North Dakota’s quirky landscape is a masterpiece, from the Badlands of the southwest to the forests of the northeast. And the Rendezvous Region in northeastern North Dakota is as much a place for adrenaline junkies as it is for soul searchers. Churn the white waters of the Pembina River in a kayak or spin some black dirt jumping a berm on a mountain bike. Or just stargaze.
“In general, it’s lively enough that you can have energizing fun, but it’s also serene enough to be soulful,” says Dawn Mandt, executive director of the Red River Regional Council, one of the Rendezvous Region partners. “People are hungry to be outside and safe. People have also rediscovered their own backyard, so we’ve seen a lot more regional and state traffic.”
The Pembina Gorge and surrounding areas in Cavalier, Walsh and Pembina counties make up the tourism region, where the forested terrain and river gorge offer plenty of opportunities for adventure seekers.
“It’s this wonderland that people aren’t even that aware of in North Dakota, so I think people are surprised. I call it a pleasant surprise,” Mandt says. “I describe the gorge as a bit soulful. It’s really untouched and most of the projects we work on keep that value, that it remains nature-centric.”
One of the added features is the Pembina Gorge Downhill Terrain Bike Park, the only downhill mountain bike terrain park in North Dakota with a lift service.
Located 7 miles west of Walhalla in Frost Fire Park, the bike park started in 2018 with three trails. Four more trails and a skills track are being added this year. Rent a mountain bike, ride the trails, then take the chairlift back to the top.
A beginner downhill flow trail, almost a mile long, has gentle switchbacks and smaller berms for novice riders. Trails ranging from intermediate to advanced to expert offer more aggressive rides with fewer switchbacks and larger berms. A climbing trail of more than a mile takes riders from the base to the top, then connects with other trails to ride back down. More details can be found at: https://frostfirepark.org/mtn-bike-terrain-park(link is external). Helmets are required on the trails. Due to COVID-19, the bike park is unable to rent helmets, but will have a small selection for sale.
Hiking and biking
“There is quite an array of hiking options here,” Mandt says. “The Pembina Gorge trail system is quite long. It’s 20 to 25 miles at this point.”
The Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area has become a top destination for adventure seekers throughout North Dakota and surrounding states, with multi-use trails. Visitors can go horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking or ride off-highway vehicles (OHV) at the gorge.
While visiting Leistikow Park near Grafton, spend some time hiking or biking along the Park River on 1.5 miles of nonmotorized trails. And Icelandic State Park near Cavalier has trails for hiking and biking as well. The city of Cavalier has implemented a bike share program to encourage biking the 6 miles between the city and Icelandic State Park.
Tetrault Woods State Forest near Walhalla is a 432-acre preserve where visitors can explore a forest environment along the meandering Pembina River, with the steep bluffs above.
The Rendezvous Region is home to the only white water in North Dakota. Adventure seekers will find a thrilling and scenic ride down the Pembina River in the breathtaking Pembina Gorge during peak season in May and June. Kayak and paddle board rentals are available at the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area and Icelandic State Park. Grafton Parks and Recreation also has kayaks, canoes and paddle boats available to rent, and canoes and kayaks can be rented in Walhalla as well.
“The Pembina River is quite seasonal, because it’s fed by snowfall,” Mandt says. By late summer, the water is shallow and may not be passable, so the earlier, the better. Kayakers could port at the Canadian border and kayak all the way to the city of Pembina.
“People really do enjoy riding in the gorge along the Pembina River,” Mandt says.
The Rendezvous Region offers flat land, hills, valleys and river riding for the novice and experienced horseback rider. The Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area west of Walhalla provides a 12-mile looped trail with a convenient trailhead for unloading and trailer parking. In addition, many backroads and wildlife management areas, such as the Jay V. Wessels Wildlife Management Area, offer good riding opportunities. Riding on private land requires owner permission.
Explore the Pembina Gorge on your ATV or dirt bike. The trailhead is located 1 mile north, 1 mile west, and one-quarter mile north of the Walhalla Country Club. While designed for the use of OHVs, it is also open to hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. An additional 12-mile loop is being planned, as well as more traditional, nonmotorized trail opportunities. There is no fee to use the new multi-use trail designed to accommodate nonmotorized and motorized traffic, including the three classes of OHVs – dirt bikes, four-wheelers and side-by-sides – which are 60 inches wide or less.
“This is a great opportunity to bring out the OHVs and use them, both in the Pembina Gorge and the forest,” Mandt says.
Tetrault Woods State Forest near Walhalla offers a four-wheel-drive road and double-track trail run the length of the forest area, allowing an out-and-back ride along the river banks, through meadowlands and marshlands, and on the forested hillsides.
Local clubs organize rides, which are listed on the Rendezvous Region’s Facebook page.
Go outside and play
Whatever your thrill, Mandt encourages North Dakotans to go outside and play this summer.
“When people come to the area, we want them to come and stay for a while and just really enjoy all these amenities. We have lots of golfing, lots of camping opportunities and scenic drive opportunities. Moving into the fall, the Pembina Gorge is a pretty popular destination for the leaves, which is rare in North Dakota to have that. And that’s what I mean by pleasant surprise. All of a sudden, you have a forest, and North Dakota certainly isn’t known for having forests, so it’s unique and special,” she says.
The region is also part of the North American flyway for bird migration from Mexico to Canada, is popular for catfishing, and stargazing and photo opportunities abound.
The region was first populated by French fur traders, and is thus named for the French, “rendezvous.”
“We have a nod to the past,” Mandt says. “But now, it’s a look forward, because we view the Rendezvous Region as rounding out more of the quality-of-life amenities for our rural area.”
Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Elgin area.
Trail maps of the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area can be found at:
www.parkrec.nd.gov/pembina-gorge-state-recreation-area(link is external)
Trail information for Icelandic State Park can be found at: www.parkrec.nd.gov/icelandic-state-park(link is external)
Visit the Rendezvous Region at: www.rendezvousregion.com (link is external) | www.facebook.com/rendezvousregion