Four years ago I was talking with a Bismarck friend whose job entails traveling all around North Dakota, and I asked him which part of the state he thought was the most beautiful. He answered that it was probably the Pembina Gorge, and ever since then I’ve wanted to visit that far northeast region. I wondered how it would compare to my beloved Turtle Mountains and Lake Metigoshe, just as far north but about 130 miles west of the Gorge. So earlier this summer, my husband Bruce and I decided to plan a weekend trip to Walhalla, where we would stay at the Sanctuary Guest House bed and breakfast and see the Gorge and other local sights.
We left home (Moorhead, Minn.) in the early evening on Friday, August 8. I had been missing the trees and hills of the northern Minnesota Iron Range, having been there in mid-July for a classical music festival, so the timing of our trip turned out well. (Of course, a Red River Valley dweller might feel the need for a bit of topographical contrast at any time of year.)
Scarcely another car crossed our path after we turned off I-29 north of Grand Forks. As we neared Walhalla, wheat fields with scattered shelterbelts rather quickly became more wooded and sloping land. When we arrived at Sanctuary House around 9:15 p.m., I was pleasantly surprised by the four tall, decorative columns supporting the front of the white house. I’m partial to that grand old style. We went inside and met the co-owner Deirdre, who showed us to the Granada room, with décor that seemed Moroccan-influenced and a private balcony. (Now I’ve looked up Granada, and though it’s near Morocco it’s actually in Spain.)
Over the next two days I appreciated the comfortable, calming accommodations of our bedroom, the shared guest bathroom, and the common rooms downstairs. The house had many decorative touches, like an oak leaf-shaped nightlight in the bathroom and a beautiful light fixture in our bedroom, but didn’t feel cluttered.
We didn’t want to do much after our arrival except wind down for the night, so we took a quick drive around town and then read magazines in the main floor sitting room of the house before going to bed. Breakfast the next morning at 8:30, at the Holly Street Eatery inside the house, was a chicken, vegetable, and egg scramble, peach streusel muffins, mango juice, and good, strong coffee. Even as we enjoyed breakfast I studied the chalkboard menu on the wall in anticipation of lunch.
Towards the end of breakfast, Deirdre brought us several maps and a few brochures and helped us formulate a plan for the day. We came up with quite the schedule for what a few days ago was “hike in the Gorge and find something else to do”: drive a short way to a scenic overlook of the Tetrault State Forest, hike Tetrault for an hour or two, drive to the Gingras Trading Post state historic site, have lunch at the eatery, check out the arts festival at the Walhalla school yard (including a jazz trio performance), kayak the Pembina River, have dinner at the town diner (or the bar, Deirdre said, “if you’re in the mood for fried mushrooms and pizza”), take an evening ATV tour through the Gorge with Deirdre and Mike, the Pembina Gorge Recreation Area manager, and cap the evening with a bottle of wine on our balcony.
After breakfast, before setting out, we sipped coffee as we wandered around the grounds. It occurred to me as we lingered in the side yard, with wrought iron furniture, lanterns, and a fire pit, that this B&B would be a great place for a multi-family getaway or a girls’ weekend. I’ll have to make sure not to forget my passport next time, though. Canada is only minutes away, and I learned from Deirdre later in the day that Winkler, a Manitoba town of about 11,000 located 17 miles from Walhalla, is a nice place to drive for dinner (her eatery only serves breakfast and lunch).
The scenic overlook and hike through the state forest were pleasant, though we wished the forest trail were a bit longer—it took less than an hour to reach the dead end at a marsh and retrace our path. Next was the Gingras Trading Post, only about 10 minutes away. From a certain point of view, I have to admit, visiting this site feels like seeing two boring buildings in a boring field. But when you imagine what it must have been like in the 1840-70s, when the trading post was active, you can appreciate the experience a lot more. Approaching the post back then, you would have felt a surge of excitement, as Bruce put it, about the chance to get new materials and the latest news.
The interiors of the two buildings, the old house especially, are well maintained and full of informative displays. Jeff the docent was friendly and helpful. At the trading post, they offer some basic complimentary refreshments, and Bruce and I chatted briefly with a resident from the region who had grown up speaking French at home. This was a nice real-life enhancement to the posted information about Métis (largely French and Chippewa-influenced) culture. I appreciated the reminder of cultural diversity in a part of the world, the upper Midwest, that often strikes me as not very culturally diverse on the surface. Before leaving Gingras, we bought a stuffed prairie dog for our newborn nephew.
Lunch back at the eatery was delicious. I had spring pea soup, a side salad with a variety of colorful vegetables, and a coconut cream trifle; Bruce had a BLT on focaccia. There were three parties having lunch besides us. After the meal I walked a few blocks to the annual Rendezvous Art and Heritage Festival and listened to the Sneaky Wild Oats jazz trio while lying back on the grass. The festival was small, with only a few art booths and some children’s activities, but I enjoyed watching a woman assist a young girl spin yarn at a spinning wheel for a while.
Our next activity, kayaking, turned out to be intimidating at first. We put in at a spot that was wider and busier with rapids than I had expected, though I’m sure to an experienced kayaker it was relatively tame. Bruce’s seat indentation filled up with water with almost right away when we went over rapids, and the same thing happened to me about halfway through the ride. We passed a few groups of locals tubing but no other kayakers. I was hoping to see at least one turtle sunning itself on a log or rock, but no luck there. We were both glad we took the option of a shorter and more scenic route instead of the less scenic route about twice as long that Deirdre and Mike had originally planned for us. It was good to try kayaking, but there probably aren’t any long excursions of the kind in our future.
Dinner at the Walhalla Inn, which we ended up trying instead of the diner or bar, was serviceable. We had two-for-one cocktails, Bruce had ribs at the buffet, and I had a quesadilla.
Our post-dinner ATV ride through the Gorge on two loops of multi-use trail—Bruce rode with Mike and I rode with Deirdre—was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It was a neat way to see the area, but I think I prefer hiking in general because an ATV ride, turns out, is rather dusty and loud. I was well advised by both Deirdre and Bruce not to shower until after the ride. We did see some beautiful views across the gorge, though most of the trail cuts through woods, and I liked being able to cover much more ground than we would have been able to on foot. The whole excursion, including getting to and from the trailhead, took about two hours.
During the ride, Deirdre—who also works 15 hours a week at the Walhalla Chamber—and I discussed the future of the Frostfire ski hill, currently owned and operated by an elderly couple that wants to retire before long. The state legislature recently rejected a proposal for the state to buy Frostfire. Deirdre’s view is that it would be a much better location for the recreation area headquarters than the current arrangement, and she doesn’t want to see the ski hill become some millionaire’s playground. I agreed on both counts.
We had to get back to Moorhead by midday on Sunday, so after an 8:30 breakfast of waffles we said goodbye to Deirdre and drove a few miles for one last outing, a short hike in Icelandic State Park on one of the trails in Susan Wefald’s book Spectacular North Dakota Hikes: Bring the Dog. I’d like to return to the park—it has a nice interpretive center and apparently a nice beach, which we would have checked out if not for a road detour. Parts of the Shady Springs Trail were lined with wild raspberry bushes, so I ate a couple raspberries as we walked along in the sunlight-dappled shade.
So how does the Pembina Gorge compare to the Turtle Mountains? In terms of scenic beauty, the Gorge may have a bit of an edge, though only a bit. Memories of several Turtle Mountains trips do make it a more special place for me, still, but I do want to go back to Walhalla and the Gorge to make additional memories there. Deirdre remarked to me at one point that the place she lives is one of the most overlooked spots within a state that in turn is one of the most overlooked spots in the country. I hope more people will get to know it, as we’re happy we did.