State Park Snapshot: Cross Ranch State Park
Updated: Apr 18
Cross Ranch State Park is an under-the-radar escape into nature. After a spring of staying inside, interest in outdoor escapes like State Parks is soaring.
And as we enter a social distancing summer, one where extended travel is discouraged, many of us are reexamining natural destinations close to home. State Parks are an easy, affordable and safe way to experience a change to scenery.
And although public buildings and programs remain closed at press time, the trails and public use areas (like boat ramps) in North Dakota State Parks are still open, so day trips are possible if you live a short drive away. There are plans to gradually (and safely) open up the rest of the parks’ amenities in shifts.
So in the coming weeks, I’ll be bringing you a closer look at State Parks in North Dakota and around the Midwest. I hope these will help you do a little vacation dreaming and plan your next socially distant trip. First up is Cross Ranch State Park.
The Missouri River in Cross Ranch State Park
Where to find it:
Cross Ranch State Park is located nine miles south of Washburn, North Dakota in the central part of the state.
The park feels wild and rugged. It contains one of the last free-flowing stretches of the Missouri River, so the view looks much the same as it would have to the indigenous nations who lived here well before fur traders and Lewis and Clark ever set eyes on this place.
The 589-acre grounds of Cross Ranch State Park provide access to a 5,000-acre nature preserve so there’s a lot of ground to cover. The landscape is mostly woodlands and river bottom forest, with some stretches of prairie grassland.
This is one of the quieter state parks in North Dakota. But that’s not because of a lack of visitors. It’s just that people who gravitate toward Cross Ranch come for solitude and time in nature, so it’s a pretty chill place.
Dusk in Cross Ranch State Park
What to do on the water:
The Missouri is a fabled river that runs through the history of the American west, so any trip to Cross Ranch State Park should include a walk along its banks. It’s particularly pretty at dusk.
See it from the 2.9-mile Matah Trail. It starts at the visitor center, moving along the river and through the most popular parts of the park before branching out to connect with the rest of the trail network.
It’s ideal to actually get out on the water if you’re able. There’s a boat dock for motorized and non-motorized watercraft right along the trail.
The Missouri is full of catfish, bass, pike, walleye and trout, so it’s popular with anglers too. Some fish from their boats, but it’s also pretty common to see anglers bank fishing. The Midwestern thing to do is to echo their silent nods as you hike on by.
What to do on land:
Speaking of hiking, Cross Ranch State Park has plenty of well-marked trails to choose from. There are a total of 16 miles of trails through the park and nature preserve that are begging to be explored. You can hike, mountain bike, cross country ski and snowshoe here, so it’s accessible in all seasons.
The aforementioned Matah Trail connects with other trails, like the Ma-ak-oti (or Old Village) Trail. This trail is steep in places, and you may need to use the handrails. But the Missouri River views are worth the effort.
I recommend the Cottonwood (3.3 miles) and Gaines (2.1) Trails, which weave through the bottomland forest. They’re flatter and wider, and I found lots of interesting wildlife there.
The 2-mile TNC Self-Guided Prairie Trail takes you through the grasslands, where you might spot wild bison. They can run up to 40 mph, so keep your distance.
The only trail I didn’t try was the Levis trail. The 2-mile hike takes you deep into the backcountry. Maybe next time!
If you’re new to hiking, check out my post about the basic hiking gear you need to start. You probably own most of the items on it already.
Stillness at Cross Ranch State Park
Flora and fauna:
I hiked here in the height of summer and I’ve never seen so many butterflies in a state park. I also found lots of singing songbirds and relentlessly chattering squirrels. And once, I stepped into a grove of trees and saw the white tuft of a deer turning tail.
Where to stay:
There are lots of ways to stay overnight at Cross Ranch State Park, from modern campsites with electric hookup to primitive campsites and tent camping spots. (Please note that these amenities are closed at press time.)
There are also charming, rustic and surprisingly spacious cabins available, as well as a couple yurts and one tipi. I stayed in a cabin at Cross Ranch, but I’ve tried all of these options before and they’re a great way to experience the outdoors without fully roughing it.
A prairie section of Cross Ranch State Park
Cross Ranch State has become a bit of a hotspot for geocaching, where you use GPS coordinates to find and leave little treasures. You can download the Geocaching app on your phone or rent a unit from the visitors center.
If you download the app, do it before you leave home, as coverage is spotty at the park. And remember that public buildings (including the visitor center) are closed for the moment.
What about you? What do you love about Cross Ranch State Park? What’s your favorite state park? What are your favorite outdoor activities? Do you prefer camping, RVing or glamping? Why?
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