Trails: Matah and Cottonwood Trails
Hike Location: Cross Ranch State Park
Geographic Location: south of Washburn, ND (47.21352, -100.99974)
Length: 5.7 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A somewhat long but flat double loop featuring views of the Missouri River.
Park Information: https://www.parkrec.nd.gov/cross-ranch-state-park
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=706699
Directions to the trailhead: Just west of Bismarck, take I-94 to SR 25 (exit 147). Exit and go north on SR 25. Drive SR 25 north for 18.7 miles to 28th Avenue SW. Turn right on 28th Ave. SW. Drive 28th Ave. SW 5 miles to 16th Street SW and turn right on 16th St. SW. Drive 16th St. SW 4.4 miles to its end and turn left. The park entrance is 2 miles ahead on your right. Turn right to enter the park, drive under the railroad underpass, and park in the gravel Visitor Center parking lot, making sure to pay the entrance fee before you begin the hike.
The hike: Located on the west bank of the Missouri River about 20 miles upstream from Bismarck, Cross Ranch State Park and adjacent Cross Ranch Nature Preserve protect 5589 acres along the last free-flowing stretch of the Missouri River. The land’s ranch days started in 1879 when A.D. Gaines, a land agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, purchased 11,000 acres that included this site. The ranch used the Maltese cross brand on its livestock, and when the ranch’s title transferred to Bob and Gladys Levis in 1956, the ranch was renamed Cross Ranch. The Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch in 1980, and both the Nature Conservancy and Burlington Northern Railroad donated land to create the state park.
Before Gaines ever came to this area, the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped across the river from this park in October 1804, and they made their winter camp that year just a few miles upstream from here. A Lewis and Clark campsite marker is located in the park’s southern section near the Sanger boat launch. In terms of amenities, the park has both a developed and primitive campground, log cabins and yurts, picnic shelters, and a boat ramp. For the hiker, the park offers over 16 miles of trails with the best ones going along the Missouri River. This hike takes you along the river but also explores an old growth cottonwood grove, thus providing a sample of all the hiking the park has to offer.
|Heading south from the Visitor Center|
From the Visitor Center, head south on a concrete sidewalk that passes through a mowed-grass area to reach the park’s amphitheater. Brown carsonite posts bearing the letters MT indicate that you are on the Matah Trail. Past the amphitheater, the trail’s surface turns to dirt as the wide trail continues its southbound course. Numbered posts suggest the presence of an interpretive guide, but none were available in the Visitor Center.
At 0.3 miles, you reach this hike’s southernmost point at a signed trail intersection. The trail going straight leads further south to the park’s Sanger section, but that trail was flooded by the Missouri River on my visit. Thus, I turned left to continue the Matah Trail. The Missouri River soon comes into view on the right, and for the next 0.9 miles the trail heads northeast parallel to the river.
|Missouri River, looking downstream|
The section along the Missouri River is by far my favorite part of this hike. The river was wide, swift, and muddy on my visit, and ripples in the water betray logs and other obstructions lurking under the water. Signs warn you to stay away from the river’s eroding banks: undercut banks can collapse sending you tumbling into the water with disastrous consequences. Benches placed near the river invite you to stop and enjoy the riparian scenery.
|Bench along Missouri River|
While the river stays close on the right, the park’s primitive campground and yurt area stay close on the left. In general you want to ignore spur trails that exit left, but some hand pump water wells in the campground are the only potable water source on this hike. At 1.2 miles, the trail exits the park’s developed area as it angles left to leave the riverbank. One of the river’s overflow channels now separates you from the river’s main course. While these channels are dry most of the year, they store enough standing water to make bugs a real issue on the rest of this hike.
1.5 miles into the hike, you reach another signed trail intersection where the Cottonwood Trail exits right. We will continue the Matah Trail’s loop later, but to increase the distance and explore the old growth cottonwood grove, turn right to begin the Cottonwood Trail. Immediately the Cottonwood Trail passes through a gate in a wire fence and splits to form its loop. For no reason, I stayed straight and used the trail going left as my return route, thus hiking the Cottonwood Trail counterclockwise.
|Hiking through the cottonwoods|
The grassy two-track Cottonwood Trail heads in the general direction of north as it enters the cottonwood grove. The hike through the seemingly endless cottonwoods may seem boring to some people, but the trees are tall and stately, and the flat terrain makes for easy going. At 2.8 miles, you exit the cottonwoods to begin hiking along the edge of a grassy field. The Missouri River lies out of sight across the field to the right.
Just past 3 miles into the hike, the east end of the Gaines Trail exits right. Named for the previous landowners, the 2.1 mile Gaines Trail loop gives access to the 2.2 mile Levis Trail loop, and you could add one or both of them if you have the time and energy to extend the hike. This description angles left to follow the brown carsonite posts bearing the letter C for the Cottonwood Trail.
|Carsonite post along Cottonwood Trail|
At 3.2 miles, you reach the other (west) end of the Gaines Trail. Turn left to begin the west arm of the Cottonwood Trail. This part of the forest has a dense grassy understory, and soon the trail curves right to dip through another river overflow channel. For the next 1.2 miles the Cottonwood Trail parallels this channel with the sunny, grassy channel on the left.
|River overflow channel|
4.8 miles into the hike, the Cottonwood Trail curves left, crosses the channel, and returns to its southern end and its intersection with the Matah Trail. Walk back through the gate in the wire fence and turn right to continue the Matah Trail. Now back in the cottonwood grove, the trail curves left to keep heading in the general direction of south. The farm fields beyond the park’s west boundary come into view through the trees to the right.
|Back on the Matah Trail|
Just past 5.5 miles, you cross a gravel park road just before you cross a small gully on a wooden footbridge. The last few hundred feet parallel this gully with the gully on the left. Soon the Visitor Center comes into view ahead and to the right, thus marking the end of the hike.