I turn north out of Bismarck and head up the Missouri River towards Washburn. There I start west on Route 200, the Sakakawea Trail, traversing open ranges and rolling grain-fields. From the unspoiled banks of the Missouri to the striking mesas and buttes of the Badlands, this road runs virtually traffic free through scenic western North Dakota. Even through the gray rain, Iím captivated by the beautiful landscape. I ride past miles of sunflower fields and nothing towns with names like Dodge, Zip, and Beulah. The road condition is excellent, especially considering the harsh winters. I stop for lunch and some much-needed hot chocolate at the Crossroads Restaurant in Killdeer.
Just up county road 37, through Stanton, I visit the Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site. For centuries this part of the Upper Missouri River Valley was a lifeline for the Northern Plains Indians, specifically the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, and this site celebrates their culture and history. During the harsh winters they lived in earth lodges and during warmer months they hunted bison. There were so many buffalo that in one dayís hunt the warriors could kill enough for the entire year. Tragically, contact with Europeans wiped out these tribes, not through war but through disease. In 1781, a smallpox epidemic killed half of the population.
When I reach US-86, I turn north again, and shortly after Grassy Butte, the landscape turns wicked. Iíve entered the Badlands of North Dakota. Rounded buttes surround me. The multicolored rock formations are layers of sandstone, clay, shale and petrified wood deposited millions of years ago. Easily eroded by the elements, the rocks take every shape from drip castles to capped pillars and buttes. In 1864 General Alfred Sully described the area as "hell with the fires out."
A few miles up the road I enter the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Teddy first came to this area in 1883 to hunt bison. He started up a ranch here, the Elkhorn, and often returned to find solace. The park memorializes the 26th President and the scenery he worked to conserve. A 14-mile scenic drive provides ample opportunities for viewing wildlife and the wonderful rock formations. I also get my third stamp of the day, as the Knife River site had the bonus of the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail stamp, which I did not expect.
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