FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- Adam Guderian is no newcomer to the scenic overlook at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve.
Guderian, of Fargo, has a summer spot at nearby Devils Lake, and is a regular visitor to Sullys Hill. He again climbed the 193 steps to the overlook on a beautiful, clear day in early July, this time bringing guests from San Diego.
"You can't beat this," Guderian said as he took in the view, which oversees Fort Totten, a portion of Devils Lake and countless miles toward the horizon. "It's gorgeous."
For Guderian, Sullys Hill National Game Preserve is worth at least an annual visit, and when guests are from San Diego, it's better yet. After all, the buffalo, the elk and the clear prairie vistas at Sullys Hill -- coupled with campfires and walleye fishing at nearby Devils Lake -- might be somewhat novel to visiting West Coasters.
"This is a lot of fun," said Guderian, pointing a newcomer toward the modern visitor center and a few hiking trails nearby.
Of course, the father of twin 6-year-olds also had an ulterior motive on this particular day.
"Part of it is to burn some of the energy out of the twins," he said.
With the scenic overlook and walking trails throughout the preserve, it's good for that, too.
Sullys Hill is a 1,676-acre collection of hills, water and grassland situated on the south shore of Devils Lake. It originally was established in 1904 as a national park by President Theodore Roosevelt, but it was redesignated as a game preserve -- to be overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- in 1931.
Its original status as a national park makes it historically interesting. When Roosevelt took office in 1901, the nation had just five national parks, all featuring grandeur and a certain natural gravitas. Yellowstone came first in 1872, followed by Sequoia, Yosemite, King's Canyon and Mount Rainier. All five are mountainous and rugged.
Then Roosevelt put his own mark on the National Park System, designating five more, including Sullys Hill, the unique nook on the southern edge of Devils Lake. It's likely Roosevelt was interested in ensuring his adopted state of North Dakota was getting its share of the growing national park pie.
Along with Sullys Hill, Roosevelt established national parks at Crater Lake in Oregon, Wind Cave in South Dakota, Mesa Verde in Colorado and another in the Arbuckle Mountains at Platt, Okla.
Sullys Hill and the national park in Oklahoma later were redesignated; Sullys Hill became a national game preserve, and Platt became Chickasaw National Recreation Area. All told, only seven former national parks have been redesignated.
What Sullys Hill lacks in mountainous majesty, it makes up for it with diversity.
“We have it all here: prairie, wetlands and forest. We have all three of those habitats at Sullys Hill,” said Colleen Graue, visitor services manager at the preserve.
And it goes beyond the topography and landscape, she said.
“It’s also the diversity of the habitat, the diversity of the programs that we have going on here and the diversity of the visitors that we get.”
Approximately 70,000 visitors come to Sullys Hill each year. They represent nearly every state and usually at least a dozen countries, Graue said. On a Saturday earlier this month, most of the cars driving in the preserve and parked at the visitor center had North Dakota license plates. Others were from Wyoming and Iowa, and as far away as Florida.
Sullys Hill -- there is no possessive apostrophe in the modern spelling -- is named for Gen. Alfred Sully, a Civil War commander who ran afoul of his superiors and was sent to the Great Plains in 1863. He gained further fame for what today are regarded as controversial engagements with American Indians.
According to an article published on the National Parks Traveler website, Sully was supposed to meet up with a cavalry unit on the south shore of Devils Lake. The cavalry camped on the highest hill around in hopes of spotting him; when Sully didn’t appear, they named the hill after him.
A Department of the Interior report in 1908 noted that the new national park needed some work.
“The steamboat landing is at least two miles from the park, and the acting superintendent recommends the building of a dock to allow boats to land within the park limits, to make it more accessible for visitors,” the government report said. “Until this is done, as well as repair work upon roads, construction of new ones, the walling up of springs, etc., the reservation is not likely to be patronized to any extent. There are no buildings or improvements of any kind in the park.”
Those days of disrepair are gone. Today, Sullys Hill has well-maintained roads that wind through the preserve, allowing visitors to see the resident bison herd and a prairie dog town. The elk were shy on a recent afternoon and didn’t make an appearance, but they are there -- approximately 11 of them, plus a calf.
The bison herd, numbering about 20, were not nearly as timid. They lounged near the road within easy viewing distance.
The scenery -- steep hills and forested gulches -- within the preserve seems out of place in the flatlands of eastern North Dakota. Only 2 percent of North Dakota has naturally growing trees, Graue said, and that adds to the luster of Sullys Hill, which must have been a true oasis a century ago. The forest includes elm, basswood, oak and ash trees. Anyone who covets a closer look can hike the maintained trails that snake through the forest and along a span of Devils Lake shoreline.
And, of course, there is that scenic overlook. To reach the top requires a bit of a workout, but there are five benches along the way for anyone who isn’t in a hurry or who might need a respite from gravity's pull. Crowning the hill is a wooden viewing platform, with a mounted telescope for peering into the distance.
At the visitor center -- where numerous mounted animals are on display -- guests who made it to the summit of the overlook are given a certificate that proclaims “I conquered the climb.” Volunteers help staff the center.
Another scenic overlook is along the auto route and requires no climbing whatsoever. At 1 p.m. on a recent Saturday, the pullout had three vehicles: a curious newspaper reporter, a woman who pulled over to take a cellphone photo of the lake stretching out below, and a man casually munching a sandwich while sitting on the tailgate of his pickup. The scene perfectly portrayed the easygoing vibe at Sullys Hill.
Sullys Hill is endearingly tiny compared to its larger state- and national-park cousins. The wildlife loop is just four miles long, the trail system is only two miles long, the summit of the overlook is only 193 steps away and the elk and buffalo herds are minuscule by Yellowstone or Custer State Park, S.D., standards.
Simply stated, Sullys Hill is a vest-pocket version of a national park, but easier to access and without the crowds.
Are people surprised by Sullys Hill?
"I would say yes," said Graue. “Any conversations at the front desk (of the visitor center) are always ‘Wow, I had no idea this exists.'
"National wildlife refuges are America’s best-kept secret. Everybody knows about national parks, and everybody knows about state parks. Our mission is geared a little different -- we don't promote visitation as much, but instead focus on habitat, animals and plants. That's why we're so hidden, I think.”
And all of it is free -- the certificate, the overlook, the visitor center and even admission into the preserve. Most guests probably take in Sullys Hill in two or three hours, and those who go there understanding that won't be disappointed.
Sullys Hill is located just outside of Fort Totten, and 13 miles south of Devils Lake on state Highway 20/57. The auto tour route is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, although portions are closed during the winter. It's 100 miles from Grand Forks and just minutes from Spirit Lake Casino, where a buffet and further recreation can be found after spending a few hours at the preserve.