Written by Cassandra Brooklyn
North Dakota may be one of the least populated states in the U.S., but what it lacks in residents it makes up for in roadside attractions. Three hundred miles from east to west (and 200 miles from the Canadian border to South Dakota), the wide open spaces of the Roughrider State are full of Native American history and plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs.
Whether you're exploring one of the country's lesser-known national parks, enjoying the "rootinist tootinist show in the West," or taking a detour along the Enchanted Highway, North Dakota deserves to be on everyone's travel bucket list. Here are 11 of our favorite things to do on a road trip across North Dakota.
In the tiny town of Medora, which serves as the gateway town to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just about everything is less than a 5-minute drive (or walk) away. After spending the day in the park and visiting the Cowboy Hall of Fame, head to the famed Medora Musical. Staged at a charming outdoor theater that overlooks the town’s Hollywood-like “MEDORA” sign, talent from North Dakota to New York puts on the "rootinist tootinist show in the West" each evening. Be sure to secure advance tickets for weekend shows and arrive early for dinner at the onsite Pitchfork Steak Fondue.
More than 70,000 acres of beautiful Badlands await you at one of the country’s lesser-known national parks. The park is divided into three separate areas: The Southern Unit, which is right off Highway 94, has the largest visitor center, and offers a great mix of well-paved and lesser-trafficked trails (including some beautiful petrified forests). The less-frequented Northern Unit is completely separated from the southern section, and treats visitors to bison-studded prairies and enormous canyons. The third is Elkhorn Ranch, the former site of President Roosevelt’s ranch, which occupies an isolated and rarely-visited area of the park only accessible by unpaved and gravel roads.
About 15 minutes before you arrive at the start of the Enchanted Highway, you’ll find North Dakota’s version of Napa Valley. The region’s first year-round winery, Fluffy Fields Vineyard and Winery, is the perfect place to stop for lunch on the patio—and to grab a bottle for later. The vineyard regularly receives overnight RV visitors through Harvest Hosts and is also happy to host “regular” car travelers overnight.
Beginning at Exit 72 on I-94 near Gladstone, and stretching to the small town of Regent, is a 32-mile stretch of road known as the Enchanted Highway. Though the first metal sculpture, Geese in Flight, is visible right from I-94, the rest of the folk-art creations are found miles apart from each other along an old county highway that requires a (very worthwhile) detour from the main highway. Once you arrive at the last statue in Regent, pop into the gift shop, which has miniature versions of each statue for sale.
Located on the banks of the Missouri River south of the town of Mandan is Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, where you can spend an afternoon hiking, biking, or picnicking—or spend the night in a cabin or tipi. Regardless of how much time you spend in the park, be sure to visit the reconstructed village honoring the Native Americans who lived in the area more than 300 years ago.
Bismarck, North Dakota’s colorful capital city, is home to a sculpture-sprinkled waterfront area and the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum, which explores the area’s geological, agricultural, industrial, and Native American history. If you only have time for a quick stop, head to Alley 5.5 (5th Street between Broadway and Main Avenues). This splashy corner of the city is covered with vibrant street art and is in a walkable area with amazing food.
A quick detour off the main highway brings you to Frontier Village and National Buffalo Museum, where you can wander around original buildings relocated from frontier villages across North Dakota. The antique homes, general stores, printing presses, and post offices are full of antiques and artifacts and lead you to the site’s main attraction, the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument. In keeping with the buffalo theme, you’ll also see buffalo roaming in a 200-acre field behind the museum, where you’ll see a rare albino buffalo on display.
The "World's Largest Buffalo" was built in 1959 by local businessman Harold Newman. The 26-foot-tall, 46-foot-long, 60-ton, anatomically correct, stucco and cement statue can be seen from Interstate 94.
Located just west of Fargo is, undoubtedly, the most unique attraction you’ll find in the state. The Bonanzaville museum and village explores the history and culture of North Dakota through 36 original structures relocated here from across the region. Fargo's first house, a schoolhouse, a saloon, a church, a fully-stocked mercantile store, and several warehouse-style buildings packed with classic cars and tractors deserve at least a few hours to explore. The huge complex has more than 400,000 artifacts that provide insight into the state’s earliest settlers, how they lived, and the challenges they faced.
On your way to downtown Fargo (where you’ll find most of the action in the city), pop into the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center to learn about activities and pick up maps for self-guided mural and buffalo sculpture walks around the city. If you’re a fan of the movie Fargo, this is the place to snap a picture with the original woodchipper from the film. If North Dakota happens to be the last state to check off your bucket list, you can also join the “Best for Last Club."
Downtown Fargo is arguably the coolest neighborhood in the coolest city in North Dakota. Streets, walls, and billboards are covered with murals and art installations that can easily be explored by car, foot, or bicycle. From the interactive and hyper-Instagrammable Super Mario Bros. mural (#FargoMarioWall) to the portrait of Swedish climate activist Greta Thurnberg, to the colorful collection of life-size buffalo sculptures, Fargo’s mural art can’t be missed. While you’re downtown, swing by the Etsy-style market Unglued, which features crafts made by hundreds of local artists, and consider catching a live show at the Fargo Theater (home to the Mighty Wurlitzer restored pipe organ).
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