One of the funniest things we heard in North Dakota was from Tammy at the breakfast room at the Towne Place and Suites hotel in Dickinson North Dakota. Tammy was the helpful and cheerful person in charge of the breakfast room. When she learned we were driving from Dickinson to Rapid City South Dakota she told us, “There are two roads to get there. One has nothing and one really has nothing.”
“Nothing” may be exactly what you picture you will find in the Dakotas. And to be fair, there is a lot of open space in the Dakotas. But we also found on a one-week road trip some jaw-dropping beauty and some amazing wildlife. We found art and music majesty and the only traffic jams we saw were caused by bison. Let me make a case about why you should visit also.
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- North Dakota
- Dakota Road Trip
I have done a lot of travel around the U.S. but had never been to North Dakota. It would be my 50th state. We stopped on Interstate 94 to take our pictures at the welcome sign, commemorating my 50th state and my wife’s 49th!
We were in North Dakota mostly to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park which is closest to Medora North Dakota. Medora did not have many good options for affordable hotels so we stayed a half an hour away in Dickinson which has a lot of good options. We stayed at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott hotel which was very nice. Tammy (our wonderful waitress at breakfast) provided brochures and great info on things to do and see in the area.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Unit
We headed west and north to the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We went to the visitor center, showed our national park annual pass, stamped our National Park Passport, and listened to the ranger tell the people ahead of us not to call 911 if they saw a bison. When Nancy asked the ranger if people really do that, the ranger responded: “I don’t say things just to say them”.
The north unit of the park is laid out in a 14-mile long scenic drive which dead-ends at Oxbow Overlook with views of badlands, bison, and the Little Missouri River.
There was a handy sign at the Visitor’s Center which taught you what the safest part of a bison to pet is… and there isn’t one. Yet still people every year get injured or worse from not treating these majestic animals with the respect a one-ton animal that can run 35 mph deserves.
Little Mo Trail
We did a walk along the Little Missouri River that was a 1 1/2 mile loop trail, with a guide describing the plants and the rock formations. That was really worthwhile and informative. The trail started near the river then rode up a small hill with red iron-rich rocks.
Right across the park drive from the Little Mo Walk is an area called Cannonball Concretions. A concretion is a harder rock, often round, that forms inside the softer bentonite which makes up much of the park’s rock formations. Bentonite is formed from the ash from ancient volcanic eruptions.
We did the park drive and saw prairie dogs at the designated locations, and then towards the end of the 14-mile road, we saw several large groups of bison, including one group that was blocking the road. We eventually had to slowly drive through them, and they did move out of the way as we inched through.
In the 1500s there were between 30 and 60 million bison (sometimes called buffalo) in the area now occupied by the United States. With overhunting that population dropped to a low of 325 in 1885. Today there are more than 500,000 bison in the U.S.
The local bison herd was re-introduced in 1956 through an initial 29 head from Nebraska. An additional 20 head were added 6 years later. The herds in the park are now maintained at between 100-300 head in the North Unit and 200-400 head in the South Unit.
We finished up around 12:30 pm and went off in search of lunch. On the way to the southern unit, we found that the small towns along Highway 85 did not have any food. We finally found food in Belfield, just south of 94. We ate at Trapper’s Kettle and had sandwiches. I would suggest that the day you visit the North Unit is a good day to pack a lunch.
There is a 3rd unit in the park which we did not get to which preserves the original Roosevelt ranch.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit
We drove on to Medora for the southern unit of the National Park. This unit of the park has a 36-mile loop drive, the last 4 miles of which were closed, so we had to drive out 20 miles and back. The scenery wasn’t as dramatic as at the northern unit, and we didn’t see as many animals, though we did see wild horses.
We did do a few short walks. We also saw bison in this park. There are also many more visitors to the south unit as it is right off the interstate.
While we saw the north unit and south unit in a single day, I would recommend taking at least 2 days. That would give you more time for hikes or walks and also time to see the 3rd unit of the park.
We ate dinner at Boots Cafe in Medora and took some time to walk around this small town.
Our main reason to visit Medora was a visit to the Medora Musical which was wrapping up its summer season the weekend of our visit. The show is billed as “The Greatest Show in the West!” While the population of Medora is only 110 people, the hillside amphitheater for the Medora Musical holds 2,900 seats.
I think honestly my expectations for the musical was that it would be hokey and sentimental. It was both of those things but it was also family-friendly, patriotic, corny, and just a really great time!
The show included horses galloping across the stage, lots of singing and dancing (including tap dancing!), and appearances by Teddy Roosevelt. The Burning Hills Singers, Cowboy Chet Wollan, and Wild Bill Sorensen (retiring at the end of the 2019 season) all provided wonderful performances. The music was provided by the Coal Diggers. Everyone sang the National Anthem.
The stage had old west style buildings mounted on railroad tracks so that they could be moved around as the production needed. Medora definitely punches above its weight class with this annual event. Because the town is so small the entertainers and ushers come from all over including a number of the ushers who were from foreign countries.
The ‘Featured Attraction’ the evening we were there was comedian C Willi Myles. He shared some very funny stories about going to St Cloud State in Minnesota from Mobile, Alabama. He had us laughing so hard about the changes he encountered and cold weather and we were crying by the time he finished.
The end of the show was a finale with all the performers, horses, and fireworks.
The Enchanted Highway has 7 enormous scrap metal sculptures about every 4 miles from Interstate 94 to Regent North Dakota. It created by Gary Greff, an artist from Regent who wanted to do something to attract people to his town.
The sculptures were just incredible and so huge that when we placed a person at the base for a photo, the person looked minuscule. In fact, in some photos, the person was very hard to find!
The oldest of the sculptures was the “World’s Largest Tin Family” which was installed in 1991. Greff, with the help of 20 different local farmers who welded the bodies out of horse troughs. Dad stands 45 feet tall and mom stands 44 feet tall and has barbed wire for hair.
Each of the statues has a small parking lot and a picnic area.
The artist Greff has also opened a hotel in town, the Enchanted Castle.
The not-very-subtle messaging at every installation to encourage us to go eat in Regent really worked, as we headed into town planning to get food. We got to Regent around 11 and thought we’d get lunch in the cafe or the restaurant, but they were pretty much shut down for the season. We picked up sandwiches at the Co-op Market to eat on the road to South Dakota.
From Regent, I think we were on the road with “really nothing”.
see my Enchanted Highway Photos
Dakota Road Trip
This trip to North Dakota was part of a larger trip touching 4 states: South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. We invited 3 college friends along to explore the badlands of North and South Dakota. Our trip was one week 6 national parks, 2 state parks (one of which compares with the best national parks), one musical, and 7 huge sculptures. We flew into Rapid City which was one of the more affordable local airports and then made a loop through Wyoming and Montana on the way up to North Dakota and the Enchanted Highway on the way back.
- E. Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming
- D. Medicine Rocks State Park in Montana
- C. Medora
- B. Enchanted Highway
Devil’s Tower National Monument
On our way to North Dakota the next day we took a detour to the west to visit a couple of parks in Wyoming and Montana. In Wyoming, we visited Devil’s Tower National Monument.
On the way from Spearfish to Devil’s Tower, we made a quick stop at the Vore Buffalo Jump where the native Americans would drive bison off a cliff in the days before they had horses.
We also stopped by the Wyoming Welcome Center where we picked up a “That’s Wy” flag to take pictures with and post on Instagram. They have a lot of information on Wyoming so if you are planning a longer stay a stop is nearly mandatory.
We walked around the path around Devil’s Tower, nominally a 45 min walk, but longer with picture stops. We also watched 3 people climb the tower. On the backside of the tower, if you look closely, you can see the remains of one of the original ladders that were used to scale the tower for the first time. Climbing the tower is a technical climb… despite what Richard Dreyfuss may have told us in the movie “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”.
Geologists know that Devil’s Tower is basically the core of an ancient volcano, but debate the specifics of how it was formed into what it is today.
We headed north towards Montana for our next stop, at Medicine Rocks State Park. As we looked for lunch spots up ahead, we realized there were no places for another hour plus on the road to Medicine Rcosk so we stopped in Hulett, where we ate at the Red Rock Cafe. The town has a few more colorful facades but the Red Rock Cafe is a good, simple burger place.
From Hulett, it was still an hour’s drive to get to Medicine Rocks, which turned out to be a very cool assortment of rocks worn down by an ancient sea. We drove and walked around, and definitely felt that we got our $6 worth for the admission.
I will cover the South Dakota trip in a separate blog post.
There is far more to see in North Dakota than we did in the few days we had there. For more ideas on what to see in North Dakota check out the podcast: Travel to North Dakota – Amateur Traveler Episode 523.