Shady Serenity: Hiking In Icelandic State Park

“North Dakota doesn’t have any trees.”

Nope. Incorrect.

Sure, this state is mostly (and justifiably) famous for its wide open spaces, endless horizons, rolling prairies and farm and ranch land that help feed the nation. But there are pretty little forests and bubbling streams to explore. You just have to know where to look.

If you’re craving a shady hike, Icelandic State Park near Cavalier, in the northeastern part of the state near the Canadian border, is a pretty place to explore. Icelandic pioneer G.B. Gunlogson donated 200 acres of his family’s property to form the Gunlogson Homestead and Nature Preserve in 1963.

I’m so glad he did. This shady little hideaway features oak and basswood forests, boggy swamps, mossy thickets of trees and pretty little bridges that criss cross the spring-fed Tongue River.

It’s also a very pretty spot for a leisurely hike.

The woodlands and bogs are unusual for the region, and it’s pretty to see them in their natural state. I noticed ferns, rushes and shy little wildflowers poking their leads up along the path that I don’t remember seeing anywhere else in North Dakota.

And I’m told there are rare woodpeckers that make these woods their home. I didn’t see any of those, but I saw evidence they were there in the holes in the tall, slim tree trunks along get trail.

It’s cool, shady and vividly green in this little alcove of trees, all moss and fluttering leaves. I’d love to see it now, as that green gives way to rust, orange and gold.

There are a few rather steep climbs that can get muddy and you’ll have to hop down onto one bridge on the pretty Wildwood Trail. But other than that, it’s a fairly accessible (and very pretty) hike that’s appropriate for all skill levels if everybody takes it slow and has a good set of knees.

It’s also almost freakishly well marked — as if you could get lost on circular trails that are less than a mile long! That said, I’m sure the signage is reassuring for new hikers.

The short trails that run through the nature preserve (the Wildwood, Basswood and Shady Springs Trails) are part of a (slightly) longer network of trails that connect the Gunlogson Homestead to the Icelandic State Park campground.

You can enter from the south, after visiting the small Pioneer Heritage Center, historic church and log cabin on the homestead site. Or you can enter from the campground like I did, starting in the quiet groves of pine trees along the Hillman Trail. (This trail is flat and you can bike it as well.)

It connects with the Bluebird Trail, which runs along farm fields and past grazing livestock. It eventually takes you along the Tongue River and connects with the wooded trails in the nature preserve and the longest trail in the network, the 1.51 mile-long Old Settlers Trail.

If you’d like to pack a picnic and make a day of it, there are a few benches located along the trail, most along the Bluebird Trail or the Basswood Trail. Or you can spread out on a picnic table on the shore of Lake Renwick, located just past the Icelandic State Park Campground.

If you’d rather stay awhile, the campground is open year round, with primitive campgrounds and RV spots tucked into the trees. (The comfortable shower houses are closed and the water is off for the fall/winter season after Labor Day, but the electric hook-ups are still available.)

This state park strictly enforces quiet hours after ten, so it’s a good spot for early birds and maybe not so great for party people. There are several playgrounds for kiddos, wide, paved trails for biking, a swimming beach and kayak and canoe rentals available in the summer. These elements, combined with the pretty, short and not-too-streneous hiking trails, make it an smart option for new hikers and those with kids along.

What about you?
What’s your favorite spot for a forest hike? (It can be anywhere!)
What do you like to do at Icelandic State Park?
What makes hiking fun for you?

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