When people think about our National Parks and scenic public lands, most picture rolling meadows and shimmering lakes. However, these stunning views take a whole new turn when the temperatures drop. Meadows are coated in pure white snow while lakes and waterfalls become frozen in time. This change in the seasons creates a whole new vista and unlocks many new possibilities for outdoor recreation.
If you are an outdoor enthusiast looking for ways to explore some of the upper Midwest’s public lands in winter, there are plenty of options in this itinerary. If you’re less experienced in the outdoors, especially in winter, don’t worry. There are amazing experiences that allow you to ease into these pursuits.
Traveling in this part of the country during the winter can present challenges with changing weather conditions, including heavy snowfalls and below-freezing temperatures. This time of year, all travelers should follow the Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared.” This isn’t difficult but does require a little extra effort to ensure that your vehicle is able to manage the road conditions and that you have appropriate outdoor clothing.
Our three-day itinerary takes you through three of North Dakota’s landmark parks and public lands. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Cross Ranch State Park and Lake Sakakawea are stunning locations with ample opportunities for experiencing the richness of winter in North Dakota.
DAY 1 – THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK
Let’s begin our Mid-America road trip in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This sprawling area covers a massive 70,000 acres of Badland ecosystems, scenic prairies and iconic Midwest plains. The views have barely changed since Roosevelt viewed them well over a hundred years ago. Before you head out, check the current weather conditions and details about park access so you can plan accordingly.
The winter landscapes may be covered in snow, but the grandeur and majesty remain. In fact, they take on a whole new personality. One of the best ways to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park is by strapping on a pair of snowshoes. Snowshoeing is a slow-paced winter sport that gives you access to remote parts of nature. Rather than charging down steep mountainsides on skis, snowshoeing allows you to take a closer look at wildlife, snap incredible photos and get some exercise in the crisp winter air. It is also accessible to most people as it doesn’t require the expertise or expense of cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park gets about 30 inches of snow every winter, making it the ideal spot for all sorts of winter sports, especially snowshoeing. You can roam the area on snowshoes from October until April, so you have a large window of opportunity to pick the best days and trails. There are no designated trails in the park. This means you have free reign to explore, but you should be prepared and not venture beyond your ability and fitness level.
The lack of people visiting during the winter creates a tranquil experience and connects you to nature. It also increases the likelihood of seeing local wildlife, such as large grazing animals, including bison, wild horses, elk, white-tail and mule deer and pronghorn.
We recommend bringing your own snowshoes or picking up a pair from a local sporting goods store. Runnings and Dunham’s are good options and are also located in Dickinson, North Dakota—our recommended place to stay.
Where to Stay & Eat Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Dickinson is located on the park’s western edge, about 30 miles from the park’s South entrance. Choose from a variety of hotel chains that we know and are familiar with, including La Quinta Inn & Suites, Best Western, WoodSpring Suites and Red Roof Inn. If you’re looking for a more local experience, check in at the family-run Cowboy Inn, located about 17 miles from the park’s South entrance.
Once you’ve found a place to stay, head to dinner at the oldest fine dining establishment in town. BrickHouse Grille serves fresh seasonal cuisine and classic cocktails in one of Dickinson’s historic buildings.
DAY 2 – CROSS RANCH STATE PARK
Heading east, about an hour and forty-five minutes from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, brings you to Cross Ranch State Park. As you approach the park, you would be forgiven for thinking you are traveling back in time, as the area is steeped in history. You will see the landscape as the Native Americans did hundreds of years ago.
Cross Ranch State Park is home to a 5,000-acre nature preserve with mixed-grass prairie, river bottom forests, and wood draws. All this land is accessible via the park’s hiking trails during the spring, summer and autumn. But during the winter, many of these trails become part of the network of groomed cross-country ski and snowshoe trails.
Cross-country skiing is very popular in Cross Ranch State Park and is another excellent way of seeing the local area. It is a little more involved than snowshoeing but very rewarding once you have mastered the basics. If you time your visit for February, you can enjoy WinterFest.
WinterFest is an annual festival inviting the public to take cross-country skiing or snowshoeing lessons. There are also many ways to experience these winter sports in groups and with experts. In addition to this, you can take part in snowman and craft projects, ride a horse-drawn sleigh or wagon and warm up with free chili, soup or hot beverages.
Cross-Country Skiing & Snowshoeing
If your visit doesn’t coincide with WinterFest, you can explore the area on cross-country skis on your own. Rent your skis at the park’s visitor center before heading along the groomed trail under the stately cottonwood trees at the north end of the park.
Alternatively, you can take the Ma-ak-oti “Old Village” Trail on snowshoes. This four-mile snowshoe walk consists of an upper and lower loop at the park’s south end. You can rent your snowshoes at the visitor center.
The park has limited on-site lodging, but its cabins and yurts offer excellent amenities and plenty of charm. These are perfect places to cozy up next to a roaring fire after a day exploring the park.
DAY 3 – LAKE SAKAKAWEA STATE PARK
Heading about an hour north of Cross Ranch State Park lies Lake Sakakawea State Park, the third largest man-made reservoir in the U.S. This stunning lake is known for its superb views, camping and sailing during the summer. However, its abundance of fish draws anglers to try their luck in the 36,000 acres of water year-round.
You can expect to catch 15- to 20-inch walleye and take advantage of the exceptional pike fishing. Anglers commonly catch pike weighing over 15 pounds. These large, healthy, beautiful fish make Lake Sakakawea ideal for darkhouse spearfishing.
Darkhouse spearfishing is a type of ice fishing where anglers sit in a fish house positioned on a frozen lake, which is completely dark. They cut a hole in the ice and suspend artificial fish decoys in the lake’s clear water. This attracts fish to the ice hole, allowing you to spear them rather than catch them with a fishing rod.
If you are new to this type of fishing, it is a unique experience, as the ice-fishing hole below you provides a great way to see all the activity beneath the ice. The great thing about darkhouse spearfishing is that anyone can enjoy the suspense and drama that unfolds in the lake’s depths. Darkhouse spearfishing requires patience, determination and lightning reflexes to be successful. It is also extremely rewarding while allowing you to enjoy nature.
A top tip for darkhouse spearfishing is to keep the spearhead in the water at all times and wait for the fish to face away from you before you throw the spear. You should also try to hit the fish in the back of the head. If you do this, the fish is less likely to see you move, increasing your odds of being successful.
You don’t have to spend all your time on the ice during a visit to Lake Sakakawea State Park. There are several groomed trails that are still accessible in your regular hiking boots, while others require cross-country skis or snowshoes.
The park is also where the North Country National Scenic Trail starts. This trail stretches 4,600 miles through eight states, from Lake Sakakawea State Park to Vermont.
The views from the trails around the park are spectacular, especially when you can look over the ice-covered lake. Be sure to wrap up warm if you head out! You can rent cross-country ski equipment and snowshoes at the park if you don’t have your own.
Where to Eat & Stay Near Lake Sakakawea State Park
Accommodations near the park are somewhat limited, but in the nearby town of Beulah is the AmericInn and Cobblestone Hotel and Suites, where you can get a good night’s rest before heading back home. For a bite to eat, check out Bee’s Cafe for a variety of dishes that will warm you up, including hot soups, hearty burgers and tacos.