To some people, Fort Stevenson State Park is the “walleye capital” of North Dakota. To others, it’s a place to experience a piece of history. In other words, this charming state park has something for everybody.
Washington bureaucrats claimed that the American frontier closed in 1890. We’re guessing those people never visited central North Dakota. There is plenty of outdoor space here, which means that there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. Today’s RV campers can hike, fish, swim, and much more. Fort Stevenson State Park is also a great place to learn more about this unique corner of the world. That includes the soldiers who were stationed here back in the day, as well as the wildlife which continues to call this place home.
Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, Fort Stevenson State Park is one of the most RV-friendly facilities in the North Dakota system. It has over 100 RV parking spots. Some of them have full hookups and others are more rustic. All of them offer sweeping views of the lake and of the surrounding countryside. In a place that’s still reminiscent of the Wild West, it’s very nice to go back to the comfort of your motorhome at the end of the day.
Fort Stevenson State Park is somewhat remote, and that fact should surprise no one. Unless you have access to a Star Trek transporter, Highway 83 is about the only way to reach the park. This well-maintained highway connects Bismarck and Minot. For the most part, Highway 83 is a divided, four-lane highway which has just enough bends and curves to keep drivers alert while they’re behind the wheel.
This route north goes through several charming frontier towns, like Wilton and Washburn. The Highway 83 causeway over huge Lake Sakakawea is pretty cool too. During the summer, sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re in North Dakota or one of those nameless South Pacific islands.
Fort Stevenson State Park covers lots of territory, so there is lots of large vehicle parking. The park is basically on a very large peninsula which juts out into the lake. Parking is available in both marinas, which are on either end of the peninsula. Additional parking is available near the swimming area, the dog walk park, and the RV campground loop.
Fort Stevenson State Park’s largest RV campsite has 160 mostly back-in sites. If you like being close to your neighbors, you’ll like this densely-packed RV campground. A few sites have electric, water, and sewer hookups; most sites have electric and water hookups. Campground amenities include a large parking area, children’s play area, restroom and shower area, vault toilets, and RV dump station.
The adjacent loop has 24 RV parking spots. Most of them are extra large, pull-through group sites. There are also six individual pull-through sites. Most have electricity and water hookups, and a few are primitive, no-hookup RV parking spots. Campground amenities include two parking areas, children’s play area, restrooms, a shower area, and vault toilets.
In many ways, this 15-site RV campground is the opposite of the North Loop. It features huge, pull-through individual camping sites that have no hookups. It’s also in one of the most remote sections of the park. So, if you want to get away from your neighbors and also want a more rustic camping experience, make your reservations for this site.
Lake Sakakawea is the third-largest man-made lake in the United States. In 1969, a jet fighter plane from nearby Minot Air Force Base crashed into this lake. Various survey teams worked for 35 years before they finally found the wreckage in 2004. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lot of water.
As mentioned, Fort Stevenson State Park has two marinas. Both marinas have boat launches and large parking areas. The west side Garrison Bay Marina has a convenience store, and the east side De Trobriand Bay Marina has a fish cleaning station. Motorboats and unpowered craft, such as canoes and paddle boats, are available for rent. During the summer, both kinds of boats are pretty much everywhere. Unpowered craft usually stay close to shore, while motorboats usually head out to open water. When you get near the middle of the lake, it’s almost impossible to see the shore. Like we said, this lake is awfully big.
Almost since this lake opened in the 1950s, walleye have been the main draw. In the spring, they are generally in the tributaries and inlets that feed into the lake. By about Father’s Day, the walleye population has usually moved out to the lake itself, although these fish usually stick close to the shore. Some anglers go out to deep water. They usually find fewer yet bigger fish. That summer pattern continues until about Labor Day, and then the cycle repeats. Rainbow smelt and other forage fish are rather plentiful here as well, as are smallmouth bass and northern pike.
Fort Stevenson State Park’s swimming beach is south of the De Trobriand Bay Marina. The unusually-shaped beach has lots of sand, and much of it is not very close to the lake. So, there’s lots of room for volleyball, kite-flying, and other beach activities. Large trees pretty much surround the beach, so it is usually not overly windy. Swimming beach amenities include three large parking areas, two sheltered picnic areas, several vault toilets, and a very nice children’s playground.
The original Fort Stevenson was abandoned in 1883, less than twenty years after the Army built it. That site is now underwater. The accurate replicas in Fort Stevenson State Park rely heavily on fort commander Régis de Trobriand. He describes not only life at the fort, but also the soldier’s interactions with local indians. Some, like the Mandan and Arikara, were relatively amicable. Others, like the SIoux, were much more unfriendly. Today, the reproduced guardhouse is not only an accurate replica, it’s also an information center and museum. The annual Frontier Military Days festival is typically in June.
Fort Stevenson State Park has roughly ten miles of non-motorized hiking trails. Some of them hug the lake shore and others venture into the park’s remote interior. All of them feature a diverse array of ponderosa pine woodlands, wooded ravines, shrublands, grasslands, and native prairie. Mountain bikes are available for rental in the spring and fall; snowshoe rental is available during the winter. We recommend the two-mile Flicker Loop Trail. The park’s longest hiking trail goes past the Fort Stevenson guardhouse, the western lake shore, and a very nice patch of native grassland as well as some heavily-wooded ravines. Honorable mention goes to the hiking-only Arboretum Loop. On this half-mile trail, hikers go past roughly 50 kinds of trees, grass, and other flora and fauna.
Fort Stevenson State Park is near the sprawling Audubon National Wildlife Refuge. Since our feathered friends pay little attention to park boundaries, the skies above Fort Stevenson State Park are often filled with birds. There are about 250 native bird species in the ANWR, including ducks, gallinaceous birds (mostly grouses and pheasants), pelicans, sandpipers, and cranes. Large birds of prey, such as falcons and eagles, also pop up from time to time. There’s an observation platform near the guardhouse. But there are so many birds here, pretty much any spot is a good spot.