Nature In The City: North Dakota Nature Parks Go Wild

Did you know there are 30 North Dakota nature parks in North Dakota?

It’s okay. I didn’t either.

These are mini escapes right in the middle of the city, places where you can cycle through wild grasslands, hike along natural river bottom forests and see wetlands teeming with birds. You can pick cherries (or plums or apples) for free, fish from a shaded spot on the riverbank and generally feel a world away from other humans, even though you’re just a few blocks off a busy city street.

The Urban Woods and Prairies Initiative has been steadily expanding its territory, giving residents of Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks and Minot a chance to see what this land looked like before settlement. New nature parks in Valley City and West Fargo are in the works too.

Orchard Glen in Fargo is one of the first North Dakota nature parks.

What’s so great about a nature park?

It really does feel like you’re in a state park or a wildlife refuge, but you’re right in the city. You’ll see grassland birds like western meadowlarks and bobolinks that are rare, especially in cities. You can hear (and often see) otters, foxes, hawks and bald eagles along the riverbanks.

“You don’t have to go to Itasca State Park or Tamarac or Chase Lake or Tewaukon (National Wildlife Refuges),” says Ron H. Miller, M.D., an avid birder, birding educator and contributor to the Urban Woods and Prairie Initiative. “You can just drive to the river.”

Amenities are minimal to allow the landscape (and plants and animals) to take center state. North Dakota nature parks usually contain a mixed used trail and a porta-potty with hand sanitizer, so plan accordingly. Most trails are mowed or gravel, but a few are paved and see plenty of use from cyclists and parents pushing strollers.

These are places you can easily access and enjoy without any special equipment, which makes them especially important for city dwellers craving an escape. If you’re worried about being prepared for hiking, here’s a basic gear checklist. You probably have most of these items at home already, so there’s no need to wait.

Atkinson Nature Park in Bismarck is one of the newest North Dakota nature parks. Photo by Tracie Bettenhausen.

How did North Dakota nature parks emerge?

The project is managed by Audubon Dakota, which protects and preserves habitat for birds and other animals in North and South Dakota. The organization works with park districts, corporate leaders, wildlife funds, government agencies, volunteers and individuals donors across the state.

“We started in the summer of 2014,” says Audubon Dakota Executive Director Marshall Johnson. “The concept and idea that I had back in those days was really to bring conservation back into the areas where people live. Grassland conservation typically is done out in more rural parts of the state and the bulk of people in just about every state live in cities and aren’t connected to that type of work. So my vision was to really build conservation into the cities.”

It takes about three to five years for a native habitat to be re-established, which means the first rounds of North Dakota nature parks are now thriving. Other parks in the state are slowly being converted into more natural and sustainable landscapes, so if you head out to explore them you can observe the changes first hand.

“We’ve seen urban wildlife come back into these areas,” says Marshall. “We’ve installed trails in many of these sites, access points like kayak and canoe launches, and people are getting out into nature locally beyond what they ever thought possible in Fargo-Moorhead. And it’s been the same in some of the other cities that came on later. That’s been a major sign of success for the project.”

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of my favorite North Dakota nature parks and where to find them. I haven’t visited all of them, so be sure to tell me your favorites in the comments below.

Forest River nature park is a birders paradise right in the city.

Fargo-Moorhead

A whopping 21 of the state’s nature parks are in the Fargo-Moorhead area. There are access points on both sides of the river, from the southernmost edge of the city to north of Hector International Airport. To plan your trip, here’s an overview of all of the nature parks in Fargo-Moorhead.

The first wave of North Dakota nature parks were established in Fargo in 2014, so they’re a great place to start exploring. I’ve chosen three of my favorites for you here.

Forest River:

Serious birders can spot 25 to 30 birds here in a single day, which makes this a regional birding hot spot. But that doesn’t mean it’s crowded. There’s plenty of room to spread out along beautiful trails that run along the river. There are lots of secluded bank fishing spots too and a wetland area that attracts waterfowl.

Orchard Glen:

This nature park has paved trails that snake through an orchard, so it’s popular with families and cyclists. And there always seems to be someone fishing along the riverside trails.

I’m excited to come back this summer and fall to pick cherries, plums, pears and apples, which you can do for free.

Unicorn Park:

As the only original North Dakota nature park north of 1-94, Unicorn park brings natural prairie scenes to north Fargo. The paved paths are well-loved and take you right past native grasses and wildflowers.

Panels in Atkinson Nature Trail tell you about the habitat you’re seeing. Photo by Tracie Bettenhausen

Bismarck

North Dakota’s capital city has a couple sites that have been converted to natural habitat, with more promised in the future. I asked my friend Tracie Bettenhausen, a Bismarck resident, to see check out one of the most established spots for me.

Atkinson Nature Park

Located off Riverwood Drive, Atkinson Nature Park boasts 1.65 miles of unpaved hiking and horseback riding trails. It’s a quiet and secluded spot and she didn’t see anyone else there during her visit. There are so interpretive panels to teach you about what you’re seeing.

“There is one area where you are definitely walking in river bottoms, and I wonder if that area fills with water after a good rain,” Tracie says. “Lots and lots of new trees planted, and it will be much more enclosed once they start getting bigger.”

Minot

There are two finished Urban Woods and Prairie Initiative nature parks in Minot, with more to come.

Oak Park

The easiest park to find in Minot is located in Oak Park. It’s an especially good spot to make a day of it, since there are picnic shelters and a splash pad on site.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Urban Woods and Prairies Initiative, Audubon Dakota or the organization’s other projects in the state, you can reach out to them here. New members, volunteers, land owner partners and financial contributors are always welcome.

On the trail in Orchard Glen in Fargo, one of the first North Dakota nature parks.

What about you?
What’s your favorite North Dakota nature park?
Where do you go to experience nature?
How has the pandemic changed your outdoor recreation and travel plans?
What plants or animals have you seen (or hope to see) at a North Dakota nature park?
What types of activities do you enjoy outdoors?

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Alicia Underlee Nelson

2 Comments

  1. Great list – I always look for small local parks when i’m traveling. Good excuse to stretch your legs!

    • Thank you! I agree, it’s incredible how many parks you can find when you start looking.

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