Cross Ranch State Park, North Dakota
For centuries, the Missouri River meandered along its 360-mile-long journey through North Dakota. It nurtured a bottom-land forest of massive cottonwoods, whispering willows and abundant wildlife. Bearing the nickname “Big Muddy,” well earned because of the river’s often chocolate-brown, sediment-laden color, the river could be merciless, as well as nurturing during the spring floods.
Much of North Dakota’s historic Missouri River course now lies under Lake Sakakawea. Downstream of Garrison Dam, however, its journey still continues, but it’s a journey limited to approximately 87 miles until the flow becomes the headwaters of Lake Oahe. Most of the native riparian forest is gone, having been subdued under the plow, but a sliver of woodlands remains for campers and wildlife to enjoy, thanks to Cross Ranch State Park, The Nature Conservancy and the 1989 North Dakota Centennial.
The old Cross Ranch was a working ranch, raising grain and cattle. The Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch to protect the area’s forest and adjacent native prairie heritage and then donated 260 acres to the State of North Dakota. With the addition of another 300 acres, the park became a gift to the citizens in honor of the state’s 100th birthday. The Burlington Northern Railroad also gave 29 acres to help create the park.
Cross Ranch State Park, a 589-acre primitive park, is nestled among cottonwoods, oak and willows. A quiet retreat for those who enjoy canoeing, fishing, hiking and bird watching, Cross Ranch is reportedly never crowded. Perhaps the exception is during the annual Missouri River Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival held every Labor Day weekend.
The family-oriented festival features nationally known entertainment, as well as local talent. In addition to children’s activities and musical performances, the festival has hands-on jam sessions and demonstrations.
Visitors can trace history at the River Peoples Visitor Center. A trickling blue line meanders along the center’s wall, depicting the Missouri River’s route through North Dakota before the construction of Garrison Dam. Locations of once-vibrant towns and native villages, now beneath more than 100 feet of water, are indicated by mere dots along the blue line. The center recognizes the heritage of the diverse peoples who have lived along the river — Native American tribes such as the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan, as well as white hunters, trappers, riverboat captains, ranchers, farmers and frontier soldiers — and the river’s importance, past and present.
The Cross Ranch Nature Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy, borders the state park. The state and private facilities are friendly neighbors. The preserve exists in large part due to private contributions from North Dakota citizens. In turn, The Nature Conservancy donated some of its land to help create the state park.
Several public hiking trails provide access to both the forest and upland prairie portions of the preserve. The park has 15 miles of hiking trails, some providing access to the forested part of the preserve along the river. Another self-guided nature trail treks through native prairie hills above the wooded river bottom.
Together, the preserve and park protect one of the largest tracts of remaining Missouri River forest bottomland. More than 100 different wildflowers and 100 bird species can be found in the Cross Ranch woodlands and prairies.
WHEN YOU GO To Cross Ranch State Park, North Dakota
The state park’s main campground has three primitive camping areas without electricity available for RV and tent campers. Sanger Campground, a couple of miles down the road in another section of the state park, has a boat ramp, tent and small RV sites. Water is available at both the main park site and Sanger campgrounds. A sewer dump station, picnic tables and vault toilets are available at both campgrounds. The main campground has showers and flush toilets at the River Peoples Visitor Center.
Part of Cross Ranch State Park’s intrigue is in just getting there, for the park isn’t located along any major highways. Campers can get to the park from either side of the Missouri River, but the easiest access is via Highway 83 on the river’s east side. For more information or to make reservations, contact Cross Ranch State Park, 1403 River Road, Center, ND 58530; 800/807-4723 or 701/794-3731.