Pembina Gorge campgrounds among tourism and recreation projects funded in North Dakota legislative session

The construction of campgrounds in the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, near Walhalla, North Dakota, is one of several recreation projects that received funding during the legislative session.

Pembina Gorge
Pembina Gorge, west of Walhalla on the Rendezvous Region Scenic Backway.
Contributed/Garry Redmann/NDDOT

WALHALLA, N.D. – A plan to establish campgrounds in the Pembina Gorge has been nearly 10 years in the making, but after the North Dakota Legislature approved $6 million to build a campground at the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, the promise of overnight stays in the wooded river valley is closer to a reality.

The construction of campgrounds in the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, near Walhalla, North Dakota, is one of several tourism and recreation projects that received funding during the 2023 legislative session. The $6 million for the Pembina Gorge campground construction project approved by the Legislature will be matched by $2 million in federal grant funding secured by the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department.

A desire for campgrounds in the Pembina Gorge was identified in 2014 as the Parks and Recreation Department developed a strategic plan for the recreation area. The last decade has been spent refining those plans, said Cody Schulz, director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department.

“I believe (lawmakers) absolutely all understood the opportunities there and the demand signals that we’re seeing from our visitors, and especially what we believe to be pent-up demand from Canadian tourists who, through the pandemic, couldn’t come down to our parks,” Schulz said.

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The Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area has more than 30 miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and off-highway vehicles. The recreation area also offers kayak rentals.


The campground, which is still in the planning phases, will have around 35 camping spots and six cabins, with amenities like electric and water hook-ups and a shower and bathroom building. There also will be a maintenance shop and offices for park staff.

Once plans are finalized, the project could go out for bids later this summer, Schulz said, and depending on contractor availability, work could begin before the end of the year.

“In a perfect world, we would do a groundbreaking and get some of the road and underground infrastructure done late summer or early fall of 2023. But at the latest, a spring ‘24 groundbreaking is what we’re looking at,” Schulz said.

The recreation area is about two hours from Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has a population of nearly 750,000.

“When you think about the Pembina Gorge, it’s the only place in the state that’s within two hours of another 700,000 people, not including North Dakotans – Grand Forks, Fargo,” Jace Beehler, Gov. Doug Burgum’s chief of staff, said in a meeting with the Grand Forks Herald on Wednesday, May 10. “So if you combine the whole region as well, (it's) over a million people when we put Winnipeg in that loop as well.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Dakota state parks and recreation areas attracted more than 5,300 overnight visitors from Canada, while in 2022, only 1,900 Canadians booked overnight trips, Schulz said. Icelandic State Park, near Cavalier, North Dakota, lost 2,400 overnight visits from Canadians from 2019 to 2022, but was overall busier in 2022 than 2019.

“That tells us if we get these Canadian visitors back, we need supply to match that demand in terms of campsites and cabins, and we think that the permanent Gorge campground would be an awesome way to do that,” Schulz said.

The Legislature also approved $2.4 million for cabin construction at one of the parks in North Dakota, to be decided by the Parks and Recreation Department director.


All of the funding will go to cabin construction at one park to make maintenance and staffing of cabins easier, Schulz said. While the location of the cabins has not yet been determined, Parks and Recreation staff are analyzing the best location, taking into account factors like winter recreation and water access.

“As we saw this last winter, we’ve got to lean into the fact that we do have long and sometimes harsh winters, but there are recreation opportunities that go along with that,” Schulz said. “We believe that cabins — full-service, four-season cabins — are one way to create a hub for everything from ice fishing to snowshoeing to snowmobiling.”

The $2.4 million will fund six single-family cabins and two multifamily cabins.

Along with funding specific projects, lawmakers also set aside money for ongoing repairs and upgrades at parks in North Dakota. The Parks and Recreation Department has identified $74 million in deferred maintenance needs, Schulz said. During the 2023 session, the Legislature approved $10 million for deferred maintenance and capital projects at the parks.

“Some of that money will end up making its way to Turtle River and Icelandic, and some of the other ones up here,” Burgum said.

The department is still deciding what projects to use those funds for, but is currently working on projects with $17.9 million the Legislature approved for deferred maintenance during the 2021 special session.

In northeast North Dakota, those projects include water and electrical infrastructure updates at Grahams Island State Park on Devils Lake and Turtle River State Park near Arvilla. There are also plans to build a new maintenance shop and seasonal staff housing at Turtle River State Park, Schulz said.

Other tourism funding highlighted by the Governor’s Office include $20 million for a military museum in Bismarck and a $25 million Destination Development fund, which will require a one-to-one private-sector match for use on projects driving visitors to North Dakota.

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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