Question: What is the oldest state park in North Dakota?
Answer: Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.
Established in 1907, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in Mandan, North Dakota offers visitors a wealth of history and scenic views. Significantly, it was from Fort Abraham Lincoln that hundreds of soldiers left for what turned out to be the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, also called Custer's Last Stand.
In 1872, the U.S. Military established Fort McKeen. A few months later, the name of the infantry post was changed to Fort Abraham Lincoln and the fort was soon expanded to include a calvary post. Visitors will find signs in the state park referring to both Fort McKeen and Fort Abraham Lincoln. If you do visit, allow time to read through the informational displays. Be sure to ask questions of staff and dig into the history of the area during your stay. Doing so will greatly enhance your park experience.
Though the park is likely covered in snow at this writing, just a few months ago, Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park showcased prairie grasses of green and gold. Summer was coming to a close during our visit and the walking paths were ripe for trekking; grasshoppers and all. We gave our sneakers, legs and pup a workout on the park's nearly 19-mile trail system.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park consists of a little more than 1,000 acres of land. There are park roads and parking areas at several of the attractions if you prefer to drive though the park. But, if you enjoy a good walk and keep track of your daily steps like we do, get ready for your fitness tracker to start smoking. There's just a lot to see! We guarantee you'll quickly meet your step goal.
Park officials offer Living History Tours of Fort Abraham Lincoln, including the reconstructed Custer House. The original once housed Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his wife. We spent one brisk morning sitting on the porch of the Custer House watching the sun come up. To our surprise, a recording of a bugle broke the silence as people began to stir around the park. A park guide dressed in a military uniform from 1875 marched to the flag pole to raise the American flag. Another park guide, also dressed as a soldier, arrived at Custer House to open it for the day. He greeted us and provided information about the available tour. It certainly was an interesting start to the morning.
Later, we followed the signs to the barracks to get an idea of how soldiers lived at Fort Abraham Lincoln. The building was recreated with beds, footlockers, clothing, rifles, lanterns, and kitchen supplies. From there we made our way from the calvary post to the reconstructed blockhouses on the hilltop.
The blockhouses were once used to protect the infantry post. You can enter some of the blockhouses and read about their history. If you choose to climb the stairs to the top of one of the blockhouses, you'll be rewarded with scenic river views. A slight turn and you'll be greeted with an outstanding view of the North Dakota State Capital of Bismarck. While not all blockhouses or other buildings on the fort have been reconstructed, there are building indicators (blocks), informational signs and some photos describing and/or showing its previous layout.
As you make your way through the park you also learn about the first area village called On-A-Slant Indian Village. The Mandan Native American tribe built the village on an area sloping toward the river. It's said to have contained round homes called earthlodges and some have been reconstructed. It's believed the village was occupied for about 200 years before eventually being devastated by a smallpox outbreak around 1781. More information about the Mandan tribe and the village can be explored at the park's Visitor Center. There are displays that include artifacts, drawings and photos. Other Visitor Center displays include information about the Civilian Conservation Corps used to reconstruct the village and areas of Fort Abraham Lincoln in the mid 1930s.
The trails at Fort Abraham Lincoln are designed for walking, biking and horse riding. Did we mention grasshoppers? Yes, we sure did. The grassy trails are filled with the green jumpers. As we walked through the grass the hoppy bugs would leap onto our legs, shirts, and into our hair. No biggie if you like grasshoppers. Our pup wasn't quite sure what to think, but she did give a few of them a ride. Eventually, she ignored most of them. No easy task as the grasshoppers made themselves very well known.
Like us, a lot of people brought pets to the park. Our pup joined us on miles of walks and we enjoyed spending time with her. A couple of buildings were off limits to pets and ours had to wait outside. When that happens, we just take turns hanging out with our pup while the other goes inside for a look around. It's all a part of traveling with a pet.
Fort Abraham Lincoln has a lot of windy, wide-open spaces. To take a break, we headed to the park's Commissary Store for a hot cup of coffee. We had read a sign outside the building indicating they offered a coffee bar with menu items to rival any favorite coffee shop. Unfortunately, we learned the college students who work at the park during the summer months had already packed up and returned to school. Labor Day way just around the corner and the absence of students meant no barista. Straight up coffee was available and cream if you wanted it. That was fine. The assortment of muffins, ice cream and cold drinks were also in low supply. We guess that's to be expected near the end of the summer season. There were a few tables on an outside patio deck and we grabbed one. There we warmed up a bit with a regular cup of coffee, as we shared the last sweet roll available from the coffee bar.
Interested in a good read? The bookshop in the Commissary Store was filled to the rafters! And, a park staffer was on hand to provide solid recommendations about various books for our informational reading needs. Excellent. Without question, there are hundreds of books about Fort Abraham Lincoln and the Battle of Little Bighorn. It seemed like the bookstore carried any and every book in print related to the topic. They also had an assortment of souvenirs like shirts, postcards and coffee mugs for sale. We bought an unusually shaped mug. Like, we really needed another mug. But this one was purple! Yep, we needed a purple one. Okay, we already have a purple mug, but not this shade of purple! Zoinks!
We took our new purple mug back to our RV in the park campground. The campground offers sites with electric and water so we could make our own coffee to fill our new mug. We have to admit that we found the hookups strangely located for our particular set up. That wasn't a big deal. We made it work just fine. Sometimes a long electric cord and water hose come in handy. We noticed a few other campers with similar issues. There are no individual sewer hookups, but a shared dump station is available. Water only sites are also available if that fits your camping needs. No tent or RV? That's okay. There are a couple of cabins available for rent, seasonally.
We found the campground well maintained and very pretty with views of the river. Our stay was quiet and comfortable. The camping sites are designed to allow ample space between you and your neighbor. Some sites are located right next to the river if that suits you. As RVs go, we saw a little bit of everything from large Class A motor coaches to small Class B camper vans similar to ours. Check the park website at www.parkrec.nd.gov for details about the campground and when camping is available.
If you're staying in the park, be aware there is a trolley that stops periodically to take visitors to and from the town of Mandan for a fee. We didn't actually ride the trolley because we had our pup with us. She's not into trolley riding. Instead, we visited Mandan briefly before arriving at the park. We also stopped in Bismarck and wandered around the grounds near the state capitol building. There are several things to see there including the North Dakota Heritage Center.
We really enjoyed our visit to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. It was among our favorite stops on our late summer/early fall journey. Grasshoppers and all. And, when the grasshoppers go into hiding during the winter season, the park offers attractions like the annual holiday lighting of the blockhouses, complete with hot chocolate (from what we understand). A photo of a festively lit structure was posted earlier this month on the park's social media site.
Thanks for reading about our visit to Fort Abraham Lincoln. If you'd like more information about the park, be sure to visit the park website before you go. Hours and availability of services may change with the seasons.
Tap the heart icon at the bottom of the page if you enjoyed our blog post. Subscribe for free to www.rubyswindingroad.com if you'd like to receive notices of future posts. We'll be posting again soon to provide you with a little light reading during the holiday season. And, if you're thinking about heading to North Dakota in 2023, consider adding Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park to your travel itinerary.