People had said there is nothing to see in the Dakotas. We checked for ourselves.
They were wrong.
Warning! This is a long blog post. To move swiftly to any one of our ten Dakota destinations click on a link below.
- Llewellyn Johns Recreation Area
- Fort Stevenson State Park
- Lake Metigoshe State Park
- Icelandic State Park
- Grahams Island State Park
- Turtle River State Park
- Fort Ransom State Park
- Beaver Lake State Park
- Swan Creek Recreation Area
- Farm Island Recreation Area
- In Summary
Our first stop was Llewellyn Johns Recreation Area just south of Lemmon, SD. Immediately I made an error in judgement. Seeking to avoid Interstate 90 out of Box Elder we took an alternative route. Thirty seven dirt miles later Shiny was covered with a thin film of dust. Worse, all storage compartments in Shiny and Blue (our tow vehicle) had thicker layers of dust built up. Still worse, the inside of Shiny and Blue had a thin, invisible layer of dust on all surface areas that you could feel with you fingers.
Llewellyn Johns Recreation Area and Shadehill Recreation Area are side by side. Shadehill is larger and busier with more campsites and more people. Our MO is quiet and solitude so we chose Llewellyn Johns, and in fact when we arrived we were the only ones at the campground.
Somewhere between Box Elder and Llewellyn Johns I received an email with house closing documents that needed to be notarized and then sent overnight back to New Hampshire. That was our first order of business and I must say it caused us considerable anxiety. We discovered that we would have to drive 400 miles round trip to find a place that had overnight delivery. It gave us an idea of how remote of an area we were in. We had just left Box Elder with services able to handle all of this right there at the campground so the timing could have been better.
In the end the Lemmon Town Clerk was a very friendly, accommodating notary. When we completed the documents we simply walked across the street to the Post Office and mailed it away with a 2 day delivery promise. The closing was delayed one day but everything worked out in the end.
After our important business in town was complete we explored the town and found some amazing sights. First we noticed these beautiful sculptures by the local artist John Lopez. Then there was the Lemmon Petrified Wood Park.
Local farmers tilled up vast quantities of petrified wood and donated them to the town so the park could be built. Volunteers then built the park. We were told that one farmer decided to profit from the petrified wood and sold his to a recipient in Chicago. That farmer was forever after considered an outcast by the towns people.
Everything in the park except for the cannonball river rock structures were built with petrified wood, including the museum! The cannonball river rocks , those round rocks in the pictures above, are a story onto themselves. They all come from the Cannonball River. There is a geological and a mystic explanation on how they were created. You can read all about them both here.
The Petrified Wood Park Museum was part of the park. It had a little bit of everything, fossils, arrowheads, old farm equipment, antiques, you name it.
I’m always on the lookout for the small mom and pop establishments that sell local goods. Lemmon had a small store called Lemmon Made Butcher Shop. We filled our freezer up with a variety of sausages and steaks that we purchased here. The rib eye steaks were delectable. Heck everything was delectable!
And then there was the Hugh Glass Memorial. I love stuff like this. Everyone knows who Hugh Glass was, right? Well, in case there is someone who doesn’t, Hugh Glass was an American fur trapper born in 1783. Glass was on a fur trapping expedition in 1823 when he was attacked by a grizzly bear near present day Lemmon. The expedition leaders left two men to care for Glass while the rest continued on. The two thought Glass was a goner so they left him for dead. Glass then crawled 190 miles to a fort and recovered. The book and movie The Revenant is based on Hugh Glass. For more detail on this story click here.
Every one of our 10 stops in the Dakotas was different and every stop was beautiful in its own way.
Fort Stevenson State Park
Fort Stevenson State Park was our first stop in North Dakota. It lies among the bluffs on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea (sah-KAH-gah-wee-ah). Lake Sakakawea is the 3rd largest reservoir in the US. It is fed by the Missouri River. The lake is named after Sacagawea, a woman who aided Lewis and Clark on their epic journey to chart this part of the country. The park itself is named after a 1800’s fort that served as a supply depot for other military posts in the Dakota territory.
I’m going to stop here and tell a story about the picture of the beach above. Susan wanted to peruse the beach so I kept on walking along the trail which climbed a small hill where I snapped the picture. The trail continued on and then entered a patch of woods. The mosquitoes started to get thick. Luckily I had applied a liberal amount of Bens repellant on me before we started the hike. The bugs got worse and worse until the air around me was black with them. I hurried along until I came to a small pond with a sign that said “Septic Lagoon”. Standing there with a halo of mosquitoes, I wondered how many diseases these little blood suckers carried? I texted Susan so she could turn around and avoid these nasty creatures.
Lake Sakakawea is known as the “Walleye Capital” of North Dakota. Other sought after fish are Northern Pike and Chinook Salmon. Towards the end of our Dakota summer we would spend more time along the Missouri River.
We can attest to the fact that the park attracted a slew of fisherman looking for a good time.
We would soon find out that pull through campsites are popular in the Dakotas. This campsite configuration was not our favorite as the electric pedestal was sometimes on the opposite side of Shiny’s hookup and we needed our 30 amp extension cord to reach it. A few times the sites were very unlevel. Shiny often was very close to the road. Imagine sleeping and having a vehicle drive by 10 feet from your bed. We were in site 109.
There were lots and lots of trails here and Susan took some magnificent pictures!
Lake Metigoshe State Park
We had a wonderful time at Lake Metigoshe State Park. We arrived just before the “Halloween In July” weekend. All the RV campsites were reserved by families with young children for this weekend. We stayed in the primitive campground, meaning no water or electric hookups. Shiny is well prepared for that.
There were two contests that the kids could participate in. One was to get the most selfies with the Halloween decor that was scattered around the park. As you can see in the pictures above two were close to Shiny. For three days people would walk by our campsite and take selfies right in front of us. We enjoyed watching all the young families. It brought back fond memories of when Brooke and Sam were little.
The other contest was for the best Halloween decorated campsite. Susan and I walked around and we can say it would have been tough to pick a winner. These campers were very serious. I wish we had taken a few pictures, but…….
Local attraction and the area’s local mascot, Tommy the Turtle, is the world’s largest snowmobile-riding turtle. Sitting on his snowmobile, he is over 26 feet tall. I always thought turtles hibernated in the winter!
We were introduced to prairie potholes here. Do you know what a prairie pothole is? Glaciers are responsible and there is a great explanation on Wikipedia here. Honestly, how do the farmers work around these things? All pictures in the gallery below gleaned from the Internet.
Another event that happened here is that I had a partial loss of my hearing. I thought I had an ear infection. The walk-in clinic in Bottineau cleared things up for me, literally. It turned out to be just an embarrassing buildup of ear wax. At the same time, a doctor worked on one ear and a nurse on the other. I must have a little something between my ears because they did not spray each other with water. When they were finished I could hear Susan again! 😉
A few pictures of the park.
And finally, at the suggestion of one of the park rangers, we visited the International Peace Garden. A most magnificent place.
Half of the garden sits in Canada and half of it sits in the US. Here I am with one foot in the US and one foot in Canada. We had a picnic lunch in Canada.
We were there during the pandemic. If a Canadian wanted to visit the garden they would then have to quarantine for 14 days. Needless to say there were fewer visitors then usual while we were there. In fact I’m quite sure there were more workers tending the gardens then visitors!
On to our next stop!
Icelandic State Park
We had a very quiet, shady campsite here at Icelandic State Park. It was also the most unlevel and tight spot we’ve ever tried to park Shiny In. Thanks to Susan’s superior guidance skills we got-er-done. But look how close we were to those trees!
Icelandic State Park is located on the shores of Lake Renwick and is named after Iceland immigrants. Wait, Iceland immigrants? I never knew. Immigrants from twenty two European nations settled in northeastern North Dakota after the territory was opened up for homesteading in 1863.
The Icelanders settled here in this area. Among them were the Gunlogsons’. The family donated 200 acres to the state along the Tongue River in 1963 and it is now called the Gunlogson State Nature Preserve. The preserve abuts Icelandic State Park. There are walking trails throughout the preserve.
Various Indian Nations including the Assiniboine, Chippewa, Cree, and the Sioux migrated across the region from 1600 to 1780. Later, the primary settlers were the Metis, descendants of French and Scottish fur traders and Native Americans. The Metis used ox carts to transport their furs to the trading posts. There are remnants of these trails all over North Dakota and some are even in Icelandic State Park. Try as we might, however, we never found them. You can read more about these ox carts and the trails here.
We thought this was interesting. These erratic boulders are scattered around this area. They are rocks not native to the area that are deposited by a glacier.
Did you all know that my wife Susan O’Shaughnessy Warren is a donut connoisseur? Even though she only eats about two donuts a year, whenever we drive past a Mom and Pop donut shop, she always says, ‘Mmmm Donuts’ in a Homer Simpson voice. Just down the road from the park entrance she found the C-Store which sells the mother of all donuts on Wednesdays only. It was one of the best donuts of her life. You must get there early to get one. She wanted to make sure I mentioned this to her fans.
Grahams Island State Park
We will always remember Grahams Island State Park as having the best camp site on our trek through the Dakotas. It was secluded, quiet, and huge! You could fit 4 Shinys in that spot. The site backed right up against a big hay field. It was private enough that Shiny and Blue got a bath here.
The park lies on the shores of Devils Lake which is the largest natural body of water in North Dakota. The lake is known as “The Perch Capital Of The World”. Other sought after species in the lake are walleye, northern pike, and white bass. The park caters to fisherman and hosts many national and regional fishing tournaments. There is a large bait shop, boat ramps, and fish cleaning stations on premises. There were also lots of trails here. We saw our first Yellow Warbler!
Susan noticed the Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve on a map. We later learned that the name had been changed in late 2019 to White Horse Hill National Game Preserve at the request of the local Dakota Spirit Lake Tribal Council.
The preserve was a beautiful area and well worth the short drive to get to it. There were trails through out the park and below is some of what we found there. The prairie dog town was fun to watch.
Turtle River State Park
We’ve started heading south now and the next stop is Turtle River State Park. The park is located in Avilla, ND just west of Grand Forks on Route 2. It was built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Turtle River, stocked with rainbow trout, meanders through the park. There are miles and miles of trails and it truly is a beautiful place. Being that it is so close to Grand Forks it is also a busy place, especially on weekends. Lots of families with young children riding their bikes, many with training wheels.
The camp hosts were from New Hampshire. They chose this park to host in because there son is attending college at the University of North Dakota in nearby Grand Forks. We confused them a little bit by driving in with NH license plates and then, after a couple days, changing to South Dakota plates.
We so hated to remove our beloved NH plates but as Susan explained in her Box Elder post, it had to be done. I look like I’m in a police lineup I know.
We did a lot of hiking here despite quite a bit of rain. Susan also finished up one of her knitting projects. I have included a picture of that at her request. 🙂
Fort Ransom State Park
Fort Ransom State Park gets its name from an old 1860 military fort and straddles the Sheyenne River. One of the first things we noticed very close to our camp site was a working pay telephone. That is something you don’t see much anymore.
The next thing we discovered was a covered wagon. My my I never realized the old homesteaders had it so nice what with air conditioning in their wagons. 😀
Seriously though, the park rents this percheron wagon out for a nightly fee. The wagon has a king bed, and a set of twin bunk beds, refrigerator, microwave, and four barstools around a wagon wheel table. There was a pit toilet close by and showers not far away.
Most people when they think of North Dakota would not think of skiing. But look what we found in the small town of Fort Ransom!
We can’t remember the camp hosts names. They were both truckers. He was still working while she was tending the camp host job. Their home was not too far away and when either one of them went in to check on the house they brought back bags of ripe tomatoes. They were very generous with them. They also gave us some green beans.
We cooked up some bacon I bought from a local butcher and proceeded to make my favorite sandwich. The secret to a good BLT is a thick slice of juicy home grown tomato. What a delight!
One chore that needs to be done is laundry. We drove 30 minutes to the nearest laundry to find only 3 washers and two dryers working. We were the only one there so we got the deed done but geez.
Just outside the park was Pyramid Hill. Geologist believe the hill was formed by glaciers. Many local residents believe it is man made. The debate goes on. Native Americans consider the hill to be a ‘wakan’ or powerful place. The Viking statue was erected atop the hill in 1972 to honor the region’s Norwegian heritage. Susan wishes that they had just used a nearby hill and not one that was sacred to the indigenous people.
Beaver Lake State Park
You will find fields of sunflowers in North Dakota almost everywhere. North Dakota leads the nation in sunflower production and its uses include birdfeed, confectionary seeds, sun butter and sunflower oil. Farmers rotate their crops every year so the flowers might be in a different spot from year to year. During our travels through the Dakotas we passed sunflower fields frequently but the 11 mile stretch of dirt road leading into Beaver Lake State Park from Wishek was astonishing!
Bright yellow flowers sitting on thick stalks all pointing east for as far as you can see. When the plant is in the bud stage, it tracks the movement of the sun. Once the flower opens, it just faces east. No one knows why.
Campsites at Beaver Lake Campground are all set up around an oval loop that was originally a half-mile horse racing track. Except for a playground at one end, the infield was wide open and so people would recreate there with bocce ball, football, baseball, frisbee, and other activities.
We witnessed a Jenga game that used some pretty big blocks.
For some reason the whole park, except for us, was empty of people on Saturday night. We never figured out where everyone went. Spooky as it was a long drive to go anywhere.
As with most all of the state parks in the Dakotas there were some nice walking trails around the lake. The monarch butterflies congregated here at this oasis. Their favorite tree to munch on were the lilacs but you could see them on almost every tree.
We ran out of bread and it was a long way to a grocery store so Susan tried her hand at making pita bread. The bread came out surprising well!
I have an older brother who makes wooden signs as a hobby. He made us one before and I am ashamed to say it was lost. I mentioned that fact to him one day in a text and also mentioned that since we had to switch license plates to South Dakota there was no way for people to know we were Granite Staters. Our NH license plates were a conversation starter. We picked up our mail in Wishek and look what was waiting for us!
This was our last stop in North Dakota. For our next adventure we cross the border into South Dakota and an even more remote area. We desperately needed a restock of fuel and groceries. There is only one town, Linton, between the two. It turned out to have fuel and a great grocery store which included a butcher shop. We stocked up!
As we headed south, Susan and I talked about our experiences over the last two months. We reminisced about the beautiful places and friendly people of North Dakota. Suddenly we crossed the state border into South Dakota and we both suffered from a feeling of melancholy. What a wonderful summer. We didn’t know it yet but the best was yet to come.
Swan Creek Recreation Area
We thought Beaver Lake was remote. It was a 62 mile round trip to get to any type of store from Swan Creek Recreation Area. But my oh my what a beautiful place. The park rests on a cove among rolling prairie hills just off of the Missouri River. As we pulled into the campground we couldn’t believe our good fortune. One of the most beautiful camping spots ever and all to ourselves. Gorgeous!
We had an interesting experience right off. We went to bed that first night all alone in the campground. We woke up with a tent set up two sites down. No vehicle. We wondered how they got there. Later we learned that he was a kayaker on a long hiking/kayaking trek with his canine companion, Oreo. He called himself Scarecrow which I guess was his trail name. He is a retired Navy veteran. He was on a 10 year peregrination to traverse all the National Scenic Trails in the US. He was working on the Lewis & Clark trail at present and had started this journey in May of 2019.
He had ended up here at Swan Creek because the wind had picked up so much he was getting swamped. Actually a pretty amazing story don’t you think?
Speaking of wind, after a few days, someone pulled in and set up camp across the way from us. They also had a boat on a trailer. You can just see it in this picture.
My weather app warned me that a strong wind would blow that night so I had battened down everything in good shape. Chairs, awnings, grill, table all put away. And it’s a good thing because the wind blew as hard as I’ve ever experienced. I was not worried about Shiny but I couldn’t help but think that the boat and trailer might lift off the ground and blow into us. Yes the wind was blowing that hard. Even the people with the boat, who were native North Dakotans, said that it was a huge wind.
It’s time now for me to brag about the 3 lb, mouth watering cowboy steak I bought in Linton at the butcher shop for $10. We got three meals and a couple breakfasts out of this behemoth. It barely fit on my grille!
Thanks to that store in Linton we were well stocked up with groceries, or so we thought. Towards the end of our 10 day stay here Susan ran out of milk for her coffee. We decided to see some of the countryside and go find some milk in Hoven, SD.
So on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend we drove 31 miles out to Hoven only to discover a sign on the grocery store door saying “closed on Saturdays until further notice”. Oh well, at least it was a nice drive. Luckily Susan had a can of evaporated milk that she used. Phew!
We saw lots of birds and other wildlife here. Deer, antelope, heron, martins, meadow larks, eagles, seagulls and lots of fish jumping completely out of the water. Unfortunately we could not get pictures of them all. But here are some.
The campground filled up for the holiday weekend and they all came prepared. You had to as this little piece of paradise was very remote.
Some of our neighbors were musically inclined and so we had a little session on Saturday night. I played my fiddle and Sylvia sang and danced.
With rain in the forecast the people standing in the background left a day early and gave us enough leftover food to feed us for a week!
By far Swan Creek was our most favorite stop in the Dakotas. We both love solitude and for 7 of the 10 days we were here we had that. The other 3 days were lots of fun too.
Farm Island Recreation Area
The last stop on our summer of Dakota fun is Farm Island Recreation Area just on the outskirts of Pierre, the capital of South Dakota. Pierre is the second smallest capital city in the US with Montpelier, Vermont being the smallest. Before we get too far along we have to explain that Pierre is pronounced – PEE-ER. Almost, but not quite, 2 syllables. One local told us “like a well hydrated Frenchman”.
Farm Island wasn’t as remote as our previous stops but Blue developed a problem with the trailer lights and so we needed a GM dealership. The GM dealer in Pierre got us in and fixed the problem which turned out to be a bad light module. We were very happy that the fix was simple because not having directional signals on Shiny was dangerous and scary.
After we settled in we walked out to the trails on Farm Island. We came across a South Dakota game warden tagging birds. She took the time to show us a warbler she had just caught in the nets. The bird looked so fragile but the game warden was an expert. No birds were harmed. What an interesting occupation she had.
We found a couple very cool mom and pop stores in Pierre. One was Rilling Produce. They sold all locally grown produce. We loaded up on tomatoes, cabbage, beats, cucumbers, melon, and other produce. They also sold frozen meat from a local farmer. Susan noticed a product that was called cottage bacon. It is bacon made from pork shoulder instead of pork belly. It is much leaner then regular bacon. We bought a package and had BLTs the next day. The bacon was some of the best I’ve ever had. We went back for more.
The other neat store was a small, very inconspicuous grocery store called Korner Grocery. We actually found it by accident. We just needed a dozen eggs and so we stopped here instead of going into town to the big store. Sue came out with the eggs and some craft root beer for Dan, our son-in-law. She said “you have to go in there”. I did and Wow! It was actually a butcher shop on steroids. All sorts of meats of course, but then homemade soups, sandwiches, salads, deserts, spices, and craft sodas to name a few of the items they sold. I left with $80 worth of supplies. Buffalo burgers, prime rib burgers, sausages, 2 deluxe rib eye steaks and some of their home made spices. I put a strain on Susan’s packing skills as she had to get most all of that in Shiny’s already full freezer. 😳
Some of the campsites here at Farm Island were close enough to Hipple Lake that people could fish right from their site. It was called a lake but it was actually a small cove off of the Missouri River.
Lots of wildlife here at Farm Island. We even had a snow goose that hung out with us.
Susan walked out to the end of Farm Island and captured these pictures of the Missouri River. Beautiful landscape isn’t it?
The Lewis & Clark Expedition traveled through here. There is an excellent web site that details the Lewis & Clark journey that you can access here.
Some interesting facts:
- They traveled 8000 miles over a period of 2 years, 4 months, 10 days
- Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory, 820,000 square miles, for $15 million
- While hunting in present day North Dakota, Lewis was accidentally shot (in the behind) by Pierre Cruzatte, a nearsighted member of the crew
- Each man ate about 9 pounds of meat per day
- Lewis had a dog named Seaman which it is believed made the entire journey
As Susan and I reminisce about our wonderful summer we have come to the conclusion that we are two very lucky people. To be able to travel like this really is a dream come true. We do not regret for an instant our scary decision to sell our home of 37 years and get rid of almost all of our possessions. When you tow your home behind you, you can go pretty much where ever you want. People have asked us if we miss New Hampshire. Yes of course we do, and we do plan to settle back down in New Hampshire to live out our final days. But we have much more traveling we want to do first. Our advice to anyone wanting to do what we are doing is this, “Ya gotta do it while you can! ” And, actually our cost of living is far less now than when we lived in our house.
This is the end of our Dakota story. Our trek through the Dakotas mapped out looks like.
OK, so it’s not quite the end. We want to add that by the middle of the summer we both had an inkling that Dan, Brooke, and Connor might be moving to South Carolina as Dan had applied for a job there. When that was confirmed we cut our Dakota sojourn short by moving the Custer State Park reservation, with the Running Of The Buffalo, to next year. We could now travel to South Carolina to help them get settled into their new home. We took ten days to drive 1700 miles with 3 days at David Crockett State Park in Tennessee (number 7 on the map below). We had some adventures on that trip let me tell you. But that story is for another day.
Truth be told we both desperately needed a Connor fix. Which we got, but that too is a story for another day.