It was my first time at Cross Ranch State Park, and I was basically getting paid to pay attention. I was on assignment for a magazine, tasked with the seriously enjoyable job of slowing down and using my senses to observe nature, recording my thoughts and offering suggestions for how to unplug from our busy lives and really see the world around us.
So basically, I was getting paid to do what I already do. I’m already the girl that lays down on the trail to photograph milkweed pods and happily watches butterflies, but in my current line of work, this counts as a skill set and an asset instead of dreamy distraction. (And I can write the trip off on my taxes — Score. This is the kind of adulting I can handle.)
Cross Ranch State Park, a wild stretch of the Missouri River north of Mandan, North Dakota, has been on my must-see list for years, ever since I began to understand what an important role the Missouri has played in regional history. People often talk about how Lewis and Clark traveled along the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States, with the Corps of Discovery in 1804-1806. It was an epic journey, to be sure. But I’ve always been fascinated by the people they met along the way, especially the people of the Missouri River in what’s now North Dakota.
When Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea just a few miles from Cross Ranch State Park, she was living in a riverfront network of villages that had a larger population than St. Louis did at the time. I like to imagine these tired, sweaty and probably bored and conversation-starved men stepping off of their boat and walking into the busy Mandan and Hidatsa villages, where the women and girls tended on the river banks, children ran and played between the earth lodges (ingenious structures that stay warm and cozy in the winter and cool in the summer) and the men of the community negotiated with traders from all over the region.
They chose a beautiful part of the world for their home. There are cool, quiet forests, prairie grasslands and of course, the Missouri. Nicknamed “The Big Muddy,” it is a gorgeous, glittering thing along this stretch..
I stood along the Missouri at dusk, marveling at this incredible light. I was there with my friend Jo, who has become my unofficial hiking and State Parks buddy. We went hiking in Maplewood State Park in Minnesota earlier this summer, after realizing that hiking showed up at the top of both of our “Best Summer Lists.”
Char, the lovely and helpful Cross Ranch Park Ranger, kindly arranged lodging for us, and we found ourselves happily installed in the Art Link Cabin, which is named for the North Dakota governor who was passionate about this stretch of land. It was a much more luxurious campaign experience than we’d originally planned on.
The Art Link Cabin had room for six, a wood burning stove, an outdoor pump and indoor sink for washing up, a comfortable living room with a sofa and chairs and even a sweet little library containing books about North Dakota. (Shameless self-promotion alert — I donated a copy of my own book, North Dakota Beer: A Heady History” to round out the collection.)
We were within a few steps of the vault toilet and close to the Visitor Center for showers. There was also a large dining room table for meals, although we always ate our meals outdoors, either on the deck or around the campfire. (Jo is the campfire cook and the designated fire maker, while I was the pre-trip baker, lunch prep cook and beer provider, roles that suit both of us just fine.)
Since Jo wanted to cook and read, I set off for a long hike on a hot Saturday afternoon. Since rain was on the horizon, I limited myself to 6.6 miles, which covered the entire Cottonwood Trail and the popular Matah Trail. (I beat the first sprinkles of rain by about 30 minutes.)
The Matah (“River”) Trail runs around the campground and by the park’s cabins, yurts and tipi. A 1.4-mile loop contains some of the park’s prettiest points of interest, including a cottonwood that was here when Lewis and Clark sailed by and benches to observe the Missouri River, so it tends to be a bit busier than the other trails. I saw a handful of mountain bikers, a pair of small boys gleefully running back to their camp with armfuls of firewood from the campground hosts and several fishermen quietly casting into the river.
The more secluded Cottonwood Trail, which runs through the towering cottonwoods of a wildlife refuge, was quieter. I was genuinely surprised the first time a cyclist whizzed by my shoulder, her approach muffled by the thick carpet of grass and the stillness of the forest. I hadn’t heard her coming. I passed only two other people on the trail, hikers like myself, but saw dozens of butterflies and a regal whitetail deer, which bounded off into the trees as I approached.
I tried geocaching — where you use your GPS coordinates to locate little hidden treasures — for the first time on the Ma-ak-oti (“Old Village”) Trail: (named, of course, for the settlements that used to line this bank of the Missouri River). It was an utter and spectacular failure.
This was not at all helped by the fact that the thick bank of clouds made it impossible for the GPS Unit (available for rent at the Cross Ranch State Park Visitor Center) to get a satellite signal. The intrepid Hammer brothers from Mandan (ages 12 and 13, respectively) took pity on me and took me back to the spot where the treasure was hidden. I laughed as I realized I was in the right spot after all — I just didn’t look throughly enough, which seemed like the perfect lesson for the assignment I was working on.
I still didn’t really get geocaching at first, to be honest. It seemed like a way to interrupt a perfectly good hike, so I downloaded the geocaching app on my a few days later, when my nephew was visiting for STEM camp. He has the inquisitive mind of a scientist already and I figured if anyone could help me figure out why people were into geocaching, it would be him.
Well, it turned out that my issue was largely technological. The app made a lot more sense to me and within minutes the three of us (my son, my nephew and myself) were out finding little trinkets and tokens hidden in my own neighborhood. I gained a new appreciation for my own environment by trying something on vacation, which is something that happens to me often, but not normally in such an obvious and specific way. That seemed appropriate for my assignment as well, com to think of it.
I also gained a new appreciation for silence at Cross Ranch State Park. Traveling with introverted friends is a wonderful thing for a chatty travel writer like me. My default setting is “go” and my work demands a lot of interviews, appointments and research, which can make it hard to block out time for reflection and rest. More reflective friends help nudge me in the right direction.
What I like best about camping (or glamping in our case, since I’m not even going to pretend that drinking fresh coffee on the porch after a hot shower is roughing it!) is slowing down, listening to what your body needs and returning to the natural rhythms of nature. When it got too sunny to sleep, we got out of bed. When we needed a nap, we took a one. When we wanted to walk, we just took off. When we wanted to rest, we pulled up a chair around the campfire and happily got lost in a book, a journal or our own thoughts.
And when a few drops of rain turned into a downpour, we curled up inside. There’s something so soothing cracking open a beer and settling in with a new book as the rain drums down on the roof. I can’t wait to come back. No matter what happens with the weather, this is a place that has encouraged me to be still and connect with the landscape, just like it has for thousands of people for so many generations.
What about you?
What do you love about Cross Ranch State Park?
What’s your favorite State or Provincial Park and why?
Have you visited the Missouri River? Which part did you see and what did you think?
Which State or Provincial Park do you want to see next and why?
How do you like to enjoy the outdoors?
Cross Ranch State Park provided lodging for my stay. As always, all opinions are my own.
Tag your pics and travel tips #PrairiePeople and #PrairiePlaces on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. You could inspire an upcoming post on Prairie Style File.
Prairie Style File is curated by Alicia Underlee Nelson. All rights reserved.