Hiking gets a leg-up from state department
North Dakota Parks & Recreation encourages residents to visit facilities through challenge
DICKINSON – You wouldn’t think it, but there are many people — especially here in North Dakota — who view hiking as a competitive endeavor, and desire the most-challenging trails and areas on which to participate in it.
In fact, the statistics for hiking in North Dakota have risen significantly in recent years, and much of that can be attributed to the state’s abundant beauty and the accessibility of the parks in the 701 area code. Dickinson itself is home to no less than a half-dozen trails by itself, and one of the nation’s most-famous parks — Teddy Roosevelt National Park — is about a half-hour’s drive down I-94 and north of Medora.
Benjamin Rae, the executive director of the Dickinson Parks & Recreation Department, said people have just about had it with the snowy winter, and typically, "once the calendar turns to March, people are really chomping at the bit to get outdoors to recreate."
"People really haven't been able to get on it (the local hiking trails) and it really has extended our winter options for people who like to go out cross-country skiing," Rae said. "But hiking — and I hate to say this and jinx myself — is just around the corner. I would say within the next four to eight weeks you're going to see a lot of people that are going to be out on the trails."
Since 1965, the number of hikers, nationwide, has increased 120-percent to upwards of 50M people, according to statistics from Statista and the American Hiking Society, and there are almost 200,000 miles of trails across the country on federal lands alone. With this level of accessibility and interest, it’s easy to see why so much energy is devoted to what is fast becoming almost a sporting event.
Here in North Dakota, the state’s Parks & Recreation Department decided to boost a statewide challenge — which began a few years ago — devoted to encourage visiting at least one state park per month and hike the trails. There are 14 qualifying parks on the list, with another six "bonus" parks to choose from starting in 2023, and the state has already seen significant interest in the challenge even though the weather has been less than ideal so far this year.
The program has been ongoing for the last three years, and has been quite successful and well-attended, and in 2023 the NDP&RD added the six bonus city park districts to the map, including Dickinson’s Crooked Crane Trail, a 1.9-mile hike that starts at the campground/beachfront at Patterson Lake. The other bonus parks can be found in Williston, Minot, Grand Forks, Bismarck and Fargo.
The hiking trails in Dickinson are open now for those individuals hearty enough to get outdoors, and once they get to there all the signage gives folks all the information they need about the trail. At the Patterson Lake's trailhead there is a QR code that guides people to the 12 Months,12 Hikes Challenge information and the NDP&RD's Web sites to register.
Maxine Herr, who serves as the state’s strategic communications specialist for NDP&R said, “that is significant with a winter like this,” and it’s not even Spring yet.
“What is significant in the real hikes we have already — and you think about this winter that doesn’t seem to want to end — that when it does finally end and we start to see these trails dry out, imagine people itching to get out and get to hiking the parks,” Herr said. “You’re already hearing about people just desperately wanting to go camping, you know?”
Josh Steffan, who is the education and programs division chief, agreed with those contentions, adding that, “Cabin fever is at an all-time high.” Last year, Steffan said, there were 1,900 people who participated in the challenge total throughout the year and those individuals recorded 14,000 hikes among themselves. So far in 2023, despite the frigid temperatures, there have been 1,400 people who already have recorded a few-thousand hikes of their own.
“We’re on track; we’re under last-year’s total number, of course, but for the first three months we’re almost hitting 80-percent of last-year’s complete total,” Steffan said. “We’d definitely be on track to double last-year’s total, and with the weather we’ve had we’ve still seen over 2,600 hikes that have been recorded so far this year in the first two months. That’s quite saying something about the tenacity of North Dakotans that need to get out and hike and there’s some die-hards out there who do this snow-or-shine.”
He added, “With hiking in general, people try to push themselves to see if ‘we can take on this seven- or 12-mile hike,’ and try to get somewhere not a lot of other people can necessarily get to or a particular view or vista that’s off the beaten track,” and it almost takes on a competitive sort of environment.
He said the challenge, “encourages people to hike all months of the year, potentially,” and while it can be difficult in the long winter months, there was just a hike conducted at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park over last weekend and people “are thankful to have a nice bright sunny day to get outside and get rid of those winter blues.”
When the national trails system was created in 1965, there were about 88,000 miles of trails on federal lands, with another 15,000 on state lands, and that figure has risen to 193,500 and 42,500, respectively. In the last 10 years, the number of participants also has increased from an estimated 34M hikers and another 9M backpackers to a current estimate of 57.8M total hikers in 2020.
Also, it was estimated in 2019 by the National Park Service that North Dakota sees an extra $65.5 million annually from visitation to national parks, according to a peer-reviewed spending analysis from economists Catherine Cullinane Thomas and Egan Cornachione of the U.S. Geological Survey and Lynne Koontz of the National Park Service. "The report shows that nationwide more than 318 million park visitors spent $20.2 billion in communities located within 60 miles of a national park. That spending supported 329,000 jobs nationally; 268,000 of those jobs are found in gateway communities. The cumulative benefit to the U.S. economy was $40.1 billion," the analysis said.
For more information about North Dakota’s abundance of outdoor recreation, please visit https://www.parkrec.nd.gov/ or call 701-328-5357. For information about Dickinson’s Parks & Recreation Department, please visit https://dickinsonparks.org/ or call 701-456-2074. To learn more about national parks in North Dakota and how the National Park Service works with communities to help preserve local history, conserve the environment, and provide outdoor recreation, go to www.nps.gov/northdakota.