One of the least visited states in the USA, North Dakota has a surprisingly long list of things to do and see. Recently I visited the state, and this time spent some real time there. The first time, I didn’t give it more than a short 24 hours, but this time I realized its potential. In hoping that you don’t underestimate it as much as I originally did, I’ve compiled this North Dakota bucket list so that you won’t miss out on all the great sites this often bypassed state has to offer.
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What do you think of when you think of North Dakota? I thought it was a state covered with flat plains of wheat, you know those “amber waves of grain?” As beautiful, and important that these are, is it enough to attract me to see the state? Well it wasn’t for almost 40 years.
North Dakota was the 50th state I visited. I even had a motto, “50 before 40.” I did drag the rest of the family along, though, and since they are all younger than me they had to come up with their own mottos.
We were driving across the country, visiting national parks, like Denali and Yosemite, and important sites along the way. I’d been challenged by my fourth graders to not miss North Dakota, even though it was off the route, 400 miles off the route, in fact. On that trip, we drove in and spent the night in Bowman. Then the next morning, we promptly drove out again. What a mistake! Here it is a few years later, and I rediscovered North Dakota.
North Dakota Myths Debunked
It is not all flat! Okay, so maybe the mountains aren’t that high, but there are plenty of hills and valleys. I was taken aback when driving the undulations of the landscape. Yes, there are plenty of wheat fields, spring wheat and durum wheat.
There is surprisingly plenty of things to do in the state, like the North Dakota National Parks and Historic Sites, state parks, municipality parks and recreation areas, museums, and so much more.
There are also plenty of other types of products raised in this fertile state, making it a veritable shopping basket of produce, from sunflowers to honey, from canola to flaxseed, and from oats to barley. Cereals, pasta, oils, all come from their farms, along with beef! Lots of beef.
It’s not poor! For some reason, our mind’s visions of the heartland, don’t show us the wealth of the state. Rich in oil as well as produce, North Dakota’s revenue is growing. Everywhere I went they were in a population boom, unemployment is one of the lowest in the country, and the communities are thriving. In Watford City and Williston, both cities that are rapidly growing, they have state of the art schools, community centers, and thriving main streets.
My North Dakota Bucket List
Best Cities to Visit
Every North Dakotan city I visited on this trip made me feel like I was home. Small and quiet, yet fun and hipster, the coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, Main Streets, all were welcoming and felt safe and comfortable.
Bismarck is the capital but only second largest city in North Dakota. It’s spread out, like many mid-western cities, so a car is a necessity. However the downtown area is somewhat walkable, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops to wander between, as well as biking and walking trails, parks, and great restaurants.
I liked wandering down Alley 5.5, gawking at the street art then following it up with a great cup of coffee. My absolute favorite thing we did there was to visit the North Dakota Heritage Center and Museum. A multi-million dollar renovation has made this an exceptional place for learning all about the state, and what’s better is it’s free to enter. From dinosaurs to missile silos, the center was fun and engaging. I could have spent many more hours there!
Where We Ate and Stayed in Bismarck
For quirkiness, Medora is the hands-down winner! It’s got such a western frontier town vibe. Only a few blocks wide, the downtown area is still spread out, none of this touching the next building business, and very walkable and cute. It’s impossible not to wander among the many exhibitions and shows regaling the town’s colorful history, as well as the adventure rentals, souvenir shops, cafes, and whatever other mish-mash. It’s eclectic, off-beat, and tons of fun!
One of Medora’s most interesting historical figures was the Marquis de Mores, a French transplant, who had a difficult time mixing with the local ranchers. He wanted to revolutionize beef shipping, and we had a great time touring his hunting lodge up on the crest overlooking the town. I love a place where history comes alive, and that’s what Medora does for you in a variety of ways.
Where We Ate and Stayed in Medora
Watford City is one of the places that has really come alive in the last ten years or so, thanks to the oil boom in North Dakota. Their population has soared, and they’ve put a lot of money into being a great city to raise a family. In fact, they’ve invested millions into just that. They’ve built state-of-the-art schools and a gargantuan community center so that the city’s children will have things to do all year long.
They have a thriving Main Street area, where you can walk, window shop, meet your friends for coffee, and just enjoy the small town atmosphere of middle America. I loved this little city. Who wouldn’t when you drive up to your hotel and see the largest Theodore Roosevelt welcoming you to town.
We also met a couple of locals that showed me how passionate they were about their city and raising their kids in such a safe and welcoming place, Lindsay Veeder of Door 204, the absolute coolest coffee shop I think I’ve ever been in, and Nick Ybarra of the Maah Daah Hey bike race. Even though I’m strictly a street bike rider, Nick inspired me to try and return and do the 5 km race. What do you think?
Where We Ate and Stayed in Watford City
When I didn’t think there could be yet another great city, we visited Williston. Now, this town has got it together. The entire downtown, Main Street, area is thriving with hipster cafes, pubs, trendy boutiques, and fantastic cafes. Even the bookshops were quirky!
Williston is really working hard at bringing the fun into North Dakota. If you know me, you know I love a good hands-on experience, especially one that involves food, like my time learning to bake real bagels in NYC. We visited Cooks on Main and had a knife skills workshop that was mind-blowing.
I never knew chopping a celery stalk could be so entertaining as well as functional. I learned new words like, “chiffonade” and “brunoise,” and “julienne.” In fact, not only did I learn the words but I learned how to do them. So cool!
Where We Ate and Stayed in Williston
Best Historical Landmarks
It should have come to no surprise to me that North Dakota was rich in western expansion history. A hundred years ago when the railroad was being built, it brought in lots of workers. Towns were established in what still was a wild frontier.
Probably the first and most famous person to tout the advantages to the fertile prairies and wide open ranges was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, and needless to say, he sure did make his mark on the place. He’s not the only one, though, General Custer lived there for some time as well. If you are like me, a history buff, North Dakota brings it!
Fort Lincoln State Park
A military outpost located in Mandan, Fort Lincoln is where General Custer lived with his wife until he met his untimely demise at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Custer was there as the commanding officer, protecting the railroad as track was being laid across this massive state.
Today, there are a few buildings depicting the lives of the Custers, in a rebuilt version of their home, and the soldiers that lived there. Tours are given by passionate guides, wearing the uniform of the time period, and getting into character. Entertaining for kids of all ages, our guide even took a bite out of an onion, purportedly one of Custer’s favorite foods.
A short drive from Williston, Fort Buford witnessed one of the most important events of the wars between the United States and the Native Americans. Sitting Bull, the chief of the Sioux tribes, surrendered to the garrison commander, Major Brotherton in 1881.
Remaining today are remnants of the former fort, such as the an officer’s quarters, barracks, and some out-buildings and foundations. Inside the main building is an exhibit highlighting the conflict and surrender, as well as a biography of the life and accomplishments of Chief Sitting Bull.
Unlike the military forts like Buford or Lincoln, Fort Union enclosed the thriving fur trading business of the 1800s. Probably one of the most important trading posts on the Upper Missouri River, the Native American tribes brought in pelts and furs to trade for everything from beads to guns and ammunition.
Today you can visit the site, take a guided tour, watch a movie in the exhibition hall, and learn all about how involved the trading business had become before the fort closed in 1867.
Best Natural Sites
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I love a national park, and the number one thing to see in all of North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is well worth a few days. There are two major portions of the park, the more visited South Unit of the park, and the lesser visited North Unit, which are separated by US Interstate 94 and lies within two time zones (central and mountain).
The park’s geological features highlight the many colored layers of the Badlands, but one of the things that draws folks to visit is the wildlife. From prairie dogs to bison, it’s difficult to go to the park and not see animals up close. This bison walked alongside our van for a few minutes, wild horses grazed right on the side of the road, and the prairie dog tunnels run all over the place.
Theodore Roosevelt had a few hunting lodges on the land before it was a park, and he also raised beef. At the South Unit Visitors Information Center, you can go inside the smaller of his cabins, the Maltese Cross Cabin, as well as learn about the Roosevelt herd and history.
Both units have scenic drives that enable you to enjoy short hikes, fantastic views, and the wildlife. Inside the park, there are campgrounds that are open year round, and you can hike or horseback ride on one of the many trails that will take you to hidden and secret spots off of the main road which is what most people are seeking.
The third largest man-made lake in the USA, Lake Sakakawea has 184 miles of coast line, and you won’t believe the views. It’s a well known lake for kayakers, boaters, fishermen, and other water sports.
We took an evening boat ride to the eastern side of the lake and were rewarded with stunning vistas of layered rock precipices jutting out into the water.
Next time I would love to go fishing there, especially in May when it is the only place in the country to fish for paddlefish. Other times of the season, you can fish for walleye.
Along the shores of Lake Sakakawea you can camp or stay in cabins, which will help you keep warm especially during the winter ice-fishing season. We visited Tobacco Gardens and had a walleye fish dinner with the owner, Peggy Hellandsaas.
Places to Visit in North Dakota Map
When is the best time to visit North Dakota?
If you have seen the movie, Fargo, you might think that North Dakota is always cold. It is very cold in winter, but the summers are comfortable and warm. Some of the areas are wide open ranges, so you will always have a breeze.
Summertime is the best time for doing any kind of outdoor sport such as camping and hiking, but even in winter you can get out and snowshoe or ice fish.
What do people do for fun in North Dakota?
Camping, hiking, biking, kayaking, picnicking, and just getting outdoors is what most people do for fun in North Dakota. Whether you go in summer or winter, getting close to nature is easy to do.
What is the best local food in North Dakota?
Knoephla Soup is probably the best known food in North Dakota, but there are so many local foods that are worth trying. Make sure to pick up some Dot’s Pretzels at any convenience store.
Try some cheesy, deep-fried pickles to accompany you at one of the many micro-brewery pubs, and don’t leave the state without eating the best-known steak in the state at the Pitchfork Fondue in Medora.
What is the number one tourist attraction in North Dakota?
If you are going to go to North Dakota, you must visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s number one for a reason. It certainly was my favorite stop on the entire trip.
What wildlife can you see in North Dakota?
Elk, deer, coyote, prairie dogs, bison, wild horses, antelope, bighorn sheep, and many species of migratory birds are just some of the animals you can see while visiting North Dakota.
Whether you love summer or winter activities, North Dakota has plenty to do all year long. Visit great outdoor spots like Lake Sakakawea or Theodore National Park, or head to some of the best little cities in the USA to enjoy brew pubs, great coffee, and amazing museums.
Additional Disclaimer: For this visit to North Dakota I was hosted by the friendly folks at ND Tourism. Thanks go out to them for all of their support!