Last weekend my parents and brother came to visit from Massachusetts. They’d never been to North Dakota before, so we headed up to the oil patch (I like to make sure visitors see where their energy comes from, so later that week I sent them on a coal mine tour). As we drove north towards Watford City, rain started spattering the windshield. Huge trucks whipped by in the other lane, sucking our little car towards them. The sky was slate gray, and natural gas flared along both sides of the road. “It kind of feels like we’re driving into hell,” my mom said.
The storm passed and that night we camped at Little Missouri State Park, a beautiful swatch of Badlands, prairie, and pockets of forest on the south side of the river. It’s now sandwiched between a saltwater disposal site and a well pad, and at night you can see distant drilling rigs illuminated by flood lights.
We were there to ride horses, and in the morning we set out along the rim of the eroded bluffs and hillsides that slope down towards the river. Our trail followed a gravel road for much of the way—our guide said an oil company had built it recently and planned to start drilling in 2017. Below the ridge, a butte had been leveled for a well pad. Just off the road, a small cluster of oil workers lived out of RVs and trailers. Our guide said there were few places to ride in the park where you couldn’t see any oil development at all from the trail.
While it may not be as scenic and undeveloped as it was a few years ago, the Little Missouri State Park is still a great place to visit, especially for those who want to experience the uneasy coexistence of outdoor recreation and the oil industry.