Why It's Time to Visit North Dakota

The Peace Garden State is the under-the-radar travel destination you've been looking for.

By: Jed Portman

North Dakota Landscape

Photo by: Courtesy of Bruce Wendt/North Dakota Tourism

Courtesy of Bruce Wendt/North Dakota Tourism

How much do you know about North Dakota?

It’s more than wheat fields and windmills as far as the eye can see — though there’s value in a few quiet days under the deep blue skies of one of the country’s most serene landscapes.

Anyone who’s driven through the prairie state recently can testify to the proliferation of wildlife, dozens of historical and cultural landmarks and upwelling of breweries, restaurants and farmers’ markets that make it a road trip-worthy destination today.

Bison Jam

Photo by: Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

If you’re heading from the east, via I-95, your first stop over the Minnesota border will be Fargo — a city that’s so much more than the iconic 1996 movie that, as locals point out, wasn’t even filmed in the area. (The movie’s woodchipper is on permanent display in the visitor’s center, though.)

North Dakota’s most populous city is also its cultural and culinary capital. Fargo is home to the 1926 art deco Fargo Theatre, which shows nightly movies and hosts the Fargo Film Festival each spring, as well as the Fargo-Moorhead Opera, the only opera company between Minneapolis and Billings.

Fargo Theatre

Photo by: Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

Courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

You’ll want to start your night with a craft beer — maybe a Buffalo Rodeo rye pilsner, or a Wheez the Juice IPA — at Drekker Brewing Company, and end it with a cold Grain Belt Premium at The Bismarck, a quintessential Great Plains dive since the 1940s.

In between, make the most of the growing food scene with a restaurant crawl.

You can try knoephla, a rich, creamy, German-by-way-of-North Dakota version of chicken and dumplings, along with a range of local and regional beers, at Wurst Bier Hall, next door to Drekker. Then, continue to Blackbird Woodfire for pizzas made with North Dakota flour and seasonal toppings. Or stop for an appetizer at the stylish Hotel Donaldson, a refurbished 1893 boarding house that now contains seventeen rooms inspired by local artists and the upscale HoDo Restaurant.

South Dakota's Must-See Attractions

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Mount Rushmore

Completed in 1941, Mount Rushmore is undoubtedly one of the most recognized memorials in South Dakota, and in the US. Each year, more than 3 million visitors come face-to-face with the likeness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Plan a visit to Mount Rushmore in 2016 when it will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Badlands National Park

Located 75 miles east of Rapid City, SD, Badlands National Park spans across 244,000 acres of prairie grassland, and boasts beautiful landscape views of unique and rugged geologic formations. Visitors from around the world visit the Badlands to camp, hike and view wildlife like bison, bighorn sheep and black-footed ferrets roaming throughout the park.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Deadwood, SD

Once home to Wild West legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock, Deadwood, SD, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961. Located in the northern Black Hills, visitors can experience the rich history of the Wild West at family-friendly museums and attractions, test their luck gambling at one of the casinos, or get a taste of South Dakota at Belle Joli or Schade Winery.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Crazy Horse Memorial

A short distance from Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial -- the world?s largest mountain carving -- stands as a tribute to Crazy Horse, a Lakota warrior and one of the most important Native American tribal leaders. Construction on the memorial began in 1948, and has been in progress since; once complete, it will stand 563 feet tall. Other attractions located at Crazy Horse Memorial include the Indian Museum of North America, a cultural center, restaurant and gift shop which showcase the culture, tradition and heritage of North American Indians.

Photo By: Thinkstock

Custer State Park

Seventy-one thousand acres of breathtakingly beautiful scenery awaits the outdoorsy and adventurous at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From hiking and mountain biking to fishing and wildlife viewing, the park offers a little bit of everything for everyone. In addition to camping, the park offers a variety of accommodations, including the historic State Game Lodge and Blue Bell dude ranch.

Photo By: AWL Images / Getty Images

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Each September, thousands of people travel to Custer State Park to experience the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup when a group of cowboys and cowgirls roundup and drive a herd of approximately 1,300 buffalo. After the roundup, grab a small bite to eat at the Dutch Oven or Chili Cook-off then stop by the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival for arts and crafts vendors and entertainment.

Photo By: Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Named a National Historic Site in 1999, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site stands as an ongoing reminder of the Cold War Era. Learn about the history and significance of the Cold War and nuclear weapons development on a tour throughout the Minuteman Missile Silo launch facility and control room.

Photo By: National Park Service

Akela Spa of Deadwood

Designed with luxury and serenity in mind, Akela Spa of Deadwood -- the area?s only destination spa -- uses Native American treatments to calm and soothe its guests. Book the spa?s signature massage, Akela Hante, which uses cedar oil -- a sacred element in the Native American culture -- to purify and heal your mind and body.

Photo By: Greg Valladolid

I-29 Cultural Corridor

The I-29 Cultural Corridor in east South Dakota features a variety of attractions including the South Dakota Art Museum, National Music Museum and Children?s Museum of South Dakota. 

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Ingalls Homestead

Experience life on the prairie with a visit to Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD. This is where author Laura Ingalls Wilder once lived, and the inspiration began that sparked her popular Little House books. Travelers of all ages will enjoy an old-fashioned day on the prairie with a covered wagon ride, an authentic 1880s school session, pioneering activities and more.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

The Corn Palace

Opened in 1921, the Corn Palace -- the world?s only palace built entirely out of corn -- is a popular attraction visited by more than 500,000 people each year. Some visitors return to see the new theme of the mural on the outside of the palace, which changes annually. In addition to being a tourist attraction, the palace is used for a variety of events, including exhibits, performances and the annual Corn Palace Festival.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

National Music Museum

It?s music to your ears. The National Music Museum, located at the University of South Dakota, features a collection of more than 15,000 musical instruments from various cultures and centuries. A designated ?Landmark of American Music,? the museum has one of the largest collections of its kind in the world, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Get ready to hit the pavement at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally -- one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world. Welcoming almost 400,000 bikers and biking enthusiasts each year, the 7-day rally takes place the 1st week of August in Sturgis, SD, and includes scenic drives, concerts, races and more.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Tabor Czech Days

Experience the rich Czech culture of Tabor, SD, at the annual Tabor Czech Days celebration. The 3-day event includes music entertainment, dancing and traditional Czech cuisine, as well as parades and craft fairs that showcase the town?s heritage.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

Children’s Museum of South Dakota

You?ll find fun for the whole family at the Children?s Museum of South Dakota, located just off the I-29 corridor in Brookings, SD. Here, children?s minds will run wild as they sing, dance, craft and play throughout the museum?s 21,000-square-foot interactive exhibit space and 1.5-acre outdoor exhibit space.

Photo By: South Dakota Department of Tourism

North Dakota’s tallest building — the North Dakota State Capitol Building, a twenty-one-story skyscraper on the Plains — is in Bismarck, three hours to the west.

If you’re in the state capital on a Saturday morning, head to the BisMarket, in shady Kiwanis Park, for live music and a fresh breakfast. For lunch, try the Little Cottage Café — a 1950s diner that serves best-in-town renditions of rib-sticking North Dakota favorites such as buttery knoephla, deep-fried beef fleischkuechle and custardy kuchen. (As soon as you sit down, ask about the caramel rolls. If they aren’t sold out, you’ll want one of those, too.) You can walk it off on the Missouri Valley Millennium Legacy Trail, which runs along miles of Missouri riverbank.


Photo by: Jed Portman

Jed Portman

Follow the river north to Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, where you can still see the divots left in the earth by Hidatsa earth lodges and travois poles. If you have time, visit a few of the less curated Mandan sites in the area, too, including the Double Ditch Indian Village State Historic Site and the Fort Clark State Historic Site, marking the former Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kusch — once a bustling trading post on the edge of the Missouri River, now a pitted field overlooking a valley left dry when the volatile Big Muddy changed its course.

Lewis and Clark wintered in this area from 1804 to 1805, and their Fort Mandan — likely buried beneath the present-day bends of the Missouri River — has been reconstructed in Washburn.

Where to See Bison in the Wild

America's national mammal is even more majestic in person.

On the other side of the state, just before you reach Montana, you’ll arrive at the tourist town of Medora. Medora entered the history books when Theodore Roosevelt, grieving the loss of his mother and his young wife, came west in the 1880s to work his sorrows away on the Maltese Cross and Elkhorn ranches — now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a prairie fantasyland of bison, elk, pronghorn, wild horses and epic, colorful Badlands topography.

Theodore Roosevelt doesn’t get crowded like Glacier, Yellowstone or even Badlands National Park in South Dakota. That means that, especially if you get on the South Unit’s Scenic Loop Drive early in the morning, chances are good you’ll be the only car watching a herd of bison amble across the asphalt just feet away — even in the peak months of June, July and August. (You can also expect encounters with prairie dogs by the hundreds, if not thousands.)

Medora Musical

Photo by: Courtesy of Anzley Harmon/North Dakota Tourism

Courtesy of Anzley Harmon/North Dakota Tourism

Medora itself is worth a visit, too, after pitching a tent in the park for later. Embrace the kitsch at the nightly Pitchfork Steak Fondue, where you can chow down on a slab of beef deep-fried on a pitchfork and a few cowboy sides — baked beans, baked potatoes, thick-cut toast — while watching the sun descend over the Badlands. Then, walk next door to the Burning Hills Amphitheater for the flag-waving, foot-stomping Medora Musical, a summertime tradition since 1965. You’ll leave feeling proud to be sleeping under the stars in North Dakota.

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