ND Parks and Rec improves the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area

The North Dakota Department of Parks and Recreation (NDPRD) has been working closely with the Pembina Gorge Foundation in efforts to not only make improvements to trail system located in the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area but make it a more accessible summer destination.

Posted 04/28/2017

By Melissa Anderson

Currently, the Foundation is in the process of developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NDPRD regarding the shared mission of implementing the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area Master Plan that was developed in December of 2014. The plan lays the groundwork for development of the recreation opportunities in the area.

“This plan was developed through large amounts of public surveying, public meetings and stakeholder interviews,” Mike Duerre, manager of the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, stated, “The NDPRD has partnered with the Pembina Gorge Foundation to implement the priorities identified in that planning process.”

The Master Plan includes a guiding statement as follows:

The Department will provide and enhance outdoor recreation opportunity through diverse parks and programs that conserve the state’s natural diversity.

“This MOU will be the basis of an exciting new private-public partnership between the Foundation and the Department,” Dawn Keeley, co-founder of the Foundation and Executive Director of the Red River Regional Council, shared,“In fact, the Master Plan includes, as its first priority, the establishment of an organization to support improvement, management and promotion of the State Recreation Area.”

The second priority of the plan is to design and build a visitor center and associated landscape. In early 2016, NDPRD began the first steps of the second priority by relocating from its offices in Walhalla to Frost Fire. With the established visitor center, Frost Fire will further become the destination hub and visitor center within the Pembina Gorge.

With the Foundation’s imminent acquisition of the Frost Fire property, the implementation of six of the 16 priorities in the Master Plan can take place including a visitor center, maintenance and storage facility, additional multi-use non-motorized trails, improved river launch and access sites for paddling, trail grooming for winter non-motorized recreation, and develop cabins or yurts as lodging in the area.

The projects slated to occur in the near future include an overlook at the trailhead, a connector trail from Frost Fire to the trail system, and a mountain bike terrain park.  These projects are funded through a competitive grant process called the Recreation Trails Program, which is funded through the Federal Highway Administration based on a percentage of the tax collected for the use of fuel in motorized recreational vehicles such as ATVs and snowmobiles.

“We are currently working through a land purchase which is being funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) with a sale of other NDPRD land to be used for matching funds,” Duerre stated.

The LWCF is derived from an extraction tax on off-shore oil drilling. This land purchase will facilitate campground development in the future. At this time, they do not have the funds in place to develop the campground but look for that in the near future.

NDPRD has four projects with secured funding totaling $402,500 that are slated for construction in 2017 including the scenic overlook estimated at $40,000, the downhill mountain bike trails that totaled $250,000  and will be built at Frost Fire, the Frost Fire multi-use trail that is estimated at $137,500, and finally land acquisition that is settled at $200,000. With the funding secured, the two main projects that will be focused on this year are the overlook project and the terrain park.

“We are still working through the details of the connector trail, so I don’t want to put a time frame on that at this time. The connector trail will tie the visitor center at Frost Fire into the trail system so users can take advantage of the amenities offered,” Duerre explained.

The mountain bike terrain park will consist of two runs to start. They will be beginner and intermediate levels. Each run will consist of features along the trail for users to engage. These features will include jumps, wall rides, and other features. There is always an opportunity to opt out of the feature. Users and their bikes will ride the ski lift to the top of the hill to start their adventure.

“We are still working through the route for these trails, but it should add 3-4 miles to the system,” Duerre explained, “There are 16 miles of multiuse trails creating a 22 mile looped system.”

These additions will bring the total to about 20 miles of actual multiuse trail. Duerre explained that trail systems in the gorge can be complicated because, while it’s 16 miles of physical trail, those going on the trail need to prepare for 22 miles of riding/hiking to make it back to the trailhead.

“If they are hiking, that makes a big difference,” Duerre said.

The overlook project will simply be a space identified and delineated to let the public know that there is a great view to be seen from that spot. It will contain informational panels highlighting the unique geological and paleontological aspects of the Pembina Gorge.

The trails themselves will be seen as major economic impactors for the area as similar projects across the country have been found to be extremely beneficial to the economies of surrounding areas. Mountain biking is a thriving tourist attraction across the nation as biking enthusiasts and adventurers seek new trails to traverse.

“The terrain park will provide a new opportunity for visitors to the area and, hopefully, will bring new ones,” Duerre said.

Several studies have shown that bicycling assists in the creation of economic growth in the United States, which isn’t surprising when 60 million adult Americans age 18 or older ride a bike each year. According to a 2010 study prepared by the The Outdoor Foundation found bicycling has major benefits including:

• $133 billion annual contribution to the U.S. economy.

• Supports nearly 1.1 million jobs across the U.S.

• Produces $53.1 billion annually in retail sales and services.

• $46.9 billion in bicycling trip-related expenditures.

• Generates $17.7 billion in annual federal and state tax revenue.

• Provides sustainable growth in rural communities.

With the addition of the new trails, the Pembina Gorge has substantial mileage available to traverse through. Besides the hiking, biking, and ATV, the trails are also popular among equestrians. Horseback riding is fairly common on the trails in the Gorge and the non-motorized trail system is often used by equestrian groups.

“There is an overnight trail ride hosted by the Walhalla Ridge Riders Saddle Club,” Duerre said.

The Pembina Gorge itself covers 12,500 acres and features the longest unaltered stretch of river valley in the state. The breathtaking scenery was created by a  glacial melt that carved the Gorge out of soft marine shales, creating one of North Dakota’s deepest and steepest river valleys. The beauty of the scenery is only matched by its biological and ecological diversity as the Pembina Gorge is home to a wide range of tree species among the oak, birch, and wetland thicket as well as 21 animal species that are categorized as rare in the state.

The Pembina Gorge also contains a 75 to 80-million-year-old fossil site containing Mosasaurs, or giant sea lizards, birds, fish, squid and other fossils. At least four Mosasaurs, along with sharks, fish vertebra and fish scales have been discovered and identified by the North Dakota Geological Survey over the course of their annual digs that take place during late summer. This year the dig is slated for August 8 through 12.

“We offer hiking, biking, ATV, kayaking, birding, photography, equestrian, etc. We strive to create a place for families of all age ranges and outdoor interests to come and enjoy the Pembina Gorge,” Duerre said.

With so much to offer already, the continued developments and improvements to the area are sure to make it a location worth seeing. The Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area is planning for mid-summer construction of the terrain park with a soft opening this fall. The overlook at the trailhead will likely be completed by the middle of July which will allow summer tourists to take full advantage of the new addition as they explore the Pembina Gorge located in the heart of the Rendezvous Region.