National Parks and Recreation Along US-2: Part 2
We’re back for Part 2 of a Roadtrip-'62 ™ look at National Parks and other National lands along highway US-2. In my Part 1 discussion, we traveled from Bangor, Maine, to Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve in North Dakota. Today we begin west of there at Devil’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge, also in North Dakota. The refuge is what is known in the government terminology as a Waterfowl Production Area. Waterfowl Production Areas preserve both wetlands and grasslands critical to waterfowl and are funded by hunting stamps sold by the federal government. These stamps are known as “Duck Stamps” and the program they fund has been called the most successful conservation program ever. Places like Devil’s Lake and the connected Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1935, help benefit migratory birds and other wildlife. This area of the prairie contains many small lakes known as prairie potholes, which are small depressions or wetlands bordered by wetland grasses, left by receding glaciers after the Ice Age. Besides these areas in North Dakota, the Bowdoin National Wetland Management District in Montana, is another prairie wetlands and grasslands area we pass. It also contains many small lakes and was established using money from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps, with the first part being purchased in 1958. It encompasses 13 separate sites and over 150 grassland and/or wetland easements.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail roughly retraces the 1804-1806 route of the famous expedition that explored the new Louisiana Purchase territory. It extends for about 3,700 miles from Wood River, Illinois, to the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. This makes it the second longest of the 23 National Scenic and National Historic Trails. But unlike most of the others, the Lewis and Clark is not a hiking trail. Instead, it provides some locations for hiking, along with locations for boating and horseback riding. This somewhat duplicates the experiences of the original Corps of Discovery, which crossed the country by walking, traveling in boats, and on horseback as conditions required. The National Park Service first proposed a "Lewis and Clark Tourway" along the Missouri River in 1948. Several designs later, and after the National Parks and Recreation Act amendments in 1978 provided for a new category of trails known as National Historic Trails, work began on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The trail runs along US-2 from near Williston, North Dakota west to Nashua, Montana.
Just past Williston is Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the Upper Missouri River. Seven Native American Indian Tribes of the northern Great Plains traded here. The trading post was built by John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company and was not a government or military installation, but a privately owned business. The location was chosen because it was at the point where two important trade rivers, the Missouri River and the Yellowstone River, joined. Besides trade, the fort became important as a base of operations for artists and scientists who came west to learn about and document the region's native peoples, wildlife, and landscape. John James Audubon, George Catlin, Prince Maximilian of Wied, and Karl Bodmer were among the many who came and published their results and helped fuel the mass migration west that occurred after the Civil War. When the trading post closed in 1867, the fort was dismantled to build a new fort by the US Army at nearby Fort Buford and the remains were scavenged by others, leaving nothing of consequence at the site within a few years. The National Park Service acquired the site in 1966 and after archaeological excavations, Fort Union Trading Post was reconstructed and opened to the public in 1988.
Just a few miles from the fort, we cross into Montana and travel with the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which just touches US-2 at Nashua, Montana. The refuge was named western artist Charles M. Russell, who often portrayed the refuge’s landscape in his paintings. Comprising 1.1 million acres along the Missouri River, running south and west from the Fort Peck Dam, the size and remoteness of the refuge has resulted in very little change from the historic voyage of the Lewis and Clark expedition. In addition to providing for wildlife, the refuge also allows camping, hunting, fishing opportunities, boating, and other recreation. Excellent wildlife viewing and photography opportunities include the return each fall of hundreds of elk in the Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area, creating a spectacle not to be missed. Fossils are also found in the area, such as a new species of long-necked plesiosaur known as an elasmosaur in 2010.
One of the more spectacular National Parks is Glacier National Park in Montana. US-2 runs along the Middle Fork Flathead River and the entire southern border of the park. These high mountains sit at a triple continental divide, with rivers flowing to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and to Hudson's Bay from here. The park was created in 1910, six years before the National Park Service was created. So unlike several of the sites we just mentioned, we could have visited Glacier in 1962. Glacier National Park is aptly named: you can still find active glaciers here today. The heart of the park is the area known as Many Glacier. While that area is far north of US-2, we will see snow at the tops of peaks over 9,000 feet tall during the early or late parts of the year. In the interior, these massive mountains are also home to lakes, hiking trails, and wildlife such as bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and beavers. There’s even a golf course with spectacular views at West Glacier! (Though it didn’t open until 1969.)
Back at the east side of the park, near East Glacier Park Village, Montana, US-2 crosses the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The height and difficult terrain of the Continental Divide has meant that hiking trails are harder to establish here than back east. Unlike the Appalachian Trail along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, which was open from Maine to Georgia by 1937, the corresponding trail along the crest of the Rocky Mountains is much newer. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail was first declared in 1978 legislation and was only opened after 1985. Even today, it is considered only 70% complete and portions must be traveled by walking on nearby roads. The trail runs 3,100 miles from the Canadian border in Montana to the Mexican border in New Mexico. Often much higher than its eastern counterpart, the Continental Divide trail varies from 4,000 feet to over 13,000 feet in elevation.
Montana also has two national forests, now that we are out of the Great Plains. We come first to the Flathead National Forest and then to the Kootenai National Forest. The Flathead National Forest contains three wilderness areas, and cabins that are available to rent for overnight stays. Some of the cabins do not have electricity, only one has indoor plumbing, and some require that you hike, ski, or snowmobile in to them. Sounds like a great place to experience real solitude. The Flathead butts up against the Kootenai, sort of making for one giant national forest. Kootenai National Forest also extends into Idaho and encompasses over 2.2 million acres, making it nearly three times the size of Rhode Island! This is an area of high craggy peaks, with Snowshoe Peak at 8,738 feet, the highest point in the forest.
Also in Idaho is the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, an amalgamation of three former and smaller national forests. We pass through the Kaniksu, but the new forest also includes the former Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe National Forests. Kaniksu National Forest was established in 1908, being split from the Priest River National Forest. Parts of other national forests were added in 1933 and 1954, before it was eventually combined into the Idaho Panhandle in 1973. The combined forest has all the usual national forest features plus a working tree nursery that provides planting stock for forests all over the west. The combined forest is also a great place for water-based recreation, as it has Idaho's three largest lakes: Coeur d'Alene, and Pend Oreille and Priest Lake, which are both near US-2. We also pass another national land in Idaho using the Kootenai name: Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge was established in 1964 as a migratory waterfowl refuge. There is a 4.5 mile auto tour route and four hiking trails.
On the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, at Sandpoint, Idaho, we cross the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. This trail meets us again at Spokane, Washington and then travels with us to Wilbur, Washington, crossing US-2 one final time near Dry Falls, Washington. The Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail marks a series of cataclysmic floods that came at the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 to 17,000 years ago. In 2001, the National Park Service proposed that an Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail be established. This is not a hiking trail, but a network of marked auto touring routes through Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. It is not yet completed, but is expected to have several special interpretive centers along the routes, to bring the story of the Ice Age Floods to the public’s attention.
There are two more national forests, in Washington State, before we come to the end of US-2. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest lies east of the Cascade Crest, and has elevations up to 9,000 feet at the crest. The original Wenatchee National Forest was established in 1908, and at that time there were nearly 150,000 sheep grazing on the lands within the forest. It was combined with Okanogan National Forest in 2000. That forest was also originally created in 1908. Both forests were home to several Conservation Corps Camps during the 1930, which improved roads and other infrastructure. The combined forest is large enough to have highly varied landscapes, from mountain valleys of old growth forest, to dry and rugged shrub-steppe country at its eastern edge.
Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is one of the most visited national forests in the country, due to its ease of access from the Seattle area on the west side of the Cascades. The forest contains glacier-covered peaks, mountain meadows, and old-growth forests. This forest was set aside from development before there was such a thing as a national forest, when President Grover Cleveland turned eight million acres into reserves. Washington State citizens were outraged at the time, because this action kept them from cutting timber, mining, farming and grazing. Since then, attitudes towards wilderness have changed and the forest is now seen as a natural wonder. This forest reserve was split into the Washington National Forest and the Snoqualmie National Forest in 1908. The Washington National Forest was later renamed the Mt. Baker National Forest and the two were reunited in 1973.
We have one more trail to cross, the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This trail crosses US-2 near Deception Falls in the Stevens Pass area, Washington. The trail travels 2,650 miles from the Mexican border through California, Oregon, and Washington to the Canadian border. It is one of the original National Scenic Trails established by Congress in 1968, though that still makes it too new for Roadtrip-'62 ™. So, I guess we’re done. In our 2660-mile journey across the northern United States, we’ve seen 10 National Forests, 9 National Wildlife Refuges, 1 National Park, 1 National Historic Site, 6 National Scenic or other trails, 1 US Army Corps of Engineers project, 1 National Memorial, and 1 National Game Preserve. There are not a lot of big cities this far north, but plenty of forests and wildlife refuges. I hope you’ve found something to visit; I know I’ll be back to a few in the future.
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