A Wondrous Winter Hike Through North Dakota's Parks
Icicles shimmer from the tips of bare branches, frozen daggers gleaming against the brilliant blue sky. The thin sheet of ice that coats the snowdrifts shatters with a satisfying crack, like the caramelized sugar crust on top of a perfect crème brûlée. Passport stowed, I set out on foot across the International Peace Garden, nearly 2,400 acres of stillness (some four hours northwest of Fargo) where you can drive, walk, snowshoe or ski from North Dakota to Manitoba, Canada, and back again in frosty silence. No matter how many times I do it, this perfectly legal excursion always feels a little like a magic trick.
Back in my car, the dry blast of the heater roars to life along the Turtle Mountain Scenic Byway that connects the garden and Lake Metigoshe State Park, a secluded enclave along the border where forest trails and glacial lakes slumber under a thick blanket of white. A snowmobile trail links both locations, too, hugging the park's boundaries before connecting to over 300 miles of groomed trails that wind through the hills and woodlands that crown North Dakota's upper edge.
The state park's 12 miles of cross-country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing and fat-tire biking trails are quiet. I encounter just two skiers after strapping on snowshoes in the warming house. We nod our greetings, then turn our eyes skyward as fat, wet flakes flutter down like feathers. Snowshoes, skis and shoe skis are available for rent in the park office.
It's too early in the season for ice fishing, but the lakeside sledding hill stands ready. The candy-apple red of my sled slices through the pillow drifts rippling across the ice at the bottom of the run. Farther out on the frozen lake, a restless breeze skitters and whistles, shaping rounded mounds of snow until they're as smooth and swirled as meringues.
Related: Top 20 Things to Do in North Dakota
In my cozy two-bedroom state park cabin, I sleep the sleep of short, snow-kissed days and long, firelit nights, of the chill that colors your cheeks and lingers in the muscles of your thighs. I wake before dawn to make coffee, then bundle up to set out on a new section of untracked trail. Sunrise comes late in December. The liquid-orange sun burns through the fog, painting the clouds with a rosy-peach dawn.
A single perfect snowflake flutters into the stillness, its lacy edges impossibly intricate against the smooth curve of my knee. The image of it lingers on the back of my eyelids long after I move on—such a tiny thing, so packed with wonder.