Imagine wide open spaces, huge expanses of grasslands, and farms and skies that go on forever and you’re starting to get an idea of what to expect from North Dakota, located in the heart of America’s famous Great Plains territory. Cities like Fargo, Bismarck, and Grand Forks boast great museums, dining, entertainment, and culture. Here are the best North Dakota destinations. Certain attractions may be temporarily closed or require advance reservations. Hours/availability may have changed.
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The town of Bismarck was originally settled along the east bank of the Missouri River in 1872 by European immigrants and is consequently full of historic sites for you to explore. A prominent city landmark is the North Dakota State Capitol, a 21-storey building surrounded by parks and interpretive walking trails where you can learn about the origins of the city.
Top visitor attractions for history buffs include Buckstop Junction Historic Town, the Camp Hancock Historic Site, and Chief Looking’s Village Historic Site. Art lovers can explore the Bismarck Arts and Galleries Association and admire the crafts at the Bismarck Urban Harvest (Tuesdays). Children will enjoy the Gateway to Science interactive science center and the North Dakota Zoo, while Beaver Lake State Park offers a wide variety of outdoor activities. Things to Do in Bismarck
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Fargo is North Dakota’s most populous city and visitors will find a wide variety of activities including several good museums, interesting historic sites, and plenty of outdoor recreation. One of the foremost city attractions is the Plains Art Museum, housed in the historic International Harvester Warehouse.
Once you have admired some of the 3,000 works in the permanent collection, you can learn about local history at Bonanzaville USA and explore the Fargo Air Museum. Younger visitors will love the Red River Zoo. The whole family can go hiking, cycling, and picnicking in Lindenwood Park. Round off your busy day at the Fargo Theatre or the Fargo-Moorhead Opera. Things to Do in Fargo
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Grand Forks is located along the west bank of the Red River in North Dakota’s Red River Valley and dates back to 1870. You can learn about the history of Grand Forks on a tour of the Myra Museum and Grand Forks Historical Society and at the Heritage Village in East Grand Forks. Both the visual and performing arts are thriving in Grand Forks – indulge your senses at Browning Arts, the Empire Arts Center, Burtness Theatre, and the Chester Fritz Auditorium.
For a change from arts and culture, you can take on some of the 43 miles of hiking, biking, and skating trails in the Greater Grand Forks area, watch basketball, volleyball or soccer at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center, or go canoeing and kayaking on the Red River.
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4.North Dakota Destinations: Medora
Visiting the historic town of Medora is a little like stepping back in time to the 1880s, when the town was established along the North Pacific Railway by the French nobleman Marquis de Mores. Today, visitors can find out all about those exciting times on an escorted walking tour of historic Medora.
The town boasts several historic sites to visit, including Chateau de Mores, the Harold Schafer Heritage Center, the Von Hoffman House, and the Billings Country Courthouse Museum. Outdoors the fun continues in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where you can take a scenic Badlands drive or go camping and hiking, while the legendary Maah Daah Hey Trail attracts hikers, bikers, and horseback riders from near and far.
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Valley City was founded in 1874 around the banks of the winding Sheyenne River in the scenic Sheyenne River Valley. You can discover the highlights of the valley by taking a drive along the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway (at its best in fall), which follows Native American foot paths and ancient pioneer wagon trails and will lead you past 27 interpretive sites along the river.
Hikers and bikers may prefer to explore along the North Country National Scenic Trail, which parallels the byway. Valley City is often called “the city of bridges” due to the 11 historic bridges across the Sheyenne River – you can visit them all on the Historic Bridges Tour. The area offers a wide variety of outdoor activities, including fishing, hiking, birding, and boating in summer and snowmobiling, ice fishing, ice skating, and snowshoeing in winter. Things to Do in North Dakota
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The historic town of Walhalla is located along the Pembina River in the Rendezvous Region of North Dakota, not far from the Canadian border. The town offers visitors a pleasant mix of historic and outdoor activities, with an emphasis on getting back to nature and appreciating the beauty of the Pembina Gorge and the surrounding landscape.
Water sports enthusiasts can take their pick of activities on the Pembina River, including canoeing, kayaking, tubing, and water skiing. You can go hiking, biking, and horseback riding in the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area or the Tetrault Woods State Forest in summer or head to the Frost Fire Lodge and Ski Area in winter for great skiing, tubing, snowboarding, and more.
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Located in the heart of the North Dakota prairie, the historic town of Jamestown offers outdoor enthusiasts a great choice of summer and winter activities. Before you take on the great outdoors you can spend a few hours learning the history of the town on the Jamestown Talking Trail – a cellphone-guided walk through the most prominent historic sites in the city, including the National Buffalo Museum, Frontier Village, and the St. James Basilica.
Outdoor activities you can try include fishing (21 stocked dams in the area), hiking and biking along a variety of trails for all fitness levels, birding and wildlife watching, swimming, and horseback riding in summer. In winter the fun continues with cross-country skiing, sledding, skating, and snowmobiling.
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8.North Dakota Destinations: Garrison
The small town of Garrison is located along the western shore of picturesque Lake Sakakawea and beckons visitors with the promise of outstanding fishing and a host of other outdoor activities for all ages. History buffs can visit the Fort Stevenson Guardhouse Interpretive Center, the Heritage Park and Museum (by appointment only), the North Dakota Firefighters’ Museum & Hall of Fame, and the North Dakota Fishing Museum & Hall of Fame.
Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon offer numerous launch sites for boating and angling and you can hire equipment from the Fort Stevenson State Park concession. You can go hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing at Fort Stevenson State Park and visit the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge to learn all about nature and the environment.
The quaint small town of Lisbon is located along the 63-mile Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway, surrounded by breathtaking North Dakota scenery. Although the emphasis is squarely on enjoying outdoor pursuits, there are a few attractions for history lovers, including the Ransom County Courthouse and the historic Lisbon Opera House.
Nature lovers can go camping, hiking, biking, boating, and fishing at Dead Colt Creek and Fort Ransom State Park. The Sheyenne National Grasslands protects the last remaining remnants of tallgrass prairie in the country and is good for wildlife observation. In winter the emphasis shifts to snow sports.
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10.Theodore Roosevelt National Park
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located where the Great Plains meet the North Dakota Badlands. This national treasure is home to a wide variety of wildlife and offers endless opportunities for outdoor fun. The park is far too big to explore in a day, so most visitors bring a tent or RV to one of the three campgrounds so that they can fully enjoy the facilities.
Activities to try include hiking along a variety of trails suitable for all ability levels, biking, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and wildlife viewing. You can join a ranger-led program, visit historic sites such as the Maltese Cross Cabin, where Roosevelt slept, and visit the Painted Canyon Visitor Center to admire some of the best views of the North Dakota Badlands.
11.The Enchanted Highway
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Anyone travelling in western North Dakota should seize the opportunity to take a drive along the Enchanted Highway, which begins at Exit 72 on the I-94 near Gladstone and runs for 32 miles to the little town of Regent. This exceptional short stretch of road is home to a series of unique road-side sculpture installations made entirely from scrap metal by local artist Gary Greff. You can pull into a parking area at each of the enormous installations to have a close-up look at classic American road-side art.
One of the most impressive works is entitled Geese in Flight (close to Exit 72), which currently holds a place in the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest scrap metal structure in the world. The gift shop in Regent stocks miniature versions of the sculptures if you would like a souvenir.
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The Missouri River is by far the most prominent waterway in North Dakota, featuring several historic places which have been home to a succession of creeds and cultures. History enthusiasts can see how the Northern Plains Indians lived at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton or at the On-A-Slant Indian Village at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.
The broad and swift river is very popular with canoeists – there are several sections of the river that offer a gentle paddle through beautiful scenery with picnicking opportunities on exposed sandbars. Seasoned paddlers can easily find more challenging routes where swift currents and strong winds add an extra dimension to the adventure.
13.Maah Daah Hey Trail
© Maah Daah Hey Trail
Occupying a prominent position on any serious mountain bikers wish list, the Maah Daah Hey Trail is the longest (and possibly the most arduous) mountain bike route in the U.S. (cyclists make up roughly 75% of users but share the trail with hikers and equestrians).
The trail meanders through 97 miles of the most striking landscape in North Dakota, encompassing towering peaks and plateaus, valleys, rivers, and rolling open prairie, and several additional shorter trail units bring the total length of the trail system to over 125 miles. Dotted along the way are ten developed campgrounds and there is also the chance to do some backcountry hiking and primitive camping. You can access the trail system via one of twelve trailheads and enjoy wonderful wildlife watching along the route.
14.Little Missouri State Park
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Little Missouri State Park is located 27 miles north of Killdeer on Highway 22 and offers visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the stark beauty of the North Dakota Badlands, whose intricate stone formations have been shaped by the forces of nature over thousands of years. Since much of the area is only accessible on foot or by horseback, you need to pack some sturdy hiking boots or bring your trusty steed to help you navigate the over 47 miles of trails.
There are electrical hook-ups for campers and corrals for equestrians who bring their own horses. Nearby attractions include Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Deerkill Mountain Four Bears Scenic Byway, and Lake Sakakawea.
15.Little Missouri National Grassland
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The Little Missouri National Grassland is located in the North Dakota Prairie Grasslands in western North Dakota and covers over one million acres. The grassland offers a wide variety of outdoor activities against the scenic backdrop of the famous North Dakota Badlands.
You will need some time to fully explore the area and there are several campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park an RV to serve as your base. Activities include mountain biking along the Long X Trail, day hikes or backpacking along several trails, and fishing at Sather Lake. You can learn about the history of the area by visiting the Battle of the Badlands Interpretive Site, Custer’s Snow Camp, and Initial Rock.
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16.North Dakota Destinations: Grahams Island State Park
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Grahams Island State Park is located on the western shore of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota’s largest natural lake. The state park is renowned for offering some of the best fishing in the country as well as good wildlife and nature observation from the two hiking trails.
If you would like to stay overnight, you can rent a basic camping cabin or bring your tent or RV to either the modern or primitive campsites. In the nearby town of Devil’s Lake you can learn some local history at the Fort Totten Historic Site, take a hike to the lookout tower at Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve, or visit the Spirit Lake Sioux Reservation.
17.McDowell Dam Recreation Area, Bismarck
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The McDowell Dam Recreation Area is situated just 5 miles from the city of Bismarck and offers an enticing green space where locals and visitors can spend a few hours relaxing and unwinding. There is a public beach where you can go swimming and the on-site concession offers canoe, kayak, and paddleboat rentals.
If you prefer land-based activities, you can go hiking or biking along the paved recreational trail or explore the nature trail that circles the dam. The area also offers a playground, picnic areas, horse-shoe pits, and modern restrooms as well as larger shelters which you can hire for group events.
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18.Turtle River State Park
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Turtle River State Park is located 22 miles west of Grand Forks in a scenic wooded valley along the banks of the Turtle River. You can come and spend the day enjoying a variety of outdoor activities, including picnics, hiking, and mountain biking.
The dam is stocked with trout and younger visitors can borrow equipment at the park office. In winter, you can try cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. If you would like to stay for a few days, you can book a rustic cabin (outdoor cooking only) and there is also a large dormitory-style chalet that can sleep groups of up to 40 people.
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Devil’s Lake is North Dakota’s largest natural lake, located about 90 miles west of Great Forks, offering a wide variety of vacation opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. The lake is renowned for great fishing all year round (including ice-fishing) and there are seven boat ramps dotted around the large lake where you can launch your craft.
If you enjoy camping, you will find six campgrounds and camping resorts, while those who prefer their home comforts can check into one of ten lodges strategically positioned around the lake. For a change from fishing you can cycle some of the 74 biking trails, which vary from around 2 miles to over 100 miles in length. Other area activities include bird watching at Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge or hiking in the Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve.
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The Caprock-Coulee hiking trail is located in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The trail is considered moderate and will suit most hikers with a reasonable fitness level, although if you are bringing young children along, you will need a baby-carrier as the trail is not suitable for buggies.
The trailhead starts you off in a Badlands canyon, where you can get some great close-up views of the intricate rock formations the area is known for. You can pick up a brochure at the trailhead and then set off along the canyon path, which slowly climbs up to the canyon rim, offering sweeping views of the valley and the Little Missouri River far below.
21.Sullys Hill National Game Preserve
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Sullys Hill National Game Preserve forms part of the Devils Lake Wetland Management District in the heart of the picturesque Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota. You can explore the preserve by means of a 4-mile scenic wildlife drive that leads you through several habitats where you should get to see bison, elk, deer, and prairie dogs.
To get really up close to nature, you can take on one of several trails that offer varying degrees of uphill and downhill challenges. There is also an accessible trail that gives visitors with wheelchairs the opportunity to reach the observation deck overlooking the lake.
22.Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge
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The Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge is located along the James River, 26 miles north of Jamestown in east central North Dakota. The refuge, which includes lakes, marshes, and wetlands, was established to provide a sanctuary and breeding ground for resident and migrating birds and other wildlife and is very popular with nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, and avid photographers.
You can explore at your own pace along a 5.5-mile car or motorbike route, hike along a short interpretive trail, or spend a few hours snapping winning photos from one of two concealed viewing hides. You can try your hand at fishing using a canoe or non-motorized boat (in season), but bird and wildlife watching are the most popular activities in the refuge.
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23.World’s Largest Buffalo
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The World’s Largest Buffalo is an iconic piece of American roadside art and can be found towering over Frontier Village in Jamestown, North Dakota. This 60-ton monument to the American bison was built in 1953 by local art teacher Elmer P. Petersen, who wanted to build something particularly eye-catching to ensure passers-by would stop in and explore Jamestown.
You can have your photo taken with the enormous sculpture and have a look around Frontier Village, which contains a number of original North Dakota frontier buildings that showcase the region’s pioneering days. If you time your visit correctly, you can go on a stagecoach ride and witness a Wild West shootout.
23 Best North Dakota Vacations (Small Towns, Natural Wonders)
- Bismarck, Photo: Courtesy of sframe - Fotolia.com
- Fargo, Photo: Courtesy of johnsroad7 - Fotolia.com
- Grand Forks, Photo: Grand Forks
- North Dakota Destinations: Medora, Photo: Medora
- Valley City, Photo: Courtesy of johnsroad7 - Fotolia.com
- Walhalla, Photo: Courtesy of khlongwangchao - Fotolia.com
- Jamestown, Photo: Jamestown
- North Dakota Destinations: Garrison, Photo: Garrison
- Lisbon, Photo: Lisbon
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Photo: Courtesy of rruntsch - Fotolia.com
- The Enchanted Highway, Photo: Courtesy of watcherfox - Fotolia.com
- Missouri River, Photo: Courtesy of johns road 7 - Fotolia.com
- Maah Daah Hey Trail, Photo: Maah Daah Hey Trail
- Little Missouri State Park, Photo: Courtesy of Pakhnyushchyy - Fotolia.com
- Little Missouri National Grassland, Photo: Courtesy of Zack Frank - Fotolia.com
- North Dakota Destinations: Grahams Island State Park, Photo: Courtesy of cosma - Fotolia.com
- McDowell Dam Recreation Area, Bismarck, Photo: Courtesy of Tomasz Zajda - Fotolia.com
- Turtle River State Park, Photo: Turtle River State Park
- Devil’s Lake, Photo: Courtesy of renamarie - Fotolia.com
- Caprock-Coulee Trail, Photo: Courtesy of IcemanJ - Fotolia.com
- Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, Photo: Courtesy of duke2015 - Fotolia.com
- Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, Photo: Courtesy of madajar - Fotolia.com
- World’s Largest Buffalo, Photo: Courtesy of Roman Bodnarchuk - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of rruntsch - Fotolia.com
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