Pembina Gorge offers scenic look at historyWALHALLA, N.D. — It’s not a typical scene for North Dakota: a gorge cut into the prairie, with 12,500 acres of lush foliage and a flowing river bottom, but it is an ideal location for any outdoorsman.
By: TJ Jerke, Forum Communications, The Jamestown Sun
WALHALLA, N.D. — It’s not a typical scene for North Dakota: a gorge cut into the prairie, with 12,500 acres of lush foliage and a flowing river bottom, but it is an ideal location for any outdoorsman.
The scene is Pembina Gorge, a mountain-like area nestled into the northeast corner of the state, 5 miles south of the Canadian border. The vast area is home to North Dakota’s oldest rocks and fossils, 480 species of plants and more than 75 species of birds, according to the North Dakota State Parks Department.
The area combines central grasslands, mixed in with bored and eastern deciduous forest, drawing in visitors for its kayaking, snow skiing and more than 450 miles of multi-use trails.
“It’s very unique to North Dakota,” said Kathy Strewick, economic development director for Walhalla. “It has many acres of undisturbed woodlands they can experience, blessed with pristine beauty with the amenities of history.”
Surging glacial meltwaters carved the gorge 9,000 years ago as they emptied into glacial Lake Agassiz, a lake that once held more water than all of the Great Lakes combined.
French-Canadian and Icelandic history dominates the area. Fur traders utilized the 319-mile Pembina River from southern Manitoba to North Dakota. The area, and towns like Walhalla, prospered as a result. As the second oldest town in the state, the town of about 900 provides a main entrance to the gorge.
“A lot of that history is something you’re not going to find throughout the state, there is not too many other places like it,” said Mike Jensen, outdoor promotions manager with North Dakota Department of Commerce. “It’s one area that is very special, all the sudden you hit it and you’re in, and it’s great.”
Off the beaten path
Pembina Gorge is commonly referred to as a premier area to drive in, Jensen said. The Rendezvous Region Scenic Backway provides a 33.5-mile ride beginning in Cavalier, N.D., traveling west on Highways 32 and 55, and ending in Vang, N.D.
But the scenic route is only a small staple of the region. Narrow, gravel roads, off the backway, drive deep into the heart of the gorge.
The gravel roads put visitors at the Masonic Scenic Overlook and Tetrault Forest Overlook.
Views from the overlooks highlight the sharp bends in the Pembina River and allow access to the multi-use trails.
“Visitors can go places on the trails where they have never been able to go before,” Strewick said. “It allows people to truly access the gorge.”
In the summer months, the trails offer mountain biking, horseback riding, hiking, bird watching and wildlife viewing.
Winter months allow off-highway vehicles like ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles to operate along the trails.
Trails open for non-motorized vehicles every year on Memorial Day. North Dakota snowmobile trails are open Dec. 1 through April 1.
The trail system throughout the gorge is tied into the Northeast Snowmobile Trail System — 700 miles of groomed trails in North Dakota that tie into the Canadian trail at four locations and two major Minnesota trails.
Strewick, who has worked in Walhalla for more than 29 years, said the trails provide views and scenery that are “simply peaceful.”
The peacefulness attracts visitors year-round, she said.
Strewick said the area is constantly full of ATVs and snowmobiles are plentiful —when there is snow.
“It’s the outdoor experience,” she said. “It provides natural resource we have to take advantage of and expand on it.”
An additional 20 miles of non-motorized, multi-use trails are going to be added this summer. A grand opening for the first 12 miles is set for June 30, she said.
A ride further west along the backway features the gravel Brick Mine Road. The road puts visitors in the middle of the gorge where the sound of the river rushing up against the rocks can be heard crossing the Brick Mine Bridge, an iron-cast bridge with a wood-plank bottom.
Jensen said the trails around the bridge are not only excellent areas to hike, but the views are the most memorable. He said the area is photographed most often.
Beyond the trails
Snow skiing and theater are not a usual combination, like a gorge in North Dakota, but one that works.
Leon and Gerri Dubourt, of Walhalla, said the summer performances at the Frost Fire Summer Theatre, and winter skiing at the Frost Fire Ski Area, provide a different take on the gorge.
“Both are great additions,” said Gerri Dubourt.
From June to August, the outdoor 450-seat Frost Fire amphitheater is lit up every Saturday night and Sunday and Wednesday afternoons for musical performances, according to Judith Johnson, owner of Frost Fire Ski Area and Theatre.
Past performances include “Fiddler on The Roof,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Oklahoma!”
The 2012 show will be, “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show.”
Johnson said the theater is a wonderful part of the gorge in the summer.
Since Johnson and Richard Johnson, her husband, were involved in college performances, they brought the theater to the area in 1985.
Johnson said the 6 p.m. Saturday performances work well with visitors who come to the area to hike the gorge or golf one of the three local courses.
Similarly, the 2 p.m. shows Sunday and Wednesday provide opportunities for bus tours to attend.
The winter months turn the Pembina Gorge into a ski and snowboarding area seven miles west of Walhalla.
Ten runs with a variety of difficulties make up the Frost Fire Ski Area. Tubing and a terrain park for exhibition skiing and snowboarding are also offered.
TJ Jerke is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.