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North Dakota State Parks: Enriching the State’s Outdoors Experience

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor 3/19/2021

Photos courtesy​ of North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department

North Dakota State Parks were established more than 100 years ago, and since then, have been providing outdoor recreation for the state’s residents and visitors, as well as conserving important natural areas for future generations. In the last five decades, the number of North Dakota state parks has nearly doubled, and their popularity has increased as parks have upgraded infrastructure, technology and recreational offerings.

These 13 state parks provide many benefits for their users and continue to be a draw to the state for individuals and families near and far. “At its core, the use of state parks hasn’t changed in the last 50 years. People come, as they always have, to enjoy the great outdoors,” says Andrea Travnicek, director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department (NDPRD). “We take pride in enriching their experiences and connecting people to nature.”

State Parks History

President Theodore Roosevelt served as a catalyst for the North Dakota state parks in 1907, when he signed the deed to Fort Abraham Lincoln, near Mandan, over to the state. In 1908, the land was established as Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park under the management of the State Historical Society of North Dakota and officially became the first state park in North Dakota.

The North Dakota Historical Society managed the state parks for 58 years before the NDPRD was established in 1965. When the state decided to split the state parks and historical society, the properties with the most recreational potential were moved to the NDPRD.

Upgrading Infrastructure

In the last 50 years, Travnicek says six state parks were added to the NDPRD, and the state’s nature preserve program and state recreation areas were also established. “In 1989, Cross Ranch State Park was established. In 2019, it celebrated its 30th birthday. While it has been just over 30 years since a state park has been established, the agency has established two state recreation areas, the Pembina Gorge and Turtle Mountain State Recreation Areas in 2012 and 2018,” she notes.

Upgrading services in the state parks has also been a focus of the NDPRD in recent decades. “The agency has continued to improve on state park infrastructure, including services to campsites, and has expanded and upgraded comfort stations with modern amenities and facilities with improved accessibility,” says Travnicek.

Larry Hagen, park manager at Turtle River State Park and state parks employee since 1978, says infrastructure upgrades have helped to improve visitors’ experiences and make facilities more accessible to all users. “The use of the parks now is more intense,” he notes. “What used to be families with a small, pull-behind camper are now families with huge campers with all the bells and whistles, and we have amenities to accommodate that now.”

Hagen says upgraded water and power at state park’s campgrounds provide these amenities at each site, instead of sporadically throughout the parks. “Many of the parks, when I first started, had four to eight hydrants for 20 campsites, and there were hoses everywhere,” he recalls. “Now there is one at each site in most parks.” 

In the last five years, the NDPRD has also moved to an online reservation system, providing customers with an easier means to book campsites. Wi-Fi services have been added at all entrance stations to allow customers to book a campsite or pay entry fees, even if the entrance station is not staffed. “State parks have also added and upgraded overnight facilities to make them year-round destinations,” says Travnicek.

Technology upgrades are one of the most significant changes during his time working at the state parks, notes Hagen. “We now use computer technology for reports, revenue collecting, trainings, record keeping, and permitting,” he says. “We used to work out of a tackle box to sell permits and now it is done with a credit card transaction and a copy of the permit is emailed to the individual.”

Many parks have also moved away from an entrance booth and now have visitor centers to better engage and interact with visitors. “In addition to infrastructure changes, the agency has also built key partnerships with other agencies including the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and North Dakota Forest Service to expand services including trails and fishing access,” says Travnicek.

New recreational opportunities and recreational equipment to promote year-round activity have also grown the use of the state parks. “State parks have expanded programming statewide to encourage use of multiple state parks and increase awareness of diverse history and recreational opportunities across North Dakota,” says Travnicek. “They have also expanded the ways visitors can experience programs, from self-guided brochures to digital programming opportunities.”

The use of the state park trails systems has also increased significantly, notes Hagen. “What used to be the occasional hiker, biker or skier using the trails within a park is now us grooming miles and miles of trails for multi-use and accessibility.” 

Conservation

The NDPRD plays a large role in conservation in the state, which includes the state parks and nature preserves. In 1975, the state legislature passed the Nature Preserve Act, requiring the department to set aside threatened natural areas and nature preserves for present and future generations.

In 1980, the Gunlogson Arboretum became North Dakota’s first dedicated State Nature Preserve, and today, the Gunlogson Nature Preserve is located in Icelandic State Park. Additional nature preserves include Cross Ranch, adjacent to Cross Ranch State Park; Head of the Mountain, near Fort Ransom State Park; H.R. Morgan, in far southeast North Dakota; and Sentinel Butte, near Sully Creek State Park. “The agency also strives to be a good neighbor and steward when it comes to controlling noxious weeds and other invasive species, restoring native prairies, removing hazardous trees, and planting trees and shrubs across our managed properties,” says Travnicek.

Interpretive programs have also become important to sharing the state park’s conservation message, says Hagen. “We now have year-round, dedicated employees that provide programs in the parks as well as at schools and other facilities,” he notes. “We are out there sharing our conservation message in the parks and in the community.”

Endless Possibilities

Each North Dakota state park offers unique natural landscapes, diverse habitats and species, historical aspects, and a variety of recreational opportunities. “The state’s diverse landscape offers unlimited possibilities to experience the outdoors, from the rugged Badlands in the west to the forested hills in the north to the tallgrass prairies in the east,” says Travnicek. “Distinct seasons provide a variety of outdoor experiences for those who enjoy the summer sun and the winter snow.”

Visitors can also experience the state’s unique history and learn about the lives of Native Americans, trappers, traders, explorers, homesteaders, and ranchers while visiting the state parks. “North Dakota’s state parks include cultural historic sites including reconstructed earth lodges, areas visited by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, military forts, and ethnic settlements,” says Travnicek. “Many of the historical state park structures built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) still exist today. The state’s first National Recreation Trail, the Old Oak Trail at Lake Metigoshe State Park, was built by the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) in 1974.”

The Incredible Outdoors

North Dakota is known for its spectacular outdoors and recreational experience, says Travnicek. “It’s incredible to be part of something that has such an impact on visitors and future generations. Whether it is someone’s first visit or 100th visit, we are honored to provide an opportunity for people to make memories that will last a lifetime.”

Hagen echoes this sentiment. “When you have been in this career as long as I have, if you are doing it right, you are seeing generations down the line visiting you. You may not see the benefit right away, but when you start seeing generations of the same family returning to the parks, we are doing something right. The parks allow people to get out and get away and have a sense of freedom in nature.”

“People are often surprised and impressed by the services we provide at the state parks,” he continues. “More people have been coming to the parks to discover, or re-discover, just how great of a benefit they are to our state.” 

Travnicek notes the state parks have become part of the larger community across the state by creating a sense of place, increasing social connections and offering safe and accessible spaces for citizens to connect with nature. “The state’s outdoor recreation infrastructure is vital to ensure citizens and visitors have continued access to activities that improve North Dakota’s quality of life, the health and well-being of its citizens and the conservation of its land, as well as grow the state’s economy,” she says. “The North Dakota State Parks have been around for 100 years and are as popular as they have ever been. It is important the agency focus on maintaining these significant state assets, while also providing our customers the services they want.”

For more information on the North Dakota State Parks visit www.parkrec.nd.gov.

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