We broke up the long drive across North Dakota with two stops. The first at a small state park just south of Bismarck. Fort Abraham Lincoln state park lies alongside the Missouri River and was once an important military post. Today, all that’s left of the military operation are some old foundations and reconstructed buildings. The main attraction is the large campground near the river. We chose a dry site with a small slice of river view. Lots of green grass and trees made for pleasant stay.
When we arrived on Thursday evening the campground was nearly empty. Twenty-four hours later it had filled to capacity. We’ve seen the empty during the week, full on the weekend phenomenon over and over again at campgrounds all around the country. But this time it caught us by surprise. I guess with the kids still in school and one week before Memorial Day we wrongly assumed that the summer camping season hadn’t yet begun. We assumed wrong. This campground appears to be a local hot spot for weekend campers. You could tell it was a local crowd because not only did everyone have a North Dakota license plate, but they also hauled along way more stuff than any full-timer or long-term traveler could ever bring (when someone shows up pulling a utility trailer with 6 bikes and a full-size grill you know they don’t live far away).
We also observed that this campground had more double sites than most. In fact, at least half the sites were double pull-thrus. Normally the double sites are the last to go. After all, unless you’re traveling with someone else, who wants to share a site? But if you live nearby and want to go camping with your friends, the double site/shared yard thing makes a lot of sense.
It was a short stay — only three nights — which was more than enough time to explore the park. We’ve been taking advantage of how late the sun stays up these days with long after dinner walks. One evening we walked up to the reconstructed military barracks and Custer House. You can take a tour of the house, but it was after hours so we had to be satisfied with peeking in though the windows.
Another evening we walked over to the reconstructed On-a-Slant Indian Village. I found this far more interesting than the military stuff. From the state park website:
The village, named On-A-Slant because of its slope toward the river, contained about 75 earthlodges with a village population of around 1000.
The earthlodges were constructed and owned by the women. The frame was made of cottonwood logs, covered with a thick mat of willow, grass and earth. Typical earthlodges were between 20 and 40 feet in diameter and 15 to 20 feet high. In the center of the roof, a circular hole acted as a skylight and smokehole for the firepit.
Unlike most Plains Indian tribes, the Mandan lived in sedentary communities and relied upon a mixture of hunting and agriculture for subsistence. The men hunted while the women tended crops, prepared animal hides and meat, gathered wild berries, wove baskets and made pottery. The Mandan were noted for their skill in processing animal skins and manufacturing pottery, and their villages became trading centers where nomadic tribes came to exchange animal skins for agricultural products.
After prospering on this site for two centuries, a smallpox epidemic hit in 1781 and virtually eliminated the Heart River-region Mandan. The survivors moved north along the Missouri River, eventually joining the Hidatsa near the Knife River.
When Lewis and Clark discovered the deserted On-A-Slant Village in late 1804, it was already in an advanced state of decay, for they reported that the remains included fallen heaps of earth which had covered the houses.
We also took a long bike ride starting at the campground all the way into downtown Bismarck. It was over 20 miles round trip, with all but the last few miles on a paved bike path. It would have been a great ride if not for the fierce wind that seemed to be pushing us in all directions. I only took one picture of the ride. This is us crossing the Missouri River.
Our destination was the North Dakota State Heritage Center. We tend to enjoy state history museums and this one was no exception. Recently expanded and renovated, this FREE museum tells the history of the state from long before it ever was a state all the way to the present day. If you ever find yourself in Bismarck, ND do yourself a favor and spend a few hours at the Heritage Center.
Our next stop was a couple hours east, just past Fargo. Buffalo River State Park is actually over the state border in Minnesota, but it had that whole open prairie thing going on, so it still felt like we were in North Dakota. Considering we spent five nights there I have remarkably little to report. The campground was mostly empty all week.
We took an electric site in the main part of the campground, but there’s also a small loop of no hook-up sites. Most were suited for smaller RVs due to site size and some low hanging branches, but if you can fit, site number 41 in the corner was really nice.
It rained on and off throughout the week, somewhat curbing our outside activities, but we did get out for a few after dinner walks (one walk ended up being in the rain due to a sudden storm), enjoyed some time in the hammock, and even had a night out on the town.
Today we’re heading farther east into Minnesota for our reservation at a small national forest campground on Cass Lake. The weather is looking stormy for the next fews days, but we’re still hopeful that it will clear out enough so we can enjoy some kayaking. Wishing everyone a relaxing Memorial Day weekend!