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Fall Colors In The Pembina Gorge and Tetrault Woods State Forest

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

Yes, North Dakota has trees. The Pembina Gorge and Tetrault Woods State Forest are two of the prettiest places to spot them. And if you love fall colors, there’s no better time to go than right now.

If you can arrange an impromptu trip, I promise you won’t regret it. This place is a balm for forest lovers in any season, but it’s spectacular during the last days of September and early October, when the tree canopy bursts with orange, russet and gold.

Pembina Gorge Masonic Overlook

A scenic drive

The Tetrault Woods State Forest is located near Walhalla, North Dakota, just seven miles from the Canadian border. The drive alone is soothing, with pops of autumn color everywhere you look. It’s part of the Rendezvous Region Scenic Backway, which starts outside Cavalier and ambles northwest.

The colors deepen as you drive through the Tetrault Woods State Forest a mile and a half south of Walhalla. As Highway 32 winds along the Pembina River towards the town, it climbs slowly upward, giving road trippers a gorgeous view of the colorful valley below.

If you need some additional scenic drive ideas, check out Midwest Road Trip Adventures, the new book I co-authored with other Midwestern travel writers. It includes some of the coolest road trip routes across the region, perfect for cold weather social distancing.

If you order using the link listed above by October 1,  I’ll send you a free four pack of North Dakota postcards that includes an image from Walhalla! Just tell me your confirmation number in the comments section below.

A stream in Pembina Gorge

Recreation in the Tetrault Woods State Forest

There are hiking and equestrian trails through the Tetrault Woods State Forest, so you can see the fall colors from within. In the winter, you can snowmobile and cross-country ski here too, so it’s a destination for all seasons.

This is a place that the locals treasure, but it’s largely unknown outside of the region. The most common question I get (after where to find it) is if you can see the scenery without hiking.

You can. Folks pressed for time or individuals with limited mobility can check out the bold, bright leaves from several scenic overlooks.

The Tetrault Woods State Forest Overlook

Epic views

The Masonic Overlook offers a telescope, benches, picnic spot, a cool elk sculpture and scenic views right in Walhalla. (A companion moose sculpture sits right in the middle of town.)

If you’re lucky, you might spot an actual elk or moose too. Walhalla is billed as the moose capital of North Dakota.

My favorite picnic spot is the Tetrault Woods Scenic Overlook. You’ll find it just a bit west of town on the byway. It’s a peaceful spot and very pretty at sunset. I also think it has the best water views, since you can see the Pembina River branch off in two directions.

Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area has a fairly accessible viewing area as well. It’s not as elevated or dramatic as the others, but it’s a good option to see the Pembina Gorge from a different angle.

Hiking in Pembina Gorge

Exploring Pembina Gorge

Driving and enjoying the scenic views are great ways to experience the beauty of the region. But I really recommend getting down on the trails if you’re able to. This is an unusual place that’s better appreciated up close.

The Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area makes it easy to experience the forest through a system of over 30 miles of multi-use trails that stretch along the river. You can kayak here in warm weather. It’s a popular spot for hiking, mountain biking and riding horses and off-road vehicles too.

Hiking is always my preference and the Three Sister Trail didn’t disappoint. The ranger I spoke to said it’s smart go early in the season, when the fall colors are only at about 40%.

Blazing red sumac at Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area

That’s because this region contains the state’s largest concentration of oak trees, which turn brown in the fall. So if you go early, you avoid a predominantly brown scene and the colors look brighter against the green trees. As an added bonus, you might be able to see the red sumac blazing for a little extra drama.

After a brisk hike down into the river valley and back again, we were back on the highway. Sometimes it’s nice to just cruise around with no goal in mind other than appreciating the view.

What about you? What’s your favorite place to see fall colors? Are you a scenic drive person? Or do you prefer hiking, biking, horseback riding or riding an ATV? Why? What’s your favorite scenic byway or backway?

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