Harmon Lake: Let Me Be Plains

This was about as plains as you could get. First, it was smack-dab in the middle of the Great Plains state of North Dakota. There were plains in every direction. It was plainly plains. Was this a plain-Jane hike? Clearly Plainly not.

It was Independence Day, and I was celebrating our nation’s break from the English Crown by scuffing my boots in a brand new state. At least for me. I awoke in the 39th state’s capitol, and I would go to sleep there as well, so I had all day to meander around Harmon Lake, twelve miles northwest of downtown Bismarck. I had a relaxed morning and arrived at the Swimming Beach parking lot in the Harmon Lake Recreation Area shortly before noon.

Harmon Lake is circumnavigated by the Otter Creek Trail, a nine-mile-plus circuit. To trim that down, I passed up the Otter Creek trailhead and walked a few more yards up the park road to an unnamed trail. That trail arced through the North Dakota prairie, joining the Otter Creek Trail at a point that cut a mile of spaghetti-noodle trail from the north shore of the lake. I would still get over six miles of winding lake-side trail in a more manageable eight-mile hike. The last time I hiked eight or more miles was September 6, 2020 in Gifford-Pinchot State Park (read here). Endurance needed to be a bigger part of my recovery and I looked forward to seeing how I handled the miles.

The unmarked trail was an Arcadia of expansive views and wildflowers. Arkansas yucca, prairie rose, locoweed, and globemallow flecked the plains with color and kept me hiking in fits and starts as I stopped every few feet to identify and record the plentiful and diverse wildflowers. (The slideshow above contains 17 different wildflowers found on this route.) Harmon Lake flashed in the distance and soon I found the overgrown connector between the trail I was on and the Otter Creek Trail. Two minutes later I plucked a tick from my calf. This was the first of three on this hike, one of which climbed a quarter-inch above my sock and dug in. Little bastards.

The Otter Creek Trail meandered around Harmon Lake ducking in and out of wooded areas as it went. The copses that surrounded the water didn’t really register when I gazed at the lake from afar, so I felt surprised to be spending so much time in the shade of large shrubs and windblown trees. Not that I needed the shade – July 4 had dawned overcast in the Missouri River Valley. That would change, but not for a few miles yet.

When the trail wasn’t winding through copses of North Dakota trees, it was undulating over rolling prairie and skirting marshy areas at the edges of the lake. Water views were plentiful, and wildflowers were my constant companions as I worked my way counterclockwise around the pond. Birds were in abundance too, and while none of them would stay still long enough for me to get a nice photograph, I saw great white pelicans and new world orioles among other, more common, species. When I reached the south shore, I crossed what I’m sure was Otter Creek and headed east. If I thought the trail had been wind-ee up until this point, it was about to get a lot windee-er.

The southern shore of Harmon Lake was an exercise in noodling around prairie peninsulas and watery lake-fingers. At one point, I hiked for three-and-a-half miles to cover less than a quarter-mile as the crow flies. Not that I’m complaining. I wanted the miles. Also, it didn’t hurt that the trail remained interesting and the scenery beautiful. It was on this section of trail that I passed a berry-laden shrub that looked vaguely familiar.

Tasty, tasty serviceberries

I checked my Seek app and was amused to discover that it was a serviceberry bush covered with tasty, tasty serviceberries. Why the amusement? Read about my wife’s experience with tasty, tasty serviceberries in my post on Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Long story short, she ate one and could not scrub it off of her tongue fast enough. Now I stood looking at the very, scary berry that the internet called “sweet”, “juicy”, and “delicious,” but Lisa called, “bitter, caustic, and pernicious”. I looked around. I was completely alone. No witnesses. Whatever happened on those North Dakota plains, I could simply never speak of it. It would be my secret to take to the grave. I selected a particularly dark purple orb from the bush and popped it in my mouth.

I heaved, I wretched, and my eyes bulged as I clawed at my throat. As my sight began to grow dim I thought of ….

Sorry, that’s just what I was imagining as I bit down on the plump fruit. In reality, I did none of that. The serviceberry was … sweet, juicy, and delicious! As advertised. Vindication for a Black Canyon ranger and his flora-filled binder! I hiked on.

When I finished weaving my way around gullies and serviceberry bushes, I found myself at the southern end of a flood-control dam that creates the eastern shore of Harmon Lake. The next four-tenths of a mile were straight, flat, and in full sun. Once off the dam I worked my way around the shore, past a boat-rental shack, to the beach and back to the lot where I had parked. I had logged 8.1 miles and felt good!

Onlyinyourstate.com calls Harmon Lake, “The Underrated Lake That Might Just Be The Most Gorgeous Place In North Dakota”. I haven’t seen much of the Roughrider State, but I can certainly vouch for this area. My hike around Harmon Lake was scenic and diverse, with tons of wildflowers, and plentiful lake views. I would highly recommend this trail if you find yourself in the Bismarck area. Meanwhile, Lisa’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that service berries taste like a mouthful of creosote, and that all the online recipes touting their merits are lying. Do I tell her that they’re actually quite tasty? I’m going to have to think on that. Plainly not – I’m totally telling her! ♦

Date: July 4, 2022
Location: Mandan, ND
Trailhead: 46.943165, -100.968468
Distance: 8.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 225 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, and Hunkpapa.

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