I was driving through North Dakota last summer, two hot months after the Minot flood. The route to Fort Stevenson State Park was waterlogged. Half sunken bales of hay and trees stuck out of unwelcome ponds along North Dakota’s Highway 83. It was relief to get to the park, where high bluffs keep Lake Sakakawea waters where they are supposed to be.
Lewis and Clark camped nearby during their 1804 expedition, and the area has become even more scenic since then with the creation of Lake Sakakawea. The lake is the largest of several reservoirs created when the upper Missouri river was dammed and developed in the 1950’s. The original Fort Stevenson was flooded during this time, and the park named after the fort now sits on the high peninsula overlooking the lake. While most of the country refers to Lewis and Clark’s famous female guide as Sacagawea, North Dakotans stick to what they consider a more authentic spelling and pronunciation of her name: Sakakawea. Hence Lake Sakakawea.
Fort Stevenson State Park has top notch facilities for families and those who like their camping a little on the cushy side. This is the not the place for backpackers like my brother who catches his own frogs for dinner and considers tents to be bourgeoisie. Fort Stevenson has fire pits and showers. Hot ones.
Being a camping novice, I thought the place was perfect. Tent and RV sites circle large playgrounds, and clean bathrooms are nearby. Fort Stevenson also rents out cabins during the summer. Cabins come with lights and heat, but cooking must be done outside over a campfire. Firewood is available for $5 from the camp hosts (parks prefer you to buy wood locally, lest you accidentally transport foreign bugs). Despite the fact that tent sites feature manicured lawns, kindling is easy to find on the ground. As an extra bonus, the place was relatively free of mosquitoes. I’d experienced a full scale attack the previous evening in Montana and was glad to not have a repeat experience.
In addition to the obvious fishing and boating activities, Fort Stevenson has ten miles of what they call hiking trails. After strolling along a “trail” and gaining approximately three feet in elevation, I demoted the trails to simply nice pathways on which to walk or run. The walk along the bluffs overlooking Lake Sakakawea is particularly nice, reminding me of footpaths overlooking Puget Sound near where I grew up in Seattle. At several “trailheads,” you can pick up wildlife guides and read about which animals you are likely to see in the area. The list is mainly comprised of birds and fish, but foxes and deer are also common to the area. As far as fish go, the Fort Stevenson State Park is the walleye capital of North Dakota, so get your tartar sauce ready.
The park also houses a guardhouse (complete with a canon and a 37-star flag a la 1867) overlooking the water and a small art gallery/gift shop. These were all closed on the late August weekday when I was at the park, so time your visit for a weekend if you are interested in checking out the guardhouse. There are many special park events, including Frontier Military Days in late June, the Governor’s Cup fishing derby in mid July, and the CANDISM Bike Tour in early August. Seasonally, the park provides bow hunting of deer, cross-county skiing, and ice fishing on Lake Sakakawea.
The park is open to campers year round, but hot showers, electrical hookups, and RV dumping stations are only available from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Cabins are only available in the summer. Call 1-800-807-4723 to check for availability. I reserved my tent site online at the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department website (http://www.parkrec.nd.gov/), which was a mistake. The only sites you can reserve are RV sites, but the website doesn’t make that fact clear. Therefore I paid $20 for a site (plus a $3 booking fee) which would have only been $10 if I’d paid for a tent site at the park. There is also a $5 park entrance fee which is required for all vehicles, even if you’ve already paid to camp.