Get sidetracked in western North Dakota
by Patricia Stockdill
|The countryside surrounding Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina on Lake Sakakawea offers the diversity of the Badlands tickled with rolling, grassy hills.
PHOTOS COURTESY TOBACCO GARDENS RESORT AND MARINA, WATFORD CITY
Camping. Fishing. Hiking. History. Hunting. Exploring.
Even “river angels.”
With an array of recreational opportunities, travelers road tripping through western North Dakota can be forgiven if they get sidetracked at Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina.
Peg Hellandsaas and her family took a leap of faith purchasing the resort northeast of Watford City in 2008 after it sat vacant during a Lake Sakakawea drought.
“Our family lived just down the road. It (the resort and surrounding area) was a part of who we are,” she explains.
So, they brought it back to life.
With the help of Watford City’s economic development organization, a welcoming and supportive community and family determination, Tobacco Gardens has blossomed.
Hellandsaas took another leap of faith in 2012, building a larger bait and tackle shop, expanding the restaurant to full service, and adding the Lewis and Clark group meeting room to accommodate banquets, meetings and even weddings. The campground, shady and spacious to accommodate today’s expansive RVs, was upgraded to 50-amp electrical hookups at every site.
Tobacco Gardens, which is served by McKenzie Electric Cooperative, may be best known for its walleye fishing, especially in the spring. Look for a little slowdown in the summer heat, Hellandsaas describes, but when fall colors embrace its Badlands setting, fishing heats up again, often continuing throughout the winter.
It also provides a place for hikers and bicyclists to camp in RVs, rather than tenting, when trekking the Little Missouri National Grassland’s Maah Daah Hey Trail.
The resort’s location makes it a convenient place to stay for travelers exploring the nature and history of the nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit, about 15 miles south of Watford City and the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands.
|Sailing Lake Sakakawea|
For some, Tobacco Gardens is a destination because of Lake Sakakawea and its fishing. In addition, an increasing number of people are enjoying kayaking and other paddle sports along with traditional canoeing, Hellandsaas adds.
Tobacco Gardens is a “River Angels” stop for paddlers trekking the Missouri River from its Montana origin, traveling downstream even as far as its Mississippi River confluence near St. Louis, Mo.
“I’m kind of known as ‘river mom,’” Hellandsaas laughs, because Tobacco Gardens provides a respite after long days on the water. It serves as a location to drop off and pick things up, doubles as a post office, and she even takes them to town to resupply.
Other visitors are simply meandering North Dakota. “They really don’t have a destination in mind; they want to explore North Dakota. … They check us out and explore,” Hellandsaas describes.
More people are traveling to less familiar places of the state, Hellandsaas suggests. “People are realizing there’s more to North Dakota than just big-name, traditional destinations.”
Guests come from Canada (before Canadian COVID-19 travel restrictions), Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota, and an increasing number are North Dakotans from throughout the state. Tobacco Gardens is a little slice of North Dakota hospitality, bringing first-time travelers, area residents and even longtime guests together in a family-like way.
Visit www.tobaccogardens.com, or check the resort's Facebook page for 2021 summer hours. Resort hours are limited during the off-season, once summer gives way to fall and winter. However, Tobacco Gardens remains open year-round because of the area’s hunting and winter fishing opportunities.
Summer remains the premier time to explore the resort, Lake Sakakawea and the area. Besides the usual questions – “How is the fishing?” or “Where are the fish biting?” – another question Hellandsaas gets is how the resort and surrounding area earned its name.
Much like the region, the name is steeped in history: “There was a plant, kinnikinnick, that grew here prolifically. … Native Americas dried it and used it for trade, money and smoked it in their pipes. That’s what we’re told,” Hellandsaas says with a smile.