Oak Leaf Loop

Sheyenne National Grassland, North Dakota

Trip Date: Saturday, September 15th, 2018
Last Updated: Tuesday, November 6th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 4 miles roundtrip
Time 2 hours
Terrain Mostly flat
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

About an hour away from Fargo you'll find Sheyenne National Grassland, the only tallgrass prairie owned by the U.S. Forest Service and North Dakota's equivalent to a National Forest. Unless you want to do a really long hike on the North Country National Scenic Trail, this is the only developed trail in the entire park. Compared to another park with more topography, there isn't much noteworthy about this hike. Instead it's a good place to enjoy the peace of nature (save for some mooing cows), and in the spring and summer, you can see beautiful prairie flowers blossom with some grasses towering over your head.

You can do the loop in either direction (I went clockwise and will describe as such), and there is no difference in difficulty no matter which way you choose. To start the hike, lift the gate to enter the grassland. You'll notice warning signs on the gate stating this is an active range and to be cautious around grazing animals. Before this area was settled, bison roamed freely and helped maintain a balanced ecosystem by spreading fertilizer and preventing overgrowth. Now that the bison are gone, the Forest Service naturally manages this land by leasing it as pasture for farm animals like cows and sheep. Depending on the time of year, the odds are good that you will see this practice in action.

Unsurprisingly, this hike is as flat as the rest of the east side of North Dakota. However, there are some perfectly rounded short hills (like pictured below), which made me think this place could be transformed into a golf course simply by strategically mowing the grass. The trail is easy to follow thanks to the contrast between the dirt path and the grassy surroundings in addition to wooden posts scattered throughout the entire loop with markings labeling the Oak Leaf and North Country Trails.

Short grassy mounds like a golf course

Short grassy mounds like a golf course

On the western half of the loop, you'll enter into a hardwood grove (no matter which direction you started with). During my trip, the sumac at the forest's edge had already started changing red for fall, as pictured below. The first and last parts of the hike are the shadiest, and the middle part is almost entirely open prairie.
A touch of fall with sumac leaves of red

A touch of fall with sumac leaves of red

About a quarter of the way through, you'll reach another fence with a gate to cross through and you'll enter the mostly treeless grassland pictured below. This is where the excitement began for me, because now I was entering into the active rangeland with a massive herd of cows grazing before me with the trail cutting right through the middle. While I've been around cows at petting zoos and whatnot, I've spent my entire life living in urbanized areas -- never before did I have the experience of being around a herd of beasts each weighing 10x my own weight or more. Worsening the matter, as I hiked closer to herd it was as if I entered a "locals only" bar where I definitely didn't fit in and the music stopped upon me entering the door: the cows all stopped mid-chew, grass hanging out of their mouths, and just stared at me. I envisioned a group of country folk laughing at me as one says, "Look everyone, this city slicker's afraid of cows."
The open prairie, finally free of cows

The open prairie, finally free of cows

And honestly, I was nervous around so many cows. Soon, I learned that despite their large size, they were much more afraid of me (perhaps they could smell the Big Mac on my breath from the previous night's meal). Their staring was unnerving, but they all ran as soon as I was within a stone's throw away. A couple brave cows stood their ground or even curiously approached me, so I yelled to scare them away. I still remained cautious though, and I walked around off-trail in a section where some cows were standing on top of the path. Once I had finally passed the cows, I could feel my heart thumping in my chest (definitely not caused by this flat trail). Little did I know, this was the first of several hikes during a weeklong outdoor excursion where I'd encounter large mammals...

About halfway through the trail, you'll reach a junction where the North Country National Scenic Trail continues east on its long journey to Minnesota and beyond. Turn right to continue on the Oak Leaf Trail (or turn left on the North Country Trail heading west if you're coming from the other direction). There will be some small groves of trees to provide a moment of shade, welcome on a sunny day. In the distance, you can see a windmill and a water trough (tiny spots in the center of the picture below) where the cows no doubt congregate at other times of the day.
Trees breaking up the prairie landscape with a windmill and trough in the distance

Trees breaking up the prairie landscape with a windmill and trough in the distance

Eventually you'll pass through another gate (true safety from the scary cows) and into the final stretch of forest, shown just beyond the red sumac covered hills in the picture below. After exiting the active range and passing through the gate to a protected area, it's readily apparent how cows act as nature's lawnmowers with such a noticeable difference in grass height and ground cover between the two areas. The parking area will appear in the distance, and finally, you'll pass through the last gate.
Hills before the final forest grove

Hills before the final forest grove

If you enjoy hiking less well-known trails or just the solitude of nature, this is the place for you. And if you're a city slicker like me, you can learn that cows really aren't so scary after all. Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Rules about dogs in National Forests/Grasslands are generally more relaxed, but since this may be an active pasture, keeping your dog on leash is highly recommended. This hike is too long to be family friendly, so I suggest driving another half hour to Fort Ransom State Park for shorter, kid friendly trails. You can hike here in all four seasons, though travel on these roads may be difficult in winter (I'm unsure if they plow). The trailhead is adjacent to the Jorgen's Hollow Campground, and as such the trail probably sees a bit of use during peak camping weekends. I'd consider this trail off the beaten path though, so you probably won't see many people even then.

Directions

I recommend using a navigation app to drive here -- the final turns are not well marked and on dirt roads. Click the link at the bottom of this section to use Google Maps.

From Fargo, take Interstate 29 south and take the exit for North Dakota Highway 46. Turn right, then turn left onto North Dakota Highway 18 in about 15 miles. The next turn is easy to miss, so watch for the blue sign for County Highway 2 and turn right onto the dirt road. Pay attention to your odometer now, and turn left in 4 miles. After entering the Sheyenne National Grassland, the road will start curving. In about 4 miles, you'll see the sign for the Jorgen's Hollow Campground, and soon after the parking lot for trail access and day use.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Parking is free! There are pit toilets available in the campground next to the trailhead parking lot.

External Links

Nearby Hikes

Redetzke Ridge, Valley View, and North Fork Trail Loop

Fort Ransom State Park, North Dakota
★★★★☆(4/5)

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