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Published July 13 2012

VIDEO: Seven Wonders of Ransom County North Dakota

FORT RANSOM, N.D. - On the Zambezi River in southern Africa, a sheet of water more than a mile wide plummets farther than the length of a football field to create Victoria Falls, a spectacular sight recognized by CNN in 1997 as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Across the Atlantic, hidden deep within the 509-acre Sheyenne State Forest about an hour’s drive southwest of Fargo, an underground spring spews a gentle stream of mineral-rich water over a muddy cliff about 8 to 10 feet to a creek below.

“It’s not exactly Niagara Falls,” said Bob Harsel, stewardship manager at the state Forest Service in nearby Lisbon.

Maybe not, but the state’s only recognized natural waterfall – and the scenic river valley, dense hardwood forests, rolling sand hills and sprawling tall grass prairies surrounding it – stand in stark contrast to the flat, open terrain of eastern North Dakota.

So much so, the woman behind Ransom County’s website cobbled together the local features and attractions into a marketing concept named the Seven Natural Wonders of Ransom County.

“When you look at the rural landscape of North Dakota and you look at counties, I think Ransom County just has a collection, for a rural community, of some really great things,” said Fran Brummund, an Oakes native who’s better known in Fargo as executive director of the Fargo Air Museum.

The collection, or at least part of it, is somewhat of a well-kept secret.

While many are familiar, such as Fort Ransom State Park and the 70,180-acre Sheyenne National Grasslands, but the Sheyenne State Forest and its Mineral Springs Waterfall aren’t shown on North Dakota’s official highway map. Also missing is the Dead Colt Creek recreational area about 6 miles south and east of Lisbon, which offers camping, boating and fishing on a 113-acre lake.

Brummund said she posted the seven wonders on ransomcountynd.com about seven years ago, but an interview Friday was the first time anyone had asked her about it.

“Typically, people don’t know what’s in their backyard,” she said. “If you grow up in North Dakota, you sometimes take things for granted.”

“We need to get excited about what we have right here,” she said.

‘Best kept secret’

The state Department of Tourism calls the waterfall “one of the best kept secrets among adventure seekers” who are from or visiting North Dakota.

“It is one of the sacred attractions of the state and a great hiking adventure for all!” says a blog post on the department’s website.

On Thursday, Harsel and his coworker, forest technician Lorin Fornes, led a reporter and photographer on the 2.2-mile, 5,000-step hike to the waterfall.

The trail is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which when completed will stretch 4,600 miles across seven states, from Lake Sakakawea in western North Dakota to Crown Point, N.Y., making it the country’s longest continuous hiking trail.

The North Country trail, one of Ransom County’s seven wonders, has segments in the Sheyenne State Forest, Fort Ransom State Park and the Sheyenne National Grasslands.

The waterfall trail is open to hikers, bicyclists and horses. No motorized vehicles are allowed.

The trailhead is about 9 miles west and 4 miles north of Lisbon, or about two miles southeast of the community of Fort Ransom off the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway, another of the county’s seven wonders.

Harsel said crews spent part of 2008 “benching” the old trail – cutting it into hillsides, smoothing it out and removing obstacles and overgrown vegetation. Aside from a few rocks and tree roots, the only hurdles Thursday were horse apples and short muddy stretches where hooves had ripped up the ground.

Myriad shrubs and weeds line the grassland segments of the trail. Purple and yellow coneflowers bloom brightly in the sun, and a stand of dark-green smooth sumac grows chest high, destined to turn red in the fall.

Springs surprise

About halfway to the waterfall, shortly after passing the first of the forest’s two primitive campsites, the trickling sound of Mineral Springs can be heard about 20 feet from the footpath. As one walks down to the springs, the metallic smell of iron-rich water flowing over reddish deposits hangs in the air.

“People drink out of it, but I can’t guarantee the safety of it,” Harsel said of the springs, which flow from the base of a tree.

“Even in ’88, when it was so dry, it was still flowing here,” said Fornes, who has sampled the spring water and suffered no ill effects. “It’s pretty much permanent.”

Patches of oak, ash and box elder trees shade the trail between the upland grasslands, and the canopy shifts to basswood and elm in the stream bottoms. Frogs hop out of the way of hikers. Squirrels scurry across the underbrush.

A brown sign informing hikers of the waterfall 400 feet ahead is followed by a fork in the trail: horses to the left, hikers to the right.

Before it’s visible, the waterfall beckons with a constant splashing sound. After 2.2 miles and roughly 5,000 steps on the trail, the visual reward is a spring-fed brook being split into three parts as it cascades over an earthen cliff.

“You wouldn’t think you were in North Dakota,” Fornes said.

The waterfall flows year round, generating picturesque ice formations in the wintertime, Harsel said.

Forest Service officials prefer that people don’t cross the stream to touch the waterfall because it’s an ecologically fragile area. The waterfall campsite is strictly carry-in, carry-out.

The trail currently ends at the waterfall, but efforts are in the works to extend it two to three miles to Fort Ransom, Harsel said.

Hikers are advised to bring bug spray to repel the abundant wood ticks that try to hitch a ride. The tick count drops in the fall, when hikers receive the added benefit of foliage turning color, Harsel said.

Sightings of white-tailed deer are common in the forest, and their natural predators live there, too.

On Thursday, in a clearing where livestock likely grazed the land before it was purchased and converted to a state forest in the 1970s, a wild canine of some kind bounced across the tall grass in the distance before disappearing into the woods.

It was almost too big to be a coyote, and Fornes said that some people claim to have seen wolves in the forest.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

7 Natural Wonders of Ransom County

Fran Brummund, who set up Ransom County’s website, created a section dedicated to what she dubbed the Seven Natural Wonders of Ransom County. They are:

For more information, visit the website at ransomcountynd.com.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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