GRAND FORKS — North Dakota might have an inferiority complex. It’s the least visited state, we tell ourselves, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. This article presents seven potential destinations, all of them reachable from anywhere in the state within eight hours’ driving time.
These seven are among the best known of the state’s destinations and all of them offer at least basic services for travelers. Several are of national importance and several have world-class museums. Others are in the development stage, but still offer more than adequate services.
Site Number 1: The Pembina River Valley.
The State Historical Society has a fine museum in Pembina, where the Pembina River joins the Red. The site has been continuously occupied since the late 18th century; it’s the oldest European settlement in the mid-continent region. There’s a lot of history there, but the main attraction is the observation tower, which offers an unparalleled view of the Red River Valley.
Icelandic State Park, just west of Cavalier, has one of the state’s better local museums, plus a lake for fishing and swimming, surrounded by hiking trails. Lake Renwick is actually on the Tongue River, a tributary of the Pembina. The area north and west of the park, the Jay Wessels Wildlife Management Area, is an area of grasslands and aspen forests with public access.
Just northeast of Walhalla is Gingras Trading Post, the state’s oldest building, and a reminder of the French influence in this part of the state. Walhalla, evoking the Viking word for Paradise, is the entry point for the Pembina River Gorge, the most rugged landscape in eastern North Dakota. Frost Fire, a multi-use area under development by a local foundation, offers summer theater with performances through July.
Site Number 2: The Turtle Mountains.
The big attractions here are the International Peace Garden and Lake Metigoshe State Park. The first straddles the international boundary and offers formal gardens and one of the world’s largest collections of cacti, many of them in bloom throughout the summer. The Garden has food and campgrounds but no overnight accommodations. Nearby Lake Metigoshe has resorts and motels. The governments of Manitoba and North Dakota have agreed to spend $12 million updating and improving the Peace Garden; some facilities there date to the 1930s.
Site Number 3: The Yellowstone Confluence, where the Yellowstone meets the Missouri. The state maintains a visitor center at the confluence, which drew just about every western explorer, including Lewis and Clark, John James Audubon and Father DeSmet. Nearby is Fort Union National Historic Site, once the largest fur trading center in the West. Fort Buford, a state site, has a military cemetery. It was the site of Sitting Bull’s surrender and of the first newspaper published in what is now North Dakota.
Find accommodations in Williston – and expect to pay Oil Field prices.
Site Number 4: Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
This is the state’s most visited site, drawing 750,000 visitors last year. That’s expected to increase when a library and museum honoring Theodore Roosevelt are completed. TRNMP – the only national park named after an individual – has everything you’d expect of a national park, and Medora has everything you’d expect of a town at the entrance to a national park. There’s a nightly musical in the amphitheater, complete with a pitchfork barbeque. Medora probably has more statues and museums per capita than any other place in the state. The whole place has a distinctly western ambiance, from the bison on the highways to the bandanas for sale in the shops.
Call ahead for lodging whether you intend to camp in the park or stay in one of Medora’s motels.
The national park actually has three units; the North Unit south of Watford City is less visited and has a wilder and more rugged feel to it.
Watford City, an oil boom town, has a range of motels and eating places.
Site Number 5: Bismarck.
As you’d expect from the state’s capitol, Bismarck has everything a traveler would need, including a waterfront and – when the water’s low – accessible beaches. The real attractions are the view from the observation of the state capitol, one of only three skyscraper capitol buildings in the nation, and the State Heritage Center, which has remarkable collections spanning the state’s history. Don’t miss the paleontological exhibits, especially if there’s a kid – of any age – in your car. Bismarck has a variety of restaurants and lodging. Lodging can be in short supply. Best to call ahead; most national chains are represented.
Site Number 6: The Missouri River Valley. About an hour drive north of Bismarck is the state’s Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which owns one of only a handful of sets of Swiss artist Karl Bodmer’s prints of western landscapes made in the 1840s. Nearby is Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, an important native site. The collection of villages located here was once one of the largest urban areas in North America; Historian Elizabeth Fenn wrote about it in “Encounters at the Heart of the World,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for history.
These three sites can be combined in a four or five day “western swing.”
Top of Valley
Site Number 7: The top of the valley. The Red River runs north, remember, so the top is the south end. Of special interest are remnants of the Bonanza Farming Era, which helped spur settlement and railroad building in the state.
The Bagg Bonanza Farm at Mooreton is a careful reconstruction staffed by knowledgeable local people. Nearby is the Adams Fairview Farm also dating from the Bonanza Era. Wahpeton is not far away, and just north of that city is Fort Abercrombie, site of an important outpost in the Great Sioux War of the 1860s — the one that led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
So that’s seven places worth visiting. Other articles in this summer series will take a closer look at these and other places in the state.