Camping. Fishing. Hiking. History. Hunting. Exploring.
Even “river angels.”
With an array of recreational opportunities, travelers road tripping through western North Dakota can be forgiven if they get sidetracked at Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina.
Peg Hellandsaas and her family took a leap of faith purchasing the resort northeast of Watford City in 2008 after it sat vacant during a Lake Sakakawea drought.
“Our family lived just down the road. It (the resort and surrounding area) was a part of who we are,” she explains.
So, they brought it back to life.
With the help of Watford City’s economic development organization, a welcoming and supportive community and family determination, Tobacco Gardens has blossomed.
Hellandsaas took another leap of faith in 2012, building a larger bait and tackle shop, expanding the restaurant to full service, and adding the Lewis and Clark group meeting room to accommodate banquets, meetings and even weddings. The campground, shady and spacious to accommodate today’s expansive RVs, was upgraded to 50-amp electrical hookups at every site.
Tobacco Gardens, which is served by McKenzie Electric Cooperative, may be best known for its walleye fishing, especially in the spring. Look for a little slowdown in the summer heat, Hellandsaas describes, but when fall colors embrace its Badlands setting, fishing heats up again, often continuing throughout the winter.
It also provides a place for hikers and bicyclists to camp in RVs, rather than tenting, when trekking the Little Missouri National Grassland’s Maah Daah Hey Trail.
The resort’s location makes it a convenient place to stay for travelers exploring the nature and history of the nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit, about 15 miles south of Watford City and the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands.
For some, Tobacco Gardens is a destination because of Lake Sakakawea and its fishing. In addition, an increasing number of people are enjoying kayaking and other paddle sports along with traditional canoeing, Hellandsaas adds.
Tobacco Gardens is a “River Angels” stop for paddlers trekking the Missouri River from its Montana origin, traveling downstream even as far as its Mississippi River confluence near St. Louis, Mo.
“I’m kind of known as ‘river mom,’” Hellandsaas laughs, because Tobacco Gardens provides a respite after long days on the water. It serves as a location to drop off and pick things up, doubles as a post office, and she even takes them to town to resupply.
Other visitors are simply meandering North Dakota. “They really don’t have a destination in mind; they want to explore North Dakota. … They check us out and explore,” Hellandsaas describes.
More people are traveling to less familiar places of the state, Hellandsaas suggests. “People are realizing there’s more to North Dakota than just big-name, traditional destinations.”
Guests come from Canada (before Canadian COVID-19 travel restrictions), Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota, and an increasing number are North Dakotans from throughout the state. Tobacco Gardens is a little slice of North Dakota hospitality, bringing first-time travelers, area residents and even longtime guests together in a family-like way.
Visit www.tobaccogardens.com(link is external), or check the resort's Facebook page for 2021 summer hours. Resort hours are limited during the off-season, once summer gives way to fall and winter. However, Tobacco Gardens remains open year-round because of the area’s hunting and winter fishing opportunities.
Summer remains the premier time to explore the resort, Lake Sakakawea and the area. Besides the usual questions – “How is the fishing?” or “Where are the fish biting?” – another question Hellandsaas gets is how the resort and surrounding area earned its name.
Much like the region, the name is steeped in history: “There was a plant, kinnikinnick, that grew here prolifically. … Native Americas dried it and used it for trade, money and smoked it in their pipes. That’s what we’re told,” Hellandsaas says with a smile.
Patricia Stockdill is a freelance writer from Garrison and member of McLean Electric Cooperative.
Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina
▶ WHERE: 27 miles northeast of Watford City on N.D. Highway 1806.
▶ AMENITIES: Full-service restaurant, on and off liquor sales, bait and tackle, marine accessories, convenience store, fish-cleaning station, modern accessible restroom and shower house, paved access road, boat ramp, boat and camper storage, RV dumpsite, on- and off-water gas, playground, courtesy boat slips, water (bring your own drinking water) and Lewis and Clark group meeting space available.
▶ STAY: More than 100 electrical camping sites, primitive tent camping areas, and two rustic, all-season rental cabins that comfortably sleep four and include bunk beds, a full-sized bed and propane grill. Cabin guests should bring bedding and cooking utensils. Camping reservations are encouraged.
▶ CONTACT: 701-842-4199 | www.tobaccogardens.com(link is external)
BIRNT HILLS HIKING
A scant 3-mile drive from Lake Sakakawea’s Tobacco Gardens Resort takes visitor to another western North Dakota hidden gem – the Birnt Hills hiking trail.
A U.S. Forest Service hiking trail within the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Birnt Hills loops through a mix of rugged Badlands buttes and rolling grass hills, and offers a panorama of Lake Sakakawea.
Just as Tobacco Gardens earned its name from history and folklore, the story behind the trail’s name, Birnt Hills, is that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark referred to the area’s red scoria buttes as the “birnt (burnt) hills.”
Dogs are allowed on the trail – two- and four-legged hikers alike should watch for rattlesnakes – and typical of North Dakota, wood ticks will likely be out in the spring and early summer. The trail is rated moderate in difficulty, but there is also an accessible short overlook for those just wanting to enjoy the scenery.
Download the app, AllTrails, for trail map, directions and GPS information.