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Kelly Smith, Published September 07 2009

Campground helps visitors saddle up to beauty of North Dakota

LEONARD, N.D. – As a young boy, Ron Hansen would sneak off on his horse to explore the rolling hills and oak savannahs of the Sheyenne National Grasslands near his home.

“This was my hideout,” he said. “This is definitely the best-kept secret in southeastern North Dakota.”

Now, he wants to share the secret of the pristine scenery not just with his family but the public.

In May, he and his wife Jodi – with the help of their five daughters, ages 7 to 16 – opened Sheyenne Oaks Horse Camp and RV Park about 40 miles southwest of Fargo.

Their 123 acres of land hugs the Sheyenne National Grasslands – 70,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service-protected land.

The rolling, sandy-soil hills aren’t just for horse lovers like the Hansens to cruise, but for bird watchers, mountain bikers and wilderness enthusiasts to enjoy, the couple said.

“Fargo has really missed this area,” Ron Hansen said.

While their business is new, they’ve already seen success as people from across Minnesota and Wisconsin have discovered it. This Labor Day weekend, a dozen RVs and some 80 horses were camped out at the park.

Keith Dziengel and his family came from Kennedy, Minn., where “we have no place to ride but the ditches.”

For Dziengel and other horse riders, the park is a shorter trek than other larger ones in North Dakota while still giving them the perfect scenic setting.

As two bucks bounded across the rolling fields, the Hansens showed off the land they love, cruising by colorful sumac, ancient oak trees and a tiny creek.

“It’s a treasure,” Jodi Hansen said, looking out at the land they bought a year ago and realized they’d have “to make it pay for itself.”

“This land is too beautiful to keep private,” her husband added. “People don’t realize that if they come 40 miles out of Fargo, they can see this country.”

With the park, they hope to draw more people to see the scenic region.

For $30, visitors can hook up an RV. Those without an RV can rent a cabin nearby. Without a horse? For $35, Jodi gives hour-long guided tours of the land by horse.

And there’s more in the works.

The couple plan to keep the park open during the winter for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. And eventually, they’d like to host weddings and concerts as well as add a lodge, cabins and a restaurant.

The ambitious plans come as the couple juggles other jobs – Ron’s an engineer and Jodi runs an equine center that boards horses and dogs. At their new facility, they do all the maintenance and work with the help of their daughters.

While it’s the couple’s fourth business they’ve successfully started, it’s still been a learning experience, they admit. And yet, it’s a chance to share the land they love.

“It’s been great,” Jodi Hansen said. “We knew if we made it nice, people would come.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515