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Frolicking in the forests

TURTLE MOUNTAINS - The narrow gravel road winds endlessly to the south, as the trees hugging its edges give you the sensation of traveling down a chute.

TURTLE MOUNTAINS - The narrow gravel road winds endlessly to the south, as the trees hugging its edges give you the sensation of traveling down a chute.

Glimpses of a bright blue sky dance atop the dense green forest canopy as you look upward, but you then quickly refocus on the curves ahead.

Just as you begin to wonder if the road truly leads you somewhere, the landscape widens. The trees provide thick shadow over green grass that's been cut to shape peaceful, scenic camping sites. Just off in the distance is the soft sound of waves splashing a shoreline, while songbirds welcome you with lighthearted chirping from above.

Now you can relax and become immersed in the scenic beauty and serenity of what is likely the state's best kept secret for outdoor enthusiasts - a campground in a North Dakota State Forest.

The North Dakota Forest Service, an agency under North Dakota State University, manages the five primary state forest areas. The Homen State Forest and the Turtle Mountain State Forest are located in the Turtle Mountains along North Dakota Highway 43. The Mouse River State Forest is north of Towner, and the Tetrault Woods State Forest is in the beautiful Pembina Gorge along the banks of the Pembina River near Walhalla.

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The southernmost state forest is the Sheyenne located along the Sheyenne River between Lisbon and Fort Ransom. The Sheyenne State Forest is unique in that it is home to the state's only natural waterfall.

State Forest Service Information and Education Coordinator Glenda Fauske said a lot of the land it oversees was purchased in the 1950s.

"It hasn't been developed. We just haven't had the money," she said. "It has always been open to camping. We don't have a lot of staff to maintain it and do much."

Most people have come to know Forest Service land and the opportunities associated with it through hunting and snowmobiling, Fauske said.

"We do promote and advertise and try to have our information out there," she said. "I think most people are just more familiar with the state parks."

The Turtle Mountain State Forest area includes the Strawberry Lake Recreation Area that provides primitive camping, fishing, a swimming beach, canoeing access, a picnic area and access to extensive hiking, snowmobiling and cross country skiing trail systems.

Just to the west of Strawberry Lake is the new Twisted Oaks Equestrian Campground. Fauske said horse enthusiasts used to camp at Strawberry Lake "but then the horses used to be on the swimming beach."

Instead, Twisted Oaks offers horseback riders their own facility, complete with corrals and auxiliary water tanks for horses, primitive camping, drinking water, fire rings, picnic tables and access to over 16 miles of trails on the western edge of the Turtle Mountains.

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Along with the modest $7 per night camping fee, a $3 fee per horse per night is also charged at Twisted Oaks.

Across from Twisted Oaks on the north side of Highway 43 is the latest major project pursued by the state Forest Service in the creation of the Mystical Horizons Scenic Overlook.

The project was a partnership with the North Dakota Department of Transportation and the city of Bottineau and is the equivalent of a 21st century Stonehedge that overlooks the valley below the Turtle Mountains.

Mystical Horizons was the dream of Bottineau native Jack Olson, who worked for NASA before returning to Bottineau to retire. Olson died in August 2001 of cancer before his idea could become a reality, but by then he had passed on his enthusiasm for the project to Bottineau County Auditor Mae Streich, who continued its pursuit.

"When he retired and came to the Forest Service and the community of Bottineau and said they should do this overlook site, nobody really had the money to do it, but we had the plans," Fauske said.

Area residents wanted to honor Olson in some way so a number of entities and individuals partnered to get the funding for the project which cost an estimated $100,000. The state DOT contributed $80,000 for the bulk of the project's funding.

"A lot of school groups are using it for educational purposes," Fauske said.

The site includes a steel tube that is directed at the Polaris star to the north. There's also a sundial with Roman numerals to tell time that is oriented to solar noon.

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The last component is six walls with slots in them representing the solar calendar. Direct sunlight only passes through the walls on the winter and summer solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

The Turtle Mountain State Forest also includes Hahn's Bay Recreation Area on the west shore of Lake Metigoshe. Hahn's also offers primitive camping, fishing and boating access to the lake and a picnic shelter.

Just to the east is Homen State Forest, which includes the Pelican-Sandy Lake Recreation Area, the Heartley-Boundary Primitive Area and the Long Lake public access.

Pelican-Sandy also offers primitive camping, drinking water, a picnic shelter and fishing and canoeing access.

The Hartley-Boundary area has no developed recreation facilities, but has four miles of hiking trails. The largest aspen and balsam poplar trees in the state also are found in this forest area.

"There is a lot of peace and tranquility," Fauske said of the areas open to the public. "People want to get back and enjoy the wildlife.

The Mouse River State Forest offers hiking, hunting, cross country skiing and wildlife viewing and also is north of the Towner State Nursery.

The Tetrault Woods State Forest offers hiking and canoeing on the Pembina River.

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The Sheyenne State Forest has hiking trails and backcountry camping is allowed at the mineral spring and waterfall locations.

"Not everybody wants to go to a state park," Fauske said. "You have a lot of people who want to hike 10 miles back in the woods and pitch a tent and not see anybody."

"There are those who like the state parks and all the amenities they provide," Fauske added. "Then there are those people who are looking for the more primitive experience and want to get out in our woods."

Meanwhile, the state Forest Service continues to ask for additional funds to provide more services.

"We have lots of irons in the fire. We have lots of things we want to do," she said.

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