Road to Nowhere

Cutting across America’s heartland, US‑83 remains a must-do long-distance byway—transnavigating this broad, odd nation without once grazing a conventional tourist destination.

Lake Sakakawea and the Garrison Dam

At 178 miles long and with nearly 1,600 miles of shoreline along the dammed Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea is the third largest man-made “lake” in the United States. It’s one of many places in the northwestern United States named for the legendary Shoshone Indian woman, also known as Sacagawea, who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition across the Rocky Mountains. There are countless things to do on the water, most of them involving fishing. The pleasant town of Garrison (pop. 1,453), six miles west of US-83 on Hwy-37, has a pair of red-roofed water towers labeled Hot and Cold, and a photogenic fiberglass statue of Wally-the-26-Foot-Walleye.

At the south end of Lake Sakakawea, and 12 miles west of US-83 via Hwy-200, the Missouri River backs up behind wide but low-slung Garrison Dam, the fifth-largest earth-filled dam in the United States. The powerhouse is enmeshed within a labyrinth of huge power stanchions, high-voltage lines, and transformers. In the adjacent fish hatchery on the downstream side of the dam, tanks hold hundreds of thousands of walleye, bass, and northern pike, plus rainbow and brown trout.

South of Garrison Dam, roadside interest along US-83 focuses on leviathan testimonials to engineering prowess. Huge tractors and bulldozers raise clouds of dust at the extensive coal mining operations around Underwood. The whole area on both sides of US-83 has been strip-mined and restored, though current operations are hard to get a good look at. Some 7.5-8 million tons of the valuable black rock each year ends up at the 1,100-megawatt Coal Creek Station, six miles north of Washburn and two miles off the roadway but readily apparent. This is one of the largest lignite-fired coal plants in the country, boasting a four-mile-long coal conveyor belt, which passes over the highway in a tube.

However, unless you have an abiding interest in fossil fuels, a more interesting alternative to driving this stretch of US-83 is to follow the Missouri River’s western bank south of Lake Sakakawea, where it reverts to its naturally broad and powerful self for the next 75 miles.

Lake Sakakawea
Garrison Dam
Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium
Coal Creek Station