sites are inexpensive, the restrooms are clean and the location is convenient to the Capitol and shopping areas. And some sites, like ours, have a marvelous hilltop view of the area, especially pretty at dawn, dusk and midnight.
Tip: Just down the road from the campground is Buckstop Junction Historic Town, a 20-acre village of 19th and early 20th century buildings, a church, a general store, and a filling station. It's a work-in-process that's been going on for five years. We drove by and stopped in one evening where we met Harold Brady, the 80-year old Head of Restoration. He told us of this all-volunteer effort to collect old buildings, move them to this town and restore them to their original glory. We got a private tour from this energetic octogenarian who dedicates his time on weekends and in the evenings after work. (No, he has not yet retired. Says he keeps telling himself he'll retire in 10 years.) Later this week, Ken stopped by again and met Buckshot Hoffner, the Executive Director who told him of a major fund-raising effort under way to attract members and corporate sponsors. An organization can Adopt-A-Building by covering the expenses for purchasing it, transporting it, and restoring it. When complete, the village will be a wonderful experience of life in the Missouri River Valley. For more information, call (701) 255-4205.
Medora Campground, Medora (701) 623-4435
This gem of a campground is located right on the Little Missouri River among gorgeous limestone bluffs and shady cottonwood trees. The prices are very reasonable and the hosts are friendly, informative and helpful. Conveniently located within walking distance to town, it sits right next to the entrance of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and across the street from the Chateau de Mores Historic Site and the Burning Hills Amphitheater. For convenience, it doesn't get any better than this. But more than convenience, is the soul-lifting beauty of the landscape. For example, our campsite overlooked Buffalo Pass where, while cooking dinner one evening, I saw an Elk on the hill looking down majestically at us campers below.