Hiking the Bodmer Overlook Trail at Fort Union Trading Post

I am always in search of experiences that are part of major attractions that few travelers know about. At a recent conference, the National Park Service site supervisors for the NPS sites in North Dakota were giving an update on what the park service was doing for the National Park Service Centennial. A very intriguing question was asked of the panel: “What is a lesser-known, rarely visited part of your park that is a must see attraction?” My ears immediately perked up as this what I’m looking for! I have been to all the National Park Service units and historic sites in North Dakota, I am sure I’ve seen all there is to see. The panel proceeded to name off thing after thing I’ve never see nor knew about. Andy Banta, longtime supervisor of Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site highlighted The Bodmer Overlook Trail as an underutilized feature of Fort Union near Williston. As a history buff and an outdoorsman my passions collided, hiking and history together! The Bodmer Overlook Trail was thus added to my North Dakota bucket list. 

A little history of Fort Union and Karl Bodmer. Fort Union Fur Trading Post was built by the American Fur Company in 1828. It went on to become the company’s most famous and profitable fur trade post. The American Fur Company forts quite regularly hosted well-known visitors during the fur trade period. George Catlin, Prince Maximilian, Karl Bodmer and John James Audubon were but a few of the many explorers, artists and naturalists who visited the area. Karl Bodmer was a Swiss artist who accompanied German explorer Prince Maximillian of Wied-Neuwied on his exploration of the Great Plains of North America from 1832-1834. The Maximillian Expedition covered the region only 20 years after Lewis and Clark’s first American exploration of the West. Prince Maximillian had something Lewis and Clark did not, an artist whose watercolor paintings captured the native peoples, wildlife and landscapes that give us a visual record of the history of Northern Plains in the early 19th century. 

 The Bodmer Overlook Trail is a mile-long National Park Service trail twisting through prairie grassland and grazing pasture up to a high bluff that overlooks the Missouri River Valley. It was from this very bluff that Karl Bodmer stood and made sketches that he later turned into the lithographic print Fort Union on the Missouri circa 1843. Highlights of the trail include rolling prairie grasslands with abundant wildlife and views of the entire Missouri/Yellowstone confluence area. The call of numerous wild birds, most notably the Western Meadowlark fill the air. While standing at the overlook, I am certain I hear the sound of a Native American drums in the distance. I dismiss it as a car audio system or someone working to music at a nearby ranch, although, there were no cars or ranches nearby. Perhaps it could have been a centuries old echo from the history of the land, the very sounds that Bodmer would have heard while standing on the same grassy bluff gazing over the same river valley?

The hike itself is ascending to the overlook and descending almost the entire way back. The ground is uneven at parts so caution must be taken to avoid hazards. I would consider it a moderate trail with little hiking experience needed. The parking area and trailhead are north of the road and railroad tracks across from Fort Union. The trail passes through cattle pastures so be mindful of closing cattle gates, as well as being aware of the cattle and their movements. 

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic site is located on the North Dakota/Montana border 25 miles southwest of Williston. It is open year-round, Memorial Day until Labor Day, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. CDT; Labor Day through Memorial Day 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The fort’s largest event, the Fur Traders Rendezvous will be June 16-19, 2016. More information can be found at https://www.nps.gov/fous.