Discover the Largest Forest in North Dakota (And What Lives Within It)

Written by Samantha Stanich
Updated: September 2, 2023
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North Dakota Sunrise

The state has few forests because nearly 90% of North Dakota’s land area is farms and ranches.

©TobyG/Shutterstock.com

Key Points:

  • North Dakota has few forested areas.
  • 55% of the state’s forest is in the same location.
  • The forests have everyday forest animals.
  • It is the least populous state but has more wildlife refuges (63) than any other state.

Are you ready to discover the largest forest in North Dakota? Although the state is dotted with hills, valleys, lakes, wetlands, and stretches known as the Badlands, it also contains some lush forests with curious wildlife in the Peace Garden State.

The upper Midwest state is dominated by the Great Plains, and over half of the state’s forests are found in the Killdeer Mountains, Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills, and the Devils Lake area. In fact, only 450,000 acres, or 1% of North Dakota is forested. Other areas exist as riparian forests. These are concentrations of trees or a forested area of land adjacent to a body of water. Rocky Mountain juniper shades the Badlands.

The state’s largest forest is Turtle Mountain State Forest at 7,500 acres. There is also Theodore Roosevelt National Park which is 70,446.89 acres. However, the national park is more badlands than forests. The areas are home to large animals such as moose and bison with the forested area seeing families of white-tailed deer, ferrets, beavers, and raccoons.

The Largest Forest In North Dakota: Turtle Mountain State Forest

"Largest" infographic for the Largest State Forest in North Dakota.
This forest is home to moose, blue herons, beavers, minks, white-tailed deer, and northern leopard frogs.

The North Dakota Forest Service (NDFS) manages five state forests encompassing 13,945 acres as well as one memorial tree grove. Out of those five forests, Turtle Mountain State Forest has the largest acreage at 7,500 acres. It is located in the western Turtle Mountain region of Bottineau County and consists of pristine forests, wetlands and grasslands. In the same region is the Homen State Forest, also managed by NDFS.  This state forest encompasses over 4,740 acres.

Turtle Mountain State Park is covered in poplar, oak, and ash trees. It is known for the numerous lakes and sloughs that dot the landscape as well. It is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds with multiple recreation areas, an equestrian campground, and a scenic overlook for birdwatching. There are also 18 miles of multi-use, non-motorized trails and even 10 miles of ATV trails.

Prairies, Plains, Lakes Panoramas of the great plains of North Dakota Turtle Mountains bold sky and vast plains reflective lakes stunning vistas

Most of the state’s forests are in the Turtle Mountain region.

©Impassioned Images/Shutterstock.com

Camping

The state forest has both developed campgrounds and underdeveloped campgrounds. The Twisted Oaks Equestrian Campground is designed for those camping with horses. There are corrals, water tanks for horses, a well for drinking water, campsites, and fire rings. The Strawberry Lake Recreation Area is a campground with a swimming beach, boat ramp, and fishing pier. The lake is manually stocked with rainbow trout. However, gas-powered boats are prohibited on the waters. The unimproved campsite is where hikers can access the trail system or use it as a rest stop. The Dalen campsite doesn’t have any services aside from an outhouse, fire ring, and warming shelter.

Trails and Recreation

Visitors are encouraged to hike, horseback ride, and bike. Even when winter hits North Dakota, the forest is still welcoming with cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Even snowmobiles are allowed when there are over four inches of snow. Mystic Horizons is a recreation area in the park that offers expansive views. There is a sundial and structures to view the spring and fall equinox as well as the summer and winter solstices. Visitors can also use a north star sighting tube.

This forest along with the other four managed by NDFS gives visitors the opportunity to hike and ride trails, collect common berries, harvest firewood, view native wildlife and plants, and observe active forest management. If you are visiting the great state and want to see the spectacular and rare forested areas, these are the places to visit!

National Forest History in North Dakota

Bad Lands at  Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

North Dakota has state forests, and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but does not have a designated national forest.

©RhysFoto/Shutterstock.com

The state is among 10 others that don’t have at least one national forest. They include:

  • Rhode Island
  • New Jersey
  • North Dakota
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Hawaii
  • Iowa
  • Connecticut
  • Kansas
  • Delaware

However, for eight years and eight months, North Dakota left the list. The state had a national forest located in Slope County, though during that time it was Billings County. A presidential proclamation created the forests under provisions of the Timber Reserve Act on Nov. 24, 1904. Another discontinued the forest on July 30, 1917.

The Dakota National Forest consisted of 13,940 acres. The trees were made a national forest to conserve the limited supply of pine trees in the area. It was thought the first would enable scientific management to reproduce the pine stands at a higher rate of success, limit and direct the cutting of existing timber, and increase the number of trees available to settlers, if possible.

It was disbanded when Woodrow Wilson was president for two main reasons. The country was at war so there was pressure on the U.S. budget. The forest was on the smaller side when it came to national forests, so operating a small and isolated area was extravagant. Also, the success rate for transplantation of Ponderosa Pine was reported to be low.

Now most of the original Dakota National Forest is privately owned or accessible only through private lands.

Wildlife In Turtle Mountain State Park

Panorama with bison in snowy winter outdoors. Rare cow Buffalo in the natural environment of the North. Endangered species protected by the people.

Bison once lived throughout North Dakota but populations were decimated by hunting and diseases.

©Natalya Rozhkova/Shutterstock.com

If you are looking to see some fantastic wildlife in the woods, then look no further! Turtle Mountain State Forest has moose, different heron species, beavers, white-tailed deer, mink, and northern leopard frogs to name a few inhabitants.

Visitors can watch bids migrate home in the spring along the many wildlife trails. They can also see the forest come alive after hibernation season. Here are some of the wildlife found in the scenic woods.

Moose

Moose hiding among the tress

Moose are the largest of the deer species.

©ArtBBNV/Shutterstock.com

Visitors come across moose while driving in North Dakota, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if one is seen its natural habitat. Moose feed throughout the day, and they are most active at dawn and dusk.

Moose are very large and strong animals. Adult males can weigh between 1200 to 1600 pounds, on average. Just remember to respect their space and enjoy watching them from a safe distance.

Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron looking for and catching a fish meal

The birds only weigh six pounds despite their size.

©Krumpelman Photography/Shutterstock.com

In the spring and summer months, visitors to the forest may spot species such as the Great Blue Heron with their beautiful plumage and impressive wingspan size.

Herons nest in trees, making the forest the perfect home. They hunt for food both day and night, so there is always a time to see them!

Beaver

A close up portrait view of an North American beaver, Quebec, Canada

The beaver is considered to be a keystone species wherever it resides

©Vlad G/Shutterstock.com

The semi-aquatic rodent is usually seen during dusk, and rarely seen during the day. The beaver mates for life, so if you see one, there is a high chance you will see another!

It is the second largest rodent in the world and can even be seen if you visit in the winter. They do not hibernate but instead, store food and fat for the winter months.

White-Tail Deer

white-tailed deer

White-tailed deer have been clocked running up to 30 mph!

©Tom Reichner/Shutterstock.com

The further away from the equater, the larger the white-tailed deer. Visitors can see the deers in the forest around dawn and dusk. White-tailed deer live in every state in the United States, except for Alaska and Hawaii. Also, Utah has very few.

There are at least 26 different subspecies win the world. And considering they are in almost every state, white-tail deer are not very picky when it comes to their habitat. They make adaptations that allow them to live almost anywhere.

Mink

American mink

The mink is one of the main non-human carriers of the COVID-19 virus.

©An inspiration/Shutterstock.com

Visitors at Turle Mountain State Forest can see this tenacious predator during dawn and dusk as they are crepuscular. Minks don’t have social organization. They tolerate others when they breed, but live and hunt entirely alone.

If you visit the area and want to be on the look out for minks, look toward small bodies of water in the forest. Minks like to live in hollow legs and underground dens lined with grass, leaves, or even the fur of their prey.

Northern Leopard Frogs

Northern Leopard Frog

The northern species is actually the state amphibian of Vermont and Minnesota.

©Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock.com

The northern leopard frog is found across Canada and the United States. It has several color variations, and spend their time between land and water. They do favor grassland that is near water if you are on the hunt for the species.

The frogs live for five to nine years, however, the female does lay 6500 eggs at one time.

Compare Turtle Mountain to Other North Dakota Forests

NameAcreage
Turtle Mountain State Forest7,500 acres
Homen State Forest4,740 acres
Tetrault Woods State Forest592 acres
Sheyenne River State Forest509 acres
Mouse River State Forest260 acres
Theodore Roosevelt National Park70,446.89 acres
Nowesta Memorial Tree Grove12 acres
North Dakota’s wildlife lands and their acreage

Where is Turtle Mountain State Forest Located on a Map?

This natural northern paradise covers some parts of Rolette and Bottineau counties. It sits near the Canadian and U.S. border, and is a hidden gem in northern North Dakota. The forested mountains are covered with an endless number of small lakes as well.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/lakefx


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