Scenic drives to remember
Excellent views of habitat, wildlife
By KIM FUNDINGSLAND
There’s several places within easy driving distance of Minot where beautiful scenery and wildlife abounds, and it can all be accessed from the comfort of your vehicle. A camera, binoculars or spotting scope, and an appreciation for all things outdoors is all that is necessary to enjoy the wonders of nature.
Four area National Wildlife Refuges – Upper Souris, J. Clark Salyer, Audubon, and Des Lacs, all have scenic routes within their boundaries that are open to the public. Closures of individual routes may occur from time to time due to severe weather conditions or other factors. If in doubt, prospective visitors can contact refuge headquarters for the latest information regarding access of the scenic routes.
J. Clark Salyer NWR Scenic Auto Tour Route
A route many consider to be one of the finest in North Dakota is located at the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge near Upham. What makes the J. Clark Salyer route appealing to many is the wide diversity of habitat, from grasslands, to water and timber that is home to many species of wildlife, big and small.
There are several interesting stops along the 22-mile route, including a pull-out adjacent to Dam No. 1, a rock structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s to control water levels within a portion of the refuge. This year, due to drought conditions and very low water levels in the Souris River, there is no water flowing over the structure and the rubble masonry dam is exposed much more than usual.
The tour route begins near refuge headquarters and gives the visitor an excellent look at the 4,300 acre marsh that comprises an important aspect of the J. Clark Salyer, an area that meets the needs of migratory waterfowl and a great variety of shorebirds.
A “must” stop along the route is Thompson well. It is well marked, as are other notable places along the self-guided tour. Thompson well is a remnant of the Thompson homestead that was located there prior to the construction of the refuge.
“There’s still a lot of people that use that well for drinking water,” said Gary Williams, J. Clark Salyer NWR.
The area near the well is mowed and includes a picnic table and comfort station, making it an ideal place for an outdoor lunch or just to pause a few minutes to observe the natural surroundings. It is also a stop-off point for the nearby Souris River Canoe Trail which has the distinction of being designated a National Recreation Trail.
Several “Texas crossings” are located on the auto tour route. The crossings are concrete sections of an otherwise gravel roadway, designed to prevent erosion during times of high water on the refuge. Willow Creek, which drains much of the Turtle Mountain region, merges with the Souris at J. Clark Salyer.
As the tour route continues through the southern part of the refuge, visitors will notice a change from the bottomlands of the Souris River to the sandhills which were the beach of glacial Lake Souris more than 10,000 years ago. If wishing to do so, visitors can park their vehicle and explore the uniqueness of the sandhills at their leisure. Additionally, the Sandhills Picnic Area provides a shaded and remote spot with a scenic view. Picnic tables and restroom facilities are available as well.
Further along the tour route, near its conclusion, is the Johnson Bridge. Built in 1908, the original Johnson Bridge was replaced by a new structure in 2010. However, due to the unique “pony truss” construction of the first Johnson Bridge, it was moved a few yards from its original location and remains on display.
The pony truss construction prior to 1910 used pin-connections rather than rivets. The old bridge was erected by the Fargo Bridge and Iron Company. Informational signage can be found at the site, including a brief history of John and Annie Johnson who homesteaded near the river crossing. Both Johnsons were born in Norway. Prior to settling in North Dakota John Johnson worked in the gold mines at Deadwood, S.D., where he crossed paths with Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Upper Souris NWR
Prairie-Marsh Scenic Drive
Less than a half-hour drive from Minot is the Prairie-Marsh Scenic Drive below Lake Darling on the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge. The paved drive is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. as conditions allow. The automated gate at the beginning of the drive is located near the intersection of County Roads 6 and 11.
Several points of interest are located along the self-guided tour which is marked with interpretive signs. One of the most popular turn-outs along the route offers visitors a splendid view of the refuge pools as seen from atop hills lining the Souris River valley. The sights and sounds, particularly on still mornings or evenings, can be spectacular as the air is filled with the sounds of birds and the pleasing rays of the rising or setting sun on the horizon.
For those who desire to combine a bit of exercise with their auto tour, three nature trails of varying lengths can be easily accessed from the route with a fourth trailhead at a nearby kiosk location.
Audubon NWR Auto Tour Route
To the south of Minot, less than one-hour away, is the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge. It is there that a nearly nine-mile auto tour route is open to the public. The route is primarily along the shores of Lake Audubon. It features rolling hills, wetlands, Lake Audubon, and, of course, wonderful opportunities to see wildlife from songbirds and waterfowl to white-tailed deer.
Eleven interpretive signs are located along the route, each explained in a brochure that is available at the refuge Visitors Center or on the refuge’s website. Because Lake Audubon attracts a variety of migratory birds, both species and numbers of birds to be seen can change dramatically with the changing seasons.
Des Lacs NWR Auto Tour Route
Located near Kenmare, this 19-mile auto tour route provides scenic views of the Des Lacs River Valley and is part of the North Dakota Scenic Backways program. A number of interpretive panels are located along the route and describe refuge wildlife and habitat. This route offers excellent wildlife viewing opportunities in the spring and fall, from small to large birds, white-tailed deer and even moose.