It’s that time of year again—when residents of North Dakota and many people fond of cold weather seek ways to enjoy the snowy season without following the geese south. Yes, indeed, it’s snowshoeing season.
Snowshoeing involves walking on snow. More often than not, deep snow. There’s plenty of that in North Dakota. It’s a great way to exercise and explore the wintertime beauty of the backcountry but doesn’t require the expertise or expense of cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.
The challenge for outdoor enthusiasts comes in starting a new trail after a fresh snowfall. Except for occasionally seen wildlife, you’ll likely have most places you snowshoe in North Dakota more or less to yourself.
Snowshoes work by distributing a person’s weight over a larger area so that the feet do not sink into the snow. (This is called flotation.) In addition to distributing the weight, snowshoes are raised at the toe to enhance a wearer’s maneuverability while moving around. They require bindings, which attach to the feet. Under appropriate conditions, snowshoeing is a relatively safe activity. However, on icy, steep terrain, it can occasionally be dangerous.
Snowshoeing is a fast growing winter recreational activity. Why? Because it is healthy for participants and provides a low-impact way to exercise. (Snowshoeing has been designated by the American Heart Association as an officially sanctioned aerobic activity.) It is cheap. Most anywhere with snow on the ground is a good place to snowshoe. And, the activity is suitable for just about everyone. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re eight or 88. If you can move your feet, you can snowshoe. Without dense foliage getting in the way, it’s oftentimes easier to view wildlife that may otherwise be hidden.
When you travel on snowshoes, you move the way humans have for thousands of years. Historians believe people developed snowshoes in Asia, perhaps imitating the broad, thickly furred paws of animals such as the lynx and snowshoe hare. Early man designed a variety of snowshoes to use on different types of terrain. They made frames for snowshoes using wood. Then they wove a tight web across the frames using tree bark or animal tendons.
Two groups of snowshoeing pioneers diverged early on, setting patterns that can still be seen today. One group abandoned the snowshoe as it migrated west and north into what is today Scandinavia, over time turning the design into forerunners of the Nordic ski. Another group of snowshoers went northeast, eventually crossing the Bering Strait into North America.
Where to Snowshoe
Winters this far north can seem formidable to many people but North Dakota, inundated often by snow, can be visually stunning and the snowshoeing is superb. The town of Hillsboro’s Woodland Park is a great place to snowshoe. Located south of Grand Forks, off I-29, Exit 104.
Snowshoeing is one of many seasonal activities available at North Dakota’s Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge. Established during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, the Refuge is found in a 28-mile-long river valley that has three lakes. (“Des Lacs” is French for “of the lakes”) Consideration in the Refuge is shown for beginning to advanced snowshoers. Some trails in Des Lacs are steep, others may have an occasional copse of trees to negotiate, while still others may be protected by enough hills that a cold wind is scarcely noticed. Located one mile west of Kenmare, North Dakota, off County Road 1A. The National Wildlife Refuge telephone number is 701-385-4046.
Snowshoeing is a great way to explore North Dakota State Parks during cold weather months (as is hiking when the weather warms up). Snowshoeing opportunities are available at the following parks: Beaver Lake, near Wishek; Cross Ranch, near Center; Fort Abraham Lincoln outside Mandan; Fort Ransom, close by a town of the same name; Fort Stevenson, near Garrison; Icelandic, near Cavalier; Lake Sakakawea, close by Riverdale; Lewis and Clark, near Epping, North Dakota; Little Missouri, north of Killdeer; Lake Metigoshe, and Turtle River State Park, which is located just north of the town of Arvilla.
There are 18 miles of trail suitable for snowshoeing in Lake Metigoshe State Park. Snowshoeing here is ideal for nature observation. The park is located in the east-to-west middle of the state near Bottineau on the U.S.-Canadian border. Lake Metigoshe has snowshoe rentals and occasionally offers ranger guided snowshoe tours.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
“All life in the wilderness is so pleasant . . . a trip on snowshoes through the silent, mysterious fairy-land of the woods in winter.” –Theodore Roosevelt
The Badlands of North Dakota look much as they did when Roosevelt viewed them well over a century ago–wild and untamed, composed of what the future U.S. President called a “curious, fantastic beauty.”
The climate here can be severe in both winter and summer (when it gets hot) and the soil resists cultivation. This country is better admired than exploited. TR learned that lesson of life the hard way. He first came to the Badlands in 1883 to hunt buffalo. Though still in his early 20s, he was already a Harvard University graduate, intensely interested in history and the outdoors.
On that first trip, he and his guide found shelter with friendly ranchers. He was so impressed that he bought from them a share in a cattle ranch. As the result of a historically brutal winter, Roosevelt lost more money than he made in ranching but he did learn the need to protect natural resources from indiscriminate commercial use. This lesson was later translated into TR’s reputation as the first conservationist and ecological-minded U.S. President.
TRNP is located in western North Dakota, with headquarters in the town of Medora. It can be reached via I-94. Medora is the gateway to the park’s South Unit. The North Unit is reached by proceeding north on US 85, which provides direct access to it. A third unit, the site of Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, is a bit hard to reach; for directions, check at park headquarters. For a visit into America’s Wild West past, check out Medora.
From October until mid-April, visitors to TRNP may snowshoe on closed park roads, the frozen Little Missouri River, or create their own trail through fresh powder. Always keep a safe distance from bison (100 yards minimum is suggested by park authorities).
Do’s and Don’ts When Snowshoeing
Be respectful of private property boundaries and the rights of landowners, even when fences are covered with snow. Always obtain permission to snowshoe through private property.
- Give wildlife plenty of space. Disturbing animals can place additional stress on them during already stressful winter months.
- Don’t snowshoe on established cross-country ski trails. Travel either on an established snowshoe trail or make your own trail close by ski tracks.
- Yield to cross-country skiers and snowmobiles on groomed trails.
- Be prepared for an avalanche by always wearing an avalanche beacon and by carrying an avalanche shovel.
- Wear comfortable, water-resistant boots and some type of vinyl or ski pants. Snow has a tendency to kick up on the back of your legs while snowshoeing; stiff jeans make this tendency uncomfortable.
There are a variety of interesting things to do in North Dakota, including snowshoeing. Winter offers the opportunity to try something different, including exploration of new territory. Once roads disappear as trails are hidden under snow, snowshoes become a great way to commune with nature.
It starts as a yearning, the need to escape from crowded urban areas and jam-packed interstate highways. The desire to become an adventurer and make your own mark while creating a trail through the woods. Exploring North Dakota’s outdoors on snowshoes is an activity that quickly can turn from a novelty into a hobby into a passion. There are many places in North America to have an enjoyable time, including while wearing snowshoes. North Dakota is one such place. Enjoy but please be prudent.
For more information about North Dakota, visit http://www.ndtourism.com.